Call them the anti-barefoot shoe. These thick-soled, ultra-cushy trail runners combine lightweight uppers with a rockered EVA midsole that’s 35% wider, 30% softer, and 2.5 times thicker than standard trail runners. French manufacturer Hoka One One claims the design dissipates up to 80% of the strike force in a running stride, and after training on two pairs since last December, our stocky Clydesdale tester raved about their impact protection and cushioning.
“I’ve been struggling with Morton’s neuroma (underfoot nerve pain), a chrome steel hip replacement, and deteriorating knees for years,” he reported. ”For me, they’ve been a new lease on running. I can even train on pavement with no resulting joint tenderness or foot pain, and minimal soreness in quads and calves.”
For those same reasons, Hokas (available in trail, road, and combo models) have gained quick acceptance among ultra-marathoners and heavier, injury-prone runners. Some minimalist-shoe fans incorporate them into their footwear spectrum for recovery days and high-mileage training. When we first put them on, they felt a bit tall and tippy. Lateral dodging and nubbin edging are not their forte, but a polyurethane rearfoot cradle, and a wide sole platform avoid most ankle rolling, even on sidehills. The underfoot rocker and lack of a heel block make gravelly uphill sprints and muddy descents a bit insecure, but the cushion also meant we could heel strike aggressively on secure downhills.
The actual stride feels like running on stiff marshmallows. Stones disappear underfoot, and the rockered geometry, which incorporates a 4 mm drop between heel and forefoot, creates a natural mid-foot strike and easy forward momentum with no fold point between heel strike and toe push. This works well for devotees of Zen running technique. The shoes look massive, but they come in at a lightweight 11 ounces per shoe.
Hokas don’t work for everybody, but if you have stress injury issues with feet, knees, hips, or lower back, the Mafates are worth checking out. They cost a bit more, but ours still have plenty of cushion after 500 miles of running and hiking, so the value seems there. Mafate 2s run true to size in men’s and women’s, but other Hoka road models we’ve tried can run a half-size small.