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Maximalist Running Shoes: Some Thoughts on the New “Trend” in Running

Posted on February 18 2014

The new trend in running shoes is maximalism: beefed up shoes with lots of cushion. Maximalism was triggered by the growing popularity of shoes made by the brand Hoka One One. Hoka started as a niche brand within the trail ultrarunning community, and has expanded its line to include road shoes as well.

Hoka Mafate

I’ve posted a number of guest reviews of Hoka shoes, and when I do I sometimes get complaints from readers that I’m getting away from my minimalist roots. My response to this is that my goal in writing this blog is to help people enjoy running, and to help them find shoes that allow them to do so. I’m not so concerned with what those shoes look like as long as they help a runner to run pain free. My blog has a minimalist bias to it because I have a minimalist bias to my own shoe preferences, but my wife runs in Hokas and I’m not going to kick her out of the house as a result. Hokas and the amply cushioned Altra Torin have allowed her to run pain free for the past 9 months. They succeeded for her where minimal did not. And she’s happy, which makes me happy.

I’m not exactly sure who coined the term maximalism. I’m definitely guilty of using it, and though brands are not necessarily using the term themselves, they do seem to be marketing shoes in a way to latch onto this trend (using words like “plush” or “soft” instead). My problem with maximalism isn’t that I hate the shoes, it’s that I think I hate the term. Just as with minimalist, maximalist has no coherent meaning as a defined category of footwear. I think most people associate minimalist with a lack of cushion, and maximalist with a lot of cushion. The problem with this is that if we use the original Hoka models as something of a benchmark, then a lot of the shoes that are associated with the maximal moniker don’t really belong there.

In an article on the maximal trend, Brian Metzler of Competitor.com includes a slideshow with 5 “maximal” shoes. These are the Altra Olympus, Brooks Transcend, Hoka Conquest, New Balance Fresh Foam 980, and Vasque Shape Shifter UIltra.

Let’s look at the specs for these shoes (stack measurements via Running Warehouse for all but the Vasque shoe):

Altra Olympus

Altra Olympus: 36mm heel, 36mm forefoot; 10 oz

Brooks Transcend

Brooks Transcend: 30mm heel, 22mm forefoot; 11.8 oz

Hoka Conquest

Hoka Conquest: 34mm heel, 28mm forefoot; 11.9 oz

New Balance Fresh Foam 980

New Balance Fresh Foam 980: 25mm heel, 21mm forefoot; 9.1 oz

Vasque Shape Shifter

Vasque Shape Shifter UItra: 28mm heel, 22mm forefoot; 10.5 oz

There are a few points to make here. First, all of these shoes have quite a bit of cushion, but the drop varies from 0 in the Altra Olympus to 8mm in the Brooks Transcend. All are thus lower drop than most traditional running shoes, so in a sense these shoes are taking attributes from minimal and traditional shoes and combining them in new ways. I’d go so far as to say that maximal grew out of minimal – a lot of runners liked certain aspects of minimal shoes but wanted more cushion (or a lot more cushion in some cases!). Thinking along similar lines, Running Warehouse had this to say on the topic of maximal shoes:

“So is this new trend just a revamp of plush traditional trainers like the Nimbus or the Vomero? Not quite, though some premium trainers are going in that direction. Instead, shoe manufacturers are looking for ways to incorporate learnings from minimalism into shoes with a lot more protection underfoot.”

Second, the amount of cushion in these shoes is all over the place.

Take the New Balance Fresh Foam 980 for example. At 25mm stack in the heel, 21mm in the forefoot, and 9.1oz in weight it has almost identical specs to the Saucony Mirage, which is part of Saucony’s “natural running” collection. And it has less cushion under the heel than the Asics Super J33, which is Asics’ “natural running shoe for overpronators.”

The Brooks Transcend, for another example, has almost the same cushioning specs as the Asics Kayano (30mm heel, 20mm forefoot) and Brooks Adrenaline (31mm heel, 19mm forefoot). Brooks marketing for the Transcend urges you to “Explore plush new worlds and leave behind the traditional laws of comfort…” and ads feature the shoe floating on clouds. Maybe it’s a softer, plusher ride, but in terms of amount of cushioning it’s really not a lot different than most other traditional shoe on the market right now. In fact, only a few of these so-called “maximal” shoes are really maximal above and beyond what some of the best selling shoes out there have had for years.

You might say that a shoe can be maximally cushioned with lower stacks if the sole is very soft. I could agree with this – the Skechers GoRun Ultra at 27mm heel, 23mm forefoot is a good example of a shoe like this. But early reports on the New Balance 980 are that it is anything but pillowy soft. And there are some much lower profile shoes that have squishy soles – the Mizuno Cursoris and Skechers GoRun come to mind. Are they maximal or minimal?

Among the new crop of maximal shoes, Hokas remain unique, and few shoes really compare. They combine a ton of soft cushion, a bucket sole where the foot sits down within the midsole, and a rocker bottom that feels very different than most other shoes. But, some of the newer Hoka models on the way are lower profile with stack heights not much different than other lightweight shoes.  I haven’t run in the Altra Olympus, but it might be the closest thing out there right now to some of the more heavily cushioned Hokas. A shoe like the NB Fresh Foam has about as much in common with a Hoka as it does with a Saucony Kinvara or Brooks PureProject shoe (probably less). To me, a shoe like the Hoka Mafate, Bondi, or Stinson is what I think of when I think of a maximal shoe. Big stack (30mm+ in the forefoot), soft cushion. The rest are just pretenders that have gained an association due to marketing.

I think we’re at a point now where shoe categories have blurred so much that they have pretty much lost any real meaning. I’ve always liked to think of maximal and minimal as relative terms, not categories. They represent opposite ends of a spectrum. And within this spectrum there is a huge amount of variation and an awful lot of gray areas and blurry lines.

Unfortunately, we seem to need to place categories on things, and those categories are muddy at best. Maybe a maximal shoe has >30mm cushion under the forefoot, and a minimal shoe has zero cushioning. I don’t know. My personal preference at this point is to just ditch the categories altogether and simply recognize each shoe as slightly different in it’s own way. Understand the specs and what they mean to how a shoe will run, and embrace the variety we now have. There are options out there for just about everyone these days, and that’s a good thing.

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