You’ve probably seen them on trails and at running races as more and more people lace up: shoes that look like they have a platform of foam under them.
For the last few years, minimalist barefoot-like shoes have gained prominence, becoming the norm in running circles. But, with backlash growing against the low-profile lightweight shoes, maximalist shoes have now risen in popularity. These heavily-cushioned shoes are the new go-to for long-distance runners—but not yet for triathletes.
Maximalist shoes can, in some ways, be defined as “whatever the marketing department of the shoe companies wants to call a maximalist shoe,” said Pete Larson, a former biology professor and the writer behind RunBlogger, the popular site known for shoe reviews.
To a degree, maximalism has simply come about as a response to the minimalist shoes of the last few years—making either hard to define exactly. The wildly popular Hoka One One shoes are generally considered the prototypical maximalist shoe, said Larson. The young company, founded in 2010, has skyrocketed in popularity in just a few short years, spurred by ultrarunners raving about the soft cushioned feel of the shoes. According to Competitor.com, a conservative estimate at some of the country’s biggest ultra races last year would have shown that 40 to 60 percent of the runners were wearing Hokas. Why? Because that extra cushion is appreciated during long hours of pounding. But that principle also applies to running long distances on the roads, which is why more and more marathoners and half marathoners can also be seen wearing Hokas.
Most of Hoka’s models, with the Conquest and Bondi being the most popular, have more than 30 millimeters of soft cushion, a rocker bottom of the shoe, and a bucket sole allowing the foot to sit down in the shoe.
The popularity of maximalist shoes has spurred other companies to start moving in that direction—or at least to start marketing their shoes as soft, cushioned, and the opposite of the minimalist shoes of the last few years. Brooks has the Transcend; Altra markets its Olympus shoe; and Sketchers pushes the GoRun Ultra for those looking for a maximalist shoe.
But, if they’re so popular, why haven’t these shoes caught on with triathletes yet?
Colin Cook, head coach of Peak Triathlon Coaching, believes it’s just a matter of time. Last year, after one of his athletes used a pair of Hokas to combat plantar fasciitis, Cook decided to try them out. At first, on short and medium runs, he didn’t think much of the shoes. But, after long runs and long-distance triathlons in more traditional shoes, his feet were always destroyed: nasty blisters, black toenails, difficulty walking. He figured he might as well try something different, so he did a long run in the Hokas.
“My feet felt absolutely fantastic,” said Cook.
He decided then to use them at Ironman Mont Tremblant, where he PR’d the marathon by 10 minutes, and then used them at Kona. He became a dedicated convert to the benefit of maximalist running shoes in long-distance races.
While the heavily-cushioned shoes have gained most of their popularity with the ultrarunning crowd, Cook argues that the same reason they’re popular with ultrarunners—cushion and support over hours of running—should make them beneficial to triathletes who are running fatigued off the bike.
“They may have even more value to a triathlete,” said Cook.
The idea is that the softer surface and cushion prevents injuries. “Unfortunately, the science always trails the marketing by a few years,” said Larson. While there are some indirect studies on soft running surfaces, it’s hard to extrapolate those to soft running shoes, he said. It’s actually only now that studies are starting to come out on the barefoot and minimalist running trends of the last five years—even as those things wane in popularity.
But, that isn’t stopping runners from anecdotally swearing by the benefits of the Hokas and other maximalist cushioned shoes. Triathletes, who are often eager to try new trends if they think it’ll help their times, are bound to be next to adopt the shoes, said Cook.
Certainly, the triathlon market is one that shoe companies are looking towards. The newest Hoka Conquest model (pictured above) includes some triathlon-specific features: speed laces, tabs to pull the shoes on, an interior designed to be worn without socks.
“It may be part of their attempt to appeal to that market,” said Larson. All that’s left is to get some drainage in the shoes, since Cook’s only complaint, he said, is that all that cushioning can certainly start to soak up water in a triathlon.
Hoka also has added to its list of sponsored athletes (which includes mostly ultrarunners and, most notably, Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano) a well-known figure in the triathlon world: Conrad Stoltz. And, if you flip through Triathlete magazine, said Cook, you see more and more ads for maximalist shoes from Brooks, Altra, Sketchers and Hoka.
The reason triathletes haven’t yet adopted maximalist shoes en masse is most likely simply a matter of marketing, said Larson. There are shoes that have been marketed heavily to triathletes, which are infrequently worn by pure runners: K-Swiss, Newton, Zoot. Making the crossover from maximalist shoes for runners to maximalist shoes for triathletes may just be a matter of convincing triathletes.
And, it’s slowly happening. Cook said he’s not yet seeing many triathletes using the Hokas in races, but it’s more people than it was a year ago. “At St. Croix I passed one guy wearing them while I was on the run, and I gave him a shout-out,” he said.