I recently got a test pair of Hoka One Ones from the kind folk at Castleberg Outdoors, so was interested to see if they could help with my running at all. I'm generally of the opinion that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", and currently I am very happy with my combination of Mizuno Wave Inspire road shoes, and Salomon Speedcross trail shoes. However, I had heard such great things about the Hokas (a Mouri word meaning "time to fly") that I decided to give them a go, and have been testing them out over the past 5 weeks.
For anybody that has not yet heard of these shoes, they are somewhat of a hybrid between minimalist shoe design tenets (e.g. a low 4mm heel drop to encourage good running form), combined with a frankly ludicrously thick sole (roughly 2.5 times the size of a normal shoe midsole) to reduce impact stress on the joints for ultra endurance running. Famous runners currently using (and loving) these shoes include Mimi Anderson, Karl Meltzer, and Dave Mackey. They come in three flavours; the Bondi Bs (for road), the Mafates (for trail) and the Combo XTs (for both). I was expecting a pair of the Combo XTs, but due to a mixup in the pre-Christmas rush I ended up being sent a pair of Bondi Bs. However, I figured they should give me a good sense of how the technology works for me.
My first impressions were that they looked a little like a pair of MBTs (Masai Barefoot Technology), which are designed to be unstable and require activation of your core muscles to stay upright. I was also a little worried that they were going to feel like running in platform shoes. However, straight out of the box they felt absolutely fine, with no feeling of imbalance. I was recommended to go up a size from my usual trail shoes, but even these felt a little tight around the midfoot and the toe box. It is possible that I could have gone up another half size, but they were not uncomfortable. They are also surprisingly light given their appearance, and give an odd springy sensation when you walk in them (although I didn't notice this when running).
Over the past few weeks I have tested them on a variety of runs, including trail and road. It's difficult to get a real feel for these shoes would cope with a full on ultramarathon without actually running one, and unfortunately I have recently been coming back from a problem with my left hip flexor. I am just about back to full capacity now though and was able to get a few 20+ milers on these shoes, and one 30 miler, as well as some shorter 10 milers.
My overall feeling is that whilst I like the idea behind these shoes, I was a little disappointed. I was expecting to come back from these runs with a real sense of "wow" at how fresh my legs felt, but frankly I felt the same as when using my normal shoes. The minimal heel drop (4 mm) suits my natural forefoot/midfoot strike, but the design of the padded sole seems to favour the heel strike runner. I think that my running style fails to fully utilise the padding and the rockering profile of the toe-off. I also found myself suffering from quite bad blistering on the outside of my big toes, but this may have been alleviated with a slightly larger shoe. But perhaps the biggest problem is the fact that I have been left with a serious tightness in my medial instep which I have never suffered from before, which I think may be due to the recessed "bucket seat" which stabilises the foot. This has required some serious deep tissue massage with a golf ball to ensure it does not develop into anything more serious. This morning I went for a 30 mile run in my Salomons and suffered no such problem (other than the lingering remains from my last Hoka run).
These are in no way criticisms of the shoes themselves, but they just don't work for me personally. Running gear is so personal to the runner that it is impossible to really recommend anything to anyone. What works for one person may not work for another. And what works over 10 miles may not work over 50+ miles. For instance, I got an OMM Ultra 15L running pack as it was recommended as one of the most comfortable bags ever devised, but it causes severe rubbing on my lower back over longer distances - a very different experience from that of other people! So I have decided to stick with my current running shoes for now. After all, if it ain't broke...