In 2010, two longtime mountain runners from Salomon footwear started HOKA One One. Inspired by full suspension mountain bikes, oversized tennis rackets and oversized skis, they developed an over-the-top shoe designed to hit the “sweet spot” of performance through stability and comfort.
Altra and Vasque quickly developed their versions of maximalist shoes, followed by even more mainstream companies jumping on the bandwagon—Brooks, Asics, New Balance and Adidas, to name just a few. Deckers bought Hoka One One in 2012 and since has introduced more than a dozen new riffs on Hoka’s original model. In 2014, they reported a 350 percent jump in sales over the previous year.
I’m on the maximalist bandwagon myself. While I’m an athlete for Salomon, a brand famously known for their sexy, minimal S-Lab line, I rock their cushiest shoe, not the minimal fan favorites.
We’re all different and should wear what feels best for each individual. Here’s a case for minimal and maximal shoes to help you decide what’s best for you.
Minimalist proponents claim a zero-drop heel, minimal design and roomier toebox (or articulated toes) deliver a more correct, forefoot-first stride than motion-control shoes. A forefoot-first stride with a broader toe splay is biomechanically more natural than the heel-first stride of many modern runners. In theory, it also minimizes repetitive-motion injuries by varying footfall.
A shoe with minimal cushioning delivers more feedback from the ground to the runner, making for a heightened awareness of what’s underfoot. Some runners call that awareness ‘feel,’ though the term means different things to different runners. A minimalist shoe also typically offers a wider and more stable running platform than a built-up motion-control shoe.
Minimalist shoes demand that the runner have strength and flexibility in their forefoot-first stride. Drawbacks for minimalist shoes focus mostly on the risk of injury that could occur if a runner making that switch too quickly without first building up the muscles in the foot, ankle, quads, and core.
Recent research indicates an increased risk of bone marrow edema, the accumulation of fluid in the bones (similar to bruising), in minimalist runners.
Maximalist shoes were created with ultrarunners in mind. They’re meant to address the problem of running extremely long distances and are designed to protect the feet. As fatigue sets in during long runs, the runner’s form breaks down, which often results in pronation. A maximalist shoe can decrease the energy needed to perform and allow you to stay focused on solid running form and avoid injury.
A maximalist shoe probably doesn’t have less impact than a shoe with little or no cushioning. A massively cushioned shoe might also increase impact forces. This is counter-intuitive, but might be due to the way a runner’s mind and body adapts to softer cushioning. The relationship between injury and impact is unclear at best, possibly because there are various ways of measuring the impact.
Furthermore, the thickness of the sole can create a platform-like effect that increases the risk of twisting an ankle.
So what should you buy?
Most runners find a solution somewhere between minimalist vs. maximal shoes. They’ll train barefoot or in minimalist shoes to supplement their regular running regime or use zero-drop shoes on 5 and 10k races. In longer runs on