Preface (Or Why I Thought These Odd Looking Shoes Might Work for Me)
I have never been overly happy with my shoes. Ever since I started running in 2009, I have dutifully trudged to my local running store, had them assess how I walked, and purchased the shoe they suggested that hurt the least. Most of the time this resulted in shoes that were wearable (except for a few memorable, expensive occasions) but not ones I have been overly enthusiastic about. Generally what they recommend to me falls into the category of pretty moderate/severe stability shoes that are large and heavy. My current shoes, Saucony ProGrid 9s, are pretty typical of these kinds: super stability, moderate cushioning, heavy.
My trouble with this is a) these shoes feel fine but not fantastic (my feet still ache after long runs, for example), and b) if you take my weight out of the equation, these are pretty much the opposite of what would be recommended based on my foot type and how I walk. See, the running industry seems to think all heavy runners are flat footed. I’m not sure if they’re just playing the odds with this assumption or they somehow believe our feet are incapable of supporting our massive tonnage, but the idea that someone could both be fat and have high arches has never crossed any running shoe seller’s mind.
Unfortunately, I happen to be this special unicorn. I have decently high arches. I land on the very outside of my foot. I’ve got about 20 pairs of shoes whose wear patterns can attest to this fact. From what I can feel and what I’ve seen on video, I do pronate in quite a bit as I step through, but because I land so far out, I don’t think I’m overpronating.
So the stability shoes that have been thrusted upon me by running stores for years might not be the best fit for me, and it has long been on my list to try something different. They did get one thing right, though. I do want cushioning. A LOT of cushioning.
Enter The Clown Shoes
A blogger I follow kept mentioning this “Hoka” thing in her posts. For a while I thought it was cutesy running slang, but the more she used the term, the more I realized she was talking about her shoes. I’d never heard of Hokas, so I did a bit of googling and then a bit of oogling.
Hoka One One (pronounced ‘oh-nay’ ‘oh-nay’ in Māori) was started by these two French dudes who fancied themselves outdoor sport badasses & wanted to conquer the ultra running shoe world. With their original target audience being ultra trail runners, their shoe design reflects what you’d think an ultra runner would want:
- an enormous amount of cushioning–20mm of compression in the heel and very, very soft
- wide base for stability on uneven terrain–they’re oval instead of being foot shaped & coming in at the arch
- ultra grippy soles–their soles are textured & rubberized for extra traction & this is even more pronounced in their trail specific shoes
- lightweight–for clown shoes they’re practically air. They weigh 10.4oz, which is slightly less than my Sauconys (10.8).
What really got me interested, though, was the heel drop: 4mm. That’s roughly the same as a minimalist shoe and incredibly small compared to what I was using in my super stability shoes (Saucony’s are 11.2mm).
So…I went for it. I ordered some on Thursday and they arrived this weekend. I tested them out with a run on the treadmill this evening and, all told, I’m pretty damn excited about them.
A few notes on the ordering front, though. I would’ve preferred to go to a store nearby and test them out at the store. The trouble is that no one sells Hokas anywhere near me! The closest place is Eastern shore Virginia, 2.5 hours away. I settled instead for Zappos, with its convenient free shipping both ways. The other ordering thing is that these shoes are hella expensive for running shoes: $170. This means that I’m being super careful with them until I’m certain I’m keeping them (treadmills only, a nice wipe down after a run, etc.).
Sizing & Fit
I ordered a size 10 instead of my usual 9.5 because some folks complained that they ran small. I’m not sure if this is true for me. There’s definitely a lot of room in the front toe box and I was concerned that this meant I would be sliding around in them. However, I don’t slide at all and I think I’m happy to give my feet a little extra room to expand over long miles.
Widthwise, I have wide-ish feet (i.e., I’m sometimes more comfortable in a wide size, but can wear a regular width 90% of the time), and found the width to be nice for my feet. Definitely wasn’t too snug at all, so if you’ve got narrow feet that might be a concern.
