Last week, the New York Times reported that Hoka One One, the uber-cushioned running shoe brand, is on track to break out of the wonky ultra market and launch a fat shoe revolution. “Athletes who spent the past few years embracing or scorning barefoot running can now consider whether the increasingly popular maximalist shoes…are the sport’s new wonder product,” the lede reads.
We have news for the Times reporter: You’re about two years too late. We’ve known about—and tested—heavily cushioned shoes since 2010 when Hoka started selling its products to the public, and we ran a story about the rise of maximalist shoes way back in 2013.
So what is new in the land of footwear? More options. Consumers are learning that the one perfect shoe doesn't exist and that finding the right footwear is more a matter of personal preference than anything else. Maximalist shoes tend to work best for long distances or recovery runs when athletes want a bit more forgiveness. Minimalist shoes, typically good for runners with impeccable form and shorter distances, will probably always have their die-hard adherents, even as the mass movement fizzles out due to lawsuits over false health claims and the realization by many runners that it’s actually not that pleasant to run in slippers.
Manufactures recognize shoes on the extreme ends of the spectrum—either minimal or super plush—simply don’t work for everyone, and they’re making more models that fall into the middle category, with drops of, say, 5mm rather than 0mm, or stack heights of 20mm rather than 35mm. The result: it’s a great time to be a runner.
So how did we get back to such a sensible place? A decade ago, your shoe choices were pretty much limited to arch-supported trainers with a 12mm drop. Not the most diverse option if you were trying to improve your form, or happened to be a heel striker, or wanted to up your mileage. Then Born to Run, the bestselling book lauding minimalist running, was published in 2011, and suddenly shoe stores were offering multiple varieties of zero-drop, feather-light styles.
The minimalist hype peaked in 2012 with $400 million in sales, at which point the bouncy, rockered Hoka was poised to make its move. But while the running shoe market has certainly seen it’s share of hyperbolic swings since 2009 (think: Vibram FiveFingers), the larger trend hasn’t been toward more gimmicky shoes. More broadly, it’s been toward expanded options—a spectrum of shoes to fit any kind of running. And there's more innovation that ever in this middle ground.
"With the pendulum swinging back and forth, the shoes in the middle have seen great updates due to these influences on both ends of the spectrum," says pro ultrarunner (and former salesman at The Runner's Edge in Missoula), Mike Foote. "All shoes now are using lighter materials and there's a lot of R&D going into the the composition of midsoles to give great cushioning in a more lightweight package."
Which brings us back to the misplaced point that maximalism is on the rise. Yes, more shoe companies are adding fatter options, but they’re also incorporating minimalist technology (like the Under Armour Speedform Gemini) into their mid-range models, adding fat-shoe features (like the New Balance Fresh Foam series) to their paired-down racers, and generally upending the idea that one kind of shoe can do it all. The movement isn’t toward chubby. It’s toward diversity.