Maximalist Shoes

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Maximalist shoes typically have far more cushioning than a traditional running shoe, as well as typically having far less height difference between the front and back of the sole (the drop). This category of shoes was started by Hoka and followed by several others, especially Altra. The early maximalist shoes started off with sole thicknesses of 40-45mm, and they used much softer foam to create a unique style. These issues often appear to have a much thicker sole than they actually possess, as of the midsole tends to wrap around the heel creating the illusion that it's actually 10 to 15 mm thicker. As of this category has matured, the lines have tended to blur as less extreme shoes become part of the maximalist range. Traditional shoe companies have sometimes attempted to mimic this maximalist approach, but often fail to use soft enough foam resulting in an overly large and cumbersome shoe.

1 The Pros and Cons of Maximalist Shoes

When runners of first to try on a maximalist shoe they are often surprised by the comfort and softness of the ride. This initial comfort is extremely appealing, but there are a number of caveats that you should be aware of:

  1. The Science of Running Shoes indicates that a maximalist shoe probably doesn't reduce impact over a shoe with little or no cushioning. There is even some evidence that a massively cushioned shoe might even increase impact forces. This is counterintuitive, but might be due to the way a runners mind and body adapts to softer cushioning. To complicate matters, the relationship between injury and impact is unclear at best, possibly because there are various ways of measuring the impact.
  2. A little bit of cushioning can improve your Running Economy, but further increases in cushioning don't produce any benefit.
  3. The thickness of the sole can create a platform like effect that increases the likelihood of twisting and ankle. Many maximalist shoes attempt to compensate for this problem by having a midsole that spreads out wider than the foot. Unfortunately this can create a "snowshoe effect" so that runners who land on the outside edge of the foot a subject to greater twisting forces.

2 Why Buy a Maximalist Shoe?

Given the downsides of maximalist shoes, the obvious and reasonable question becomes "why would anybody buy one?"

  • Comfort. The initial comfort of a maximalist shoe is hard to deny, but my experience over many miles of running is that your mind and body adapt to the cushioning so that after a few miles the relative comfort is a surprisingly similar.
  • Injury prevention. If you're worried about an injury and are trying to reduce the impact of running, then I'd urge you to be cautious before adopting a maximalist shoe. While the initial comfort of a maximalist shoe is greater than the initial comfort of something a little thinner, I don't believe that this difference lasts for more than a mile or two. Running barefoot or in a truly minimalist shoe like the Merrell Vapor Glove can be difficult to adapt to, but once you have a modest amount of cushioning you have reasonable comfort. I find the difference between a modestly cushioned shoe like the Asics Gel Hyper Speed and a maximalist Hoka to be quite small after I've got use to each. The level of impact on your body may actually be higher in the maximalist shoe.
  • Ultrarunning. Many ultrarunners prefer a maximalist shoe, and I found that my body appreciates the extra cushioning as of the miles build up. My first Ultra in a Hoka was the 2012 Hinson Lake 24 Hour where I ran 50 miles in Nike Frees, then another 73 miles in the Hokas. I swapped at the 50 mile mark because of my feet will be coming "footsore" and the Hokas really reduced the pain. Since then I've mostly run ultramarathons in a maximalist shoe, and I found that my feet generally do much better.