Someone complained the ankle dip is too high, but I thought it was perfect. The heel back is nicely fitting as well, and comes with a nice loop at the end to facilitate getting it on and off
They come with quick laces already installed, which I thought was a bonus. They’ve got normal laces included as well, but pfft. The quick laces worked well for me. I didn’t feel too snug or too loose, though as a rule I like looser laces so the upper doesn’t press too hard on the top of my arch.
A point of concern: The upper is stiff. I’m used to running shoes that have uppers that would flop around if they weren’t all tied together, but these definitely have a form to them and I’m not sure how much that form is going to soften up over time. While I was walking and running in them the top of my right big toe did complain a bit about where the upper was creasing in when I bent my toes up. I checked at the end of my run and I had some redness there, but no blister. I’m not sure if this is something that will continue to be a mild problem or if the crease will soften up as the shoes break in.
Initial Treadmill Test Ride
Do you remember moon shoes? Hokas are basically the really expensive, supportive version of moon shoes. They are SO SOFT. You sort of lightly squish down in them every time you take a step. And you’d think something that soft would be cumbersome and unresponsive, but I could still feel the ground under my feet. One of my crappy office treadmills has a seam in the center that is slightly uneven (a lovely feature to any run, let me tell you) and I was still able to feel the seam as I ran.
Anyway, my goal for the run was to start off easy and then descend in pace every 5 minutes until I got to 3 miles. Because I am hella slow, this meant I started at a 15:30 shuffle and descended to a 12 min trot. Once I got to 3 miles I threw in some 30 second 8 min/mi “sprints” to see what they would do at faster paces.
Walking was a touch awkward. Hokas are slightly rockered, which means that the toe & heel come up at the ends while the middle is flat. I walk with a long stride and a big heel strike & that motion was odd with the rockered heel. Basically it felt like the heel was telling me, ‘Nooooo, this is not the way it is supposed to be done.’ I got used to after a few minutes, but walking is where the moon shoe effect is most noticeable. The good news is that once I started running in them the rockers became awesome.
I am a moderate heel striker. Or at least, I was when I was wearing stability shoes because that’s where all the cushioning is on the shoe. Running like that in the Hokas feels wrong. Instead, I was definitely midfoot, with a lot of forefoot action at the beginning when I had more energy in my feet, ankles, and calves. I didn’t have my cadence sensor with me, but I’d be willing to bet my cadence was slightly faster too just from not spending as much time with my foot on the ground, swinging through a heel strike.
The Hokas were clearly causing me to use different muscles than I was used to, so as I tired, I would bring my heels down a bit and strike at the midfoot, sometimes even trying a heel strike. But it was all wrong and the minute I was back up on the balls of my feet it felt more natural, even though my legs complained.
Unused muscles aside, I was thrilled that my usual aches and pains were completely absent. My knees throw off a few complaints when I initially start a run but fade as I continue. Today there wasn’t so much as a peep out of them. My lower leg nemesis, tight shins, stayed quiet. Even my broken foot didn’t ache the way it has been in the Sauconys.
(NB: The Sauconys used to be much better with the aching foot. When they were newer, running in them only resulted in foot pain after about 8+ miles. The past 2 months, however, my foot aches no matter how long the run.)
It was a stellar run, and I don’t say that about many runs that occur on a treadmill. The Sauconys needed to be replaced, so I’m sure some of the excellence would’ve happened no matter what new shoe I picked, but overall, I’m excited about these Hokas. I’m going to give them another test run before I declare them good to take outside, because of one TBD: the big foot rubbing. It wasn’t overly bothersome while I ran, but I definitely noticed it & it’s unclear if it’s going to be something that fades or something that gets worse.
The price tag is high ($170), but I’m hoping that Hoka’s claims of getting more mileage out of these than a normal shoe are true & it’ll balance out in the end.
I’ll keep you updated on my final decision, but I think I just might be a clown shoe convert.