Anatomy of Running, Part 3: Innovation

By Sarah Tuff Dunn July 7, 2015
Editor’s note:  This is Part 3 of a three-part series
Part 1: Participation      Part 2: Economy 

France, land of haute cuisine and heady Champagne, has now brought us the latest trend in top-of-the-line sneakers—high-cushion running shoes. The brand that’s earned the buzz lately—Hoka One One—was born in the French Alps. The name, Hoka One One, is a Maori phrase that translates to “time to fly.” The founders, Nicolas Mermoud and Jean-Luc Diard, thought this captured the essence of the shoes they were trying to build—shoes that would let the runner fly over any terrain. “The terrain [in the Alps] is both steep and technical,” explains product line manager Jason Hill, “and founders Nico Mermoud and Jean Luc Diard simply thought that they could build a better running shoe by adding more cushioning foam [to the sole].”

This is in stark contrast to a mega trend that hit five years ago in the aftermath of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run (Knopf Doubleday, 2011) and launched the exponential popularity of Vibram FiveFingers, a running shoe with little between your soles and the ground but a quarter-inch piece of rubber. So the question for runners appears to be: Are you a minimalist or a maximalist?

Hoka’s website asks users, “Was it crazy to invent an oversized running shoe?”

Not when you consider the philosophy behind these bulky-bottomed shoes that first appeared in 2010. “The original model was driven by the need for greater impact protection when running down steep mountains than you could find in conventional running shoes,” says Hill. According to OIA ConsumerVue research, the top purchase drivers among outdoor runners and joggers are durability (54 percent), quality (50 percent) and comfort (49 percent). More runners (44 percent) choose features/materials that are comfortable over features that improve performance (37 percent).

“The original model was driven by the need for greater impact protection when running down steep mountains than you could find in conventional running shoes.” —Jason Hill, product line manager, Hoka One One.

Although Hoka One One didn’t launch as a counter-attack to minimalism, the timing presented some challenges, admits Hill, adding that minimalism was actually a necessary shakeup to the industry—just not a sustainable one. “We felt that we had an enduring concept that was both unique and relevant to the runner,” he says. “The overall experience is simply more enjoyable, and we knew that we had the technology to last over an enduring period of time.” Runners would agree—Hoka has grown more than 300 percent in the past two years.

That technology, as appears in the diagram below, is pretty apparent to the naked eye: a midsole with more volume, less density and more rebound than you find in standard running shoes. Think: 50 percent more cushioning and a “meta-rocker” design that promotes a continuous roll from your heel to your toes.

Hoka One One Diagram

Not all reviewers have been on board, however. “The biggest initial challenge for Hoka has been the aesthetic appeal,” admits Hill. “In addition to refining the functional technology, we’ve had a huge focus on simply designing the shoes to be more attractive to a wider audience.” That includes diversifying the product line to appeal to a wider range of runners and staying ahead of copycat brands.

“We believe that we’re truly a brand for all runners,” says Hill. “We also believe that we provide an option that they can’t get from another brand, and we believe that the option we provide works well for most runners, from beginners right up to the elite level.”

Elite athletes now hoofing it in Hokas include ultrarunners Karl Meltzer, Dave Mackey, Darcy Africa and Jen Benna; 2012 Olympic silver medalist in the men’s 1,500 meter, Leo Manzano; and triathletes Rob Lea and Rachel McBride. Awards extend beyond the running arena, too; Hoka One One’s Clifton model captured the Retailer Shoe of the Year Award from the Independent Running Retailer Association, and the Rapa Nui 2 trail shoe was named the “Best Debut” by Runner’s World magazine.

“Once runners try Hoka shoes on, many of them get hooked and become evangelists for the brand,” says Hill of the company’s recent success. “You know you’re onto something when runners tell you stories about only wanting to run in your shoes, or that it’s absolutely necessary in order to stay healthy—we hear testaments from consumers about that every day.”

One of those runners is Sage Canaday, a two-time Olympic trials qualifier in the marathon distance who has also ventured, with great success, into the ultra trail running scene. Most recently, he became the 2014 Pikes Peak Ascent World champion. Of his Hoka shoes, Sage says: “I love Hoka’s combination of cushion and support in such a lightweight package—its really unique. They also make a huge variety of different models for every need—from track spikes to trail shoes for ultra runners and everything in between.” Sage’s favorite Hokas? The Clifton and the Huakas.

Not a runner? Hoka is launching an outdoor collection for trekking, hiking and walking in July 2015 and plans even more expansion in the future. “While running certainly was the logical starting point because the impact forces on the body are high, don’t be surprised to see the brand branch into other markets,” says Hill.

That doesn’t mean a five-fingered wave goodbye to minimalist brands, though. Vibram has been around since 1935 and manufactures more than 34 million soles for hundreds of shoe brands in addition to its own FiveFinger models. “We don’t believe it’s the only footwear you will ever need,” explains the FiveFinger website. “There are many times when you need the protection and security of a shoe or boot. Like all things in life, there is a balance.”