Running's New Soft Landing
Over the past few years, running shoe trends—at least when it comes to cushioning—seem to have swung like a pendulum from one extreme to the other. It wasn’t long ago that athletes were lending out their copies of Born to Run (Knopf Doubleday, 2011) and buying minimalist kicks; these days, big cushioning is in. The leader in the category, Hoka One One, saw 400-percent growth in the past year alone. But researchers are still playing catch-up: Though one study out of the Locomotion Lab at the University of Colorado showed that barefoot running offered no metabolic advantage over lightweight shoes with average cushion, and another study concluded that running on 10 millimeters of cushion was more economical than either 0 millimeters or 20 millimeters, the big (fluffy) dogs are still on the up-and-up.
“In theory, they may help runners who have an issue dissipating stress or impact loads,” says Jay Dicharry, a biomechanist at REP Lab in Bend, Oregon. “But increased cushioning can make people more unstable. In the end, there’s no one shoe for everyone—and it’s good to have choices.”
We took a look at the hottest shoes on the high-cushion market today to get a sense of what’s hot, what consumers are looking for, and why each one is flying off retailers’ shelves.
Brooks Transcend 2
Weight: 11.9 ounces per shoe
Drop: 8 mm
Thickness: 30 mm at heel
“Toward the end of 2013, we saw a lot of runners raising their hands and asking, ‘What about me?’” says Jena Winger, the associate footwear product line manager at Brooks. “Some felt that minimalism, the hot trend at the time, didn’t really give them the running experience they wanted.” As Winger explains, the new Transcend 2 is for runners who like to float. The Super DNA midsole provides 25 percent more cushion than any other Brooks midsole; pressure zones disperse impact from foot strike to toe-off and so-called guiderails keep runners moving in their most natural, efficient stride. “While there are absolutely people out there who want a shoe that gets out of the way when they run,” says Winger, “there are also those who love to feel like they’re running on clouds.”
SST stands for ShapeShifter Technology, and it allows the sole to adapt to all the irregularities—rocks, roots, off-camber slopes—that an epic trail run has in spades. An injection-molded EVA midsole actually becomes part of the upper, which “creates a very stable chassis and a more integrated shoe,” according to product designer Brian Hall. The upper is sock-like, with a lightning quick Boa lacing system for on-the-go adjustments, and the midsole has deep channels that adapt to trail chunder even more—something Hall calls “mechanical deformation,” but we call increased traction.
Hoka was founded in the French Alps by mountain runners who wanted more padding for their descents, but it has expanded to reach runners of all kinds. As the first maximalist brand to break out (though Jim Van Dine, Hoka’s president, uses the term “Over Size” and “Ultra Size”), Hoka now has 11 cushioned shoes on the market—from an update on the original Mafate to the super-feathery women’s Clifton, which weighs in at just 6.6 ounces. One of Hoka’s newest models, the Conquest, is built for the road: with a new cradle system in the midsole, almost 30 millimeters of height, and a rockered forefoot, it’s designed for high-mileage runners who pound a lot of pavement and don’t necessarily want to feel the details of every single step. “Nico Mermoud and Jean Luc Diard simply thought that they could build a better running shoe by adding more cushioning foam under the foot,” says Van Dine. “It was a very pure insight taken from an authentic need, which is rare in running.”
The Olympus borrows a page from barefoot and minimalist running—the fact that your forefoot and heel are naturally at the same distance from the ground—but in this case, the distance is actually a cushy 32 millimeters. And, unlike your own two feet, the shoe has a rocker up front, which helps you roll into every stride. In fact, everything about the Altra, from the wide toe box (to allow your digits to splay naturally) to the mesh upper, is designed to feel as minimalist as a maximalist shoe can.
To learn more about the latest trends in the sport of running, take a look at The Outdoor Foundation’s 2014 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report and visit ConsumerVue to see how today’s outdoor consumers view running and running gear.