I first heard of HOKA one one shoes when Karl Meltzer ran the Pony Express Trail last year, and they caught my eye as they went against everything in the minimalist/barefoot shoe ideals, which had been adopted by the major shoe manufacturers. I figured that if a guy can run over 1800miles in them, there must be something about them.
Since then there has been a lot of excitement and hype about these shoes, especially among the Ultramarathon running community and the people who run in them seemed to love them, almost passionately.
With this in mind it was an exciting day when I had my first pair to try, and it was difficult to contain the enthusiasm to give them a try. It started with a trot around the lounge room! That was about 2 months ago, and I held back from writing about them straight away as I wanted to give them a proper test and to let the emotional novelty subside.
Since then I’ve run over 800kms in them, including The North Face 100km race – the first time I haven’t changed my shoes, or needed to during an ultra. It’s safe to say that I too am now in the camp of runners who love these shoes.
Their appearance is certainly unconventional and they become a talking point whenever I’m wearing them. (At TNF 100 I was referred to on more than one occasion as “the guy in the crazy shoes”) Their appearance is not for everyone, but to me I like them, and their function is more important than how I look (I seem to be doing all my training in the dark at the moment anyway!).
The first thing you notice when you get them out of the box is how light they are. I don’t know the specifics, but they are noticeably lighter than my old trail shoes.
When you first put them on the thing that hits you is how soft and comfortable they are. They feel like a pair of slippers. You would think that with this you would lose all your feel from the ground (a concern of the minimalist/barefoot runners) but because the foam in the sole is much less dense and softer than in a traditional shoe, you still get good feedback from the trails (and no different from my “normal” trail shoes in my experience).
Given that the sole is considerably higher than traditional shoes, you do have to adjust to the height when stepping over rocks, etc, but this only takes about 5kms to get used to, and it’s no different to the adjustment you make when changing to running barefoot from running in shoes.
The area of the sole is about 30% bigger than a standard shoe, and it gives you the feeling that you can almost run on water, and it does keep you out of the water in shallow puddles! This greater area spreads the impact down force of each stride and makes for a smoother ride. I’m a mid/forefoot striker, and they certainly compliment this style, and I’d say given the curved design of the heel and fore sole they’d work well for heel strikers too.
Most of the wear I have encountered on the sole has been right at the very front under the toe, from the increased force and friction across the smaller area from the toe off phase.
A concern of many has been that with the increase height of the sole, then the tendency to roll an ankle would be greater, and the potential damage you could do to yourself would also increase with the increased torque. Again for me I don’t believe I’ve had any increase in frequency of unstable footing, as this really comes down to good trail running practice and proprioreception. I have had to make a minor adaption to cater for the larger foot print and my awareness of foot placement, which only took a few kilometres to adjust to.
When attempting to “fold” the shoe they are stiffer than a standard shoe. As a result the shoe may not yield as much as you would like. I only found this required any adjustment when running the more technical trails.
On the occasions where I haven’t been able to maintain a stable foot placement there is an increased lateral force on the ankle, but not as significant as you may expect, probably due to the compression softness of the sole of the shoe. The major discomfort has actually come from the upper of the shoe pushing hard on the ankle when running along an intense camber for a long period (I have overcome this by loosening the laces slightly).
When I first tried them out I used the locking lace holes, and found this to get quite uncomfortable as the laces gripped tightly on my ankle, with very little give. The back of the shoe is a little higher than my standard shoes which compounded this difference. However this was resolved by not using the locking lace holes, and since I have not experienced any discomfort.
Another nice feature is that the laces pass through the tongue each time they cross keeping the tongue securely in position.
As for sizing they’re pretty true, although if you have wider feet, as I do, I’d recommend selecting half a size up on your normal. The toe box is well protected, but for me could be a little wider (that said I haven’t suffered any black toenails or blisters in them).
So all in all the HOKAs are a very good shoe. If I was the designer there is very little I would change, and certainly nothing significant. Currently I’m running in them twice a day, every day, in training for my 16 day, 1400km run and have felt no adverse affects from the shoes, in fact my feet and lower legs are the only part of my body that aren’t aching.
They are a fun shoe to run in, especially when really smashing the downhills, and it really should be fun!
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Check out my other Ultramarathon Running Gear Reviews