Runners may understandably be puzzled by the shifting ideas of what an ideal running shoe is. Once it was all about heavy, cushioned shoes, which were intended to help prevent injuries. Then came minimalist shoes, which mimic running barefoot and were popular until, contrary to expectations, they began taking a toll on many runners’ feet. (A class action lawsuit alleging that one company, Vibram Five Fingers, made false health claims was settled last year.)
Now it’s all about “maximalist” running shoes, which are bulked up with more cushioning than ever but are also very light (a quality borrowed from the minimalist crowd). A sort of hybrid, if you will.
The website of Hoka One One—the company that ushered in this maximalist movement—describes its oversized shoes as having 50 percent more cushioning than standard running shoes for greater shock absorption and a special midsole geometry that allows your feet to “sink into” them, among other features that will supposedly improve your running experience. Mainstream manufacturers including Adidas, Asics, Brooks, New Balance, Puma, and Skechers now sell their own versions of maximalist shoes.
Ultrarunners—including at least one Olympic medalist—have been particularly enthusiastic about them, but many recreational athletes are also becoming max-cushioning converts. Do these shoes prevent injury and boost performance? Or will this fad fade away like others before it?
How to Choose a Running Shoe
Because the biomechanics of running are complex and people vary greatly in their running styles, there is no one-size-suits-all shoe type. Here are some things to keep in mind.
A foothold on the research
Some research has noted that there is reduced pressure on feet when running on soft surfaces, such as grass, while a systematic review of studies, published in Sports Medicine in 2015, found that extra-cushioned shoes had a small benefit on running efficiency (though minimalist shoes did, too). There’s also some evidence that extra midsole cushioning changes the way the ankle flexes when the foot strikes the ground, which reduces the load on the Achilles tendon. But there are no published studies on actual maximalist shoes, so any such effects are purely hypothetical.
On the other hand, some experts caution—also hypothetically, for the most part—that the extra cushioning may encourage runners to change their stride and land with greater impact, since the shoes may lull them into thinking they can slam their feet down on the ground. In one study of recreational runners, a softer midsole was associated with a significant increase in vertical impact forces.
There is also some concern that while maximalist shoes may reduce stress on soft tissues of the feet and legs, they may increase stress on leg bones in particular, since they require more leg stiffness during the stride.
On the third hand, so to speak, a 2013 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which followed a few hundred runners for five months, found that the density of the midsole, whether hard or soft, had no effect on injury risk.
And a paper in the same journal in 2015 busted a lot of myths when it noted that despite all the new technologies developed for running shoes, the frequency of injuries has not decreased over the last 40 years. This suggests that other factors are more to blame than the type of footwear worn.
Maximalist running shoes may feel super-comfy when you put them on, and perhaps they will help prevent some aches and pains that may occur from pounding the pavement for long periods of time. But there is no published research to support any claims being made for them.
Published November 17, 2015