Friday, August 26, 2011

Hoka One One ~ XT/Stinson Shoe Review

A Recovery shoe by Hoka One One,
 coming to the USA this August
I've been testing out a shoe during the past couple of weeks from a company in France that's just beginning to make a name for itself in the United States, Hoka One One...preferably shortened to just Hoka. The buzz about this clown looking, moon appropriate shoe began, for me, with Karl Meltzer's "Human Express Run" 

The concept of the shoe itself was initially designed to handle the steepest downhill descents on the European Ultra-marathon circuit and incorporate the natural, or minimalistic, mindset. 

-Okay, by now, you've looked at the photo and just read the word minimalist and you're probably wondering if I took a picture of the wrong shoe or if the uphill running is starting to deprive me of braincells.- 

Well, the pain of the uphill is definitely addicting, but not detrimental; if anything it's empowering. And, yes, the picture to the right (above) is most certainly correct. With 40mm of foam between the foot and the ground Hoka's have 16mm of foam more than most running shoes and 36 mm more than the Vibram FiveFingers. So, why exactly am I making the claim that 40mm of foam is just as minimal as 4mm of foam? 

From a definitive standpoint, no, 40mm of foam is not more minimal than 4mm of foam, but the shoe industry isn't using minimal from a definitive standpoint, and not to be too pedantic, but William Safire would also have a problem with using 'minimal' the way it's being carelessly tossed around like the fishermen on Discovery Channel's 'Deadliest Catch'.

<tangent. skip if only interested in review>

Saucony Hattori (Left) and
Hoka One One Stinson (Right)
Minimalism, today, in the shoe industry is (at least in my opinion) defined by reducing the shoe's heel-to-toe drop, which has traditionally been about 12mm, to a heel-to-toe drop lower than 6mm. Just between us, by the way, Saucony is rumored to have announced that all of their shoes will be going to an 8mm or less drop. Most of today's traditional running shoes have a 24mm heel and a 12mm toe. (give-or-take 1mm to 2 mm.) The rather science-less studies done on the negative effects of this drop have concluded that the extra lift under the heel causes bad running form and can lead to an excessively injured runner that suffers chronically from an inflamed plantar fascia to sciatic nerve issues. Achilles tendon issues to patellofemoral pain syndromeIliotibial band syndrome to... Eventually the person can no longer function and the Rascal Scooter company goes into a massive marketing campaign to reign-in any potential competition, namely, the Segway. Which, and this may be/is a tasteless joke, the barefoot extremist to further their zeitgeist may claim the reason for Jimi Heselden's death by way of Segway was not his inability to control his dreams of flying, but may have been caused by too much heel-to-toe drop in his shoes, erroneously causing him to lean too far forward, lose control, and ride off of a life-ending cliff. -Just a joke Segway lovers, just a joke.-

Crude jokes aside, the science(less) claims that a reduced drop ensures better form is a bit of a fad, in my opinion. Form, whether good or bad, is a result of neuromuscular habits. If you want to become more efficient you have to consistently make an effort to improve. The shoes on your feet, won't change the alignment of your toes on impact for you. You have to make the conscience effort to invoke the change. The same goes for making a more full-foot foot strike aligned with your center of gravity (below your hips). If you don't practice, you're not going to have results.

Shoe minimalism isn't only about having less between your foot and the ground, the main driving force behind the 3rd iteration of the barefoot movement, is not only the ability to ride a social media wave that allows misconceptions, illegitimate information, and fad designs to run rampant through cyber-space and into anyone searching for information, but the sole intent (pun intended) is to allow the foot to function freely and utilize the bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles in the foot and lower leg. Minimalism, in the industry, is being marketed that the idea that after millions and millions of years of evolution the feet on bipedal organisms has been engineered for function, and that some how technology has made the engineered organism just a moving sculpture. And there's some truth to everything. Traditional shoes have the ability to mask, not cause, mask, poor form. Specifically, when a runner impacts on the heel of their foot the impact places a massive amount of stress on the heal and the Achilles tendon. If the shoe has a built up crumple/impact zone the runner will most likely continue with poor form. If it doesn't, the runner will instantly feel the results and force more comfortable form, due to pain, not coordination. I'm not a fan of being taught by potentially injuring pain. The bottom-line, if you really want to improve your efficiency, work on it every run. Here are some great sites to help: The Learn To Run Initiative, Good Form Running, it's all essentially the same, but if one training/coaching technique speaks to you more fluently use it.

<end tangent>

The Hoka's approach is to minimize muscle damage and fatigue and still allow the foot to function. Hoka achieves this by adding double the amount of shock absorbing foam, 40mm+, and by recessing the foot inside the shoe to allow a 0mm drop from heel-to-toe. My approach to running shoes, is fairly simple, if it fits and feels comfortable it'll work. I do, however, get a little more in-depth with the specific uses of specific shoes. I have several types of trail shoes, road shoes, track shoes, hill repeat shoes, interval shoes, race day shoes, track shoes, and shoes that I wear pre- and post-run. I'm fortunate enough to work in an industry that supports my lifestyle, so having a lot of shoes comes relatively cheaply. One thing missing from my arsenal: a true recovery shoe. A shoe that allows my feet and legs to relax, and not invoke more fatigue during a run. I've always had the mindset that to most appropriately get better at running you need to run. A Recovery run, for me, is the most important types of run to work on form, but often times recovery runs can only be between 2 mi. or 3 mi otherwise, you run (pun, ha.) the risk of inducing too much fatigue. 

After being introduced to the XT/Stinson (I think that's what Hoka will be calling it), I decided that it may fit the bill for a true recovery shoe: loads of cushioning, no alignment piece on the medial side, and durable enough to run road or trail. So, I've been running in it for the past two months strictly on my recovery days, or walking around in it post-run as I explore my new home in the Seattle-area.

The looks of the shoe combined with the extra 20mm+ of foam, 30mm+ in some cases, has an initial function of making you feel extremely high off the ground. I've now come to the conclusion, however, that although you do stand taller the feeling of being a lot higher off the ground is more of a placebo feeling than an actual noticeable feeling. The extra foam, does give you a shoe that will last between 800 and 1000 miles, easily. The shoe itself has been called clown shoes, moon-shoes, those Sketcher things (I cringe at the thought of that comparison), and anything else that invokes laughs. The upper is made from durable fabrics and the midsole is super soft. The lacing system is not the most giving, but I think if you punch a nail and widen the lace holes it would correct the stiffness. Your foot, inside the shoe, feels like it's in a shoe...if fit properly it feels fine. And although there's double the amount of foam, which about 30% softer than most shoes, the weight is non-existent: the shoe weighs a mere 10 oz. That's lighter than most running shoes on the market already: ASICS Kayano (12.6 oz), Brooks Adrenaline (11.3 oz), Mizuno Inspire (11.2 oz). And only 3 to 4 oz heavier than any Vibram FiveFinger.

As far as running in the shoe, it feels incredibly different for the first couple of runs. You have to really concentrate on running and not your feet, as odd as that may sound. The toe-off in the shoe is the biggest change. The ample cushioning stiffens the forefoot, but courtesy a voluptuous curved front end the shoe acts as a rocking chair more than a shoe with a pre-defined flex groove for plantar flexon to occur. The downhill capabilities of the shoe enable a much less muscle-fatiguing adventure, allowing faster descents on some fairly steep terrain, the flats and uphill, for me, were rather disappointing. I'm the type of runner that feeds off the feeling below my feet and the shoes greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The feel of the trail is essentially gone, which to some, maybe most, this is a huge compliment.

My own thoughts about the shoe are fairly short and simple, it's a shoe that has purpose, but just like anything else it's not an answer. I worry over the risk of too many people training exclusively in a shoe that dramatically reduces the body's ability to strengthen, by way of density, the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and bones used for locomotion. The reduction in impact fatigue is an A+ for recovery days when you're feeling the call of the run, but in the same light the reduction of micro-breaks to build a stronger body also means that if you switch back to a shoe, after months and months of training in the softer, more plush, ultra-shock absorbing shoe, you're going to find that your body has adapted to its new lifestyle. Therefore, I propose using the shoe strictly for the basis of recovery, running once or twice a week in it, but still maintaining your other runs in shoes with a little less give and little more stress on the legs. This approach will build strength to enable the long haul of running races and allow for continued pattern development (running form) with out inducing as much damage to the primary movers. As far as racing, by all means, have at it. Make sure, though, to put up some good faster paced runs first. The reduced muscle strain may prove to reduce overall fatigue late in a marathon. Anything less, distance wise, you're playing with miniscule numbers.