Hoka One One is a very unique running shoe brand.
Founded in 2010 by a duo of French shoe designers looking to make running down alpine mountains easier, Hoka One One is based on the philosophy that running shoes should be both highly cushioned and light weight. They immediately made waves with their oversize, plush midsoles and bright, eccentric colorways, but as runners started to test them out, they began to develop a serious following. This is for good reason. Quite simply, Hoka’s maximally-cushioned shoes really save runners’ legs. While I have absolutely no statistical evidence to support this, I do have a theory as to why this is the case. Interestingly, it brings me to a couple books I’ve read about running in two very different places.
Running with the Kenyans and The Way of the Runner
These two books by writer Adharanand Finn are great reads for a lot of reasons, but what really caught my attention was Finn’s insight into injury and recovery for runners in Kenya and Japan. Finn reports that in Iten, Kenya, the fabled training ground of Kenya’s distance running elite, the majority of aspiring athletes train on hard-packed dirt paths. Conversely, the Japanese elite he trained with while visiting various ekiden teams (ekidens are hugely popular distance relays in Japan) trained mostly on pavement and in very thin, Japanese-style racing flats.
Finn doesn’t do much hard data analysis of the runners in each country, but the point that slowly became clear to me while reading his stories is that the Japanese seem to get injured more than the Kenyans. Again, I’m making sweeping generalizations and it’s entirely possible that injury rates are more equal among Japanese and Kenyan runners than I’m suggesting here, but there was one very interesting overlap that is hard to ignore. The professional Japanese ekiden teams have quite a few Kenyan runners on them (because they’re really fast), and pretty much to a man they all said that the Japanese train too much on paved roads. The amount of pavement running is so shocking to the Kenyan athletes that their coaches create entirely different training plans for them to compensate. The main takeaway from this is basically this: heavy mileage on pavement with thin shoes really beats up runners’ legs.
This is where Hokas come in
Not everyone lives near excellent running trails like those in Iten, Kenya. Case in point, Japanese ekiden runners training in big cities, Tokyo urban sprawl, etc. Heck even in Boston there’s not much space to run on packed dirt. So, what do we do? Hokas might very well be the answer. Hoka shoe models’ relatively higher levels of cushioning could be allowing runners to simulate the experience of running on softer surfaces, even if they’re actually running on asphalt or concrete. Let’s deconstruct this point with an example to bring it into focus. The Hoka One One Clifton 3 has 24mm of cushioning in the forefoot and weighs 8.8 ounces (men’s 9), as opposed to the ASICS Gel-Kayano 23, which has 18mm of forefoot cushioning and weighs 11.4 ounces. With a full 8mm more cushioning to help mitigate the impact forces of hitting the ground, plus a full 2.6 ounces of weight reduction per shoe, it stands to reason that a long run in the Clifton 3 would leave a runner with fresher, less pulverized legs than if she had run in the Kayano 23.
Having run hundreds of miles in all three iterations of the Hoka One One Clifton and hundreds of miles in many other shoes for comparison, I know I’ve felt the difference. After a grueling 15-miler in my Clifton 3s, I know that the next day my legs will be fresher and rebound better than if I had been wearing Adidas Adios Boost 3, racing flats with about the same overall weight but only 13mm of cushioning in the forefoot. This is what the Hoka One One designers were aiming for, and I think it is the underlying reason for their success, even if many of the runners who wear them don’t actually know it. As long as they keep weight low and continue to have better than average forefoot cushioning, I’ll continue to choose Hoka Cliftons as my go-to trainers.
The Future of the Cushion to Weight Ratio
It may sound like I’m just a Hoka One One fanboy, but I’m really just a fan of the cushion to weight ratio and Hoka is one of the only companies out there right now that gets it. If another shoe company comes along and makes sensibly weighted shoes (for me that’s anything under 9 ounces) with high levels of forefoot cushioning, I’ll happily give them a try. I’d like to make something else clear. The ASICS Gel Kayano 23, which I used in the above example, actually has a good amount of forefoot cushioning. 18mm isn’t bad in and of itself, but the shoe’s overall weight of 11.4 ounces is just way too heavy. Plus the shoe has a heel to toe drop of 10mm, meaning it’s got 28mm of cushion in the heel. If you’ve read my article on proper running form, 28mm of cushioning in the heel is so far beyond useless, it’s actually detrimental.
Thankfully, I’m starting to see this change. Nike, for example has taken a serious look at its line of running shoes recently, and has produced some excellent trainers and racers with the cushion to weight ratio in mind. For instance, the Nike Air Zoom Streak 6 has 18mm of cushioning in the forefoot just like the Kayano 23, but only weighs 6.4 ounces. That’s incredible and seems to be the result of a concerted effort by Nike to readdress their own research on the topic done by Jack Daniels in the 80s. You can read a good article on the famous research here, but the basic summary is that we should all be striving to reduce weight as much as possible, while retaining as much cushion as possible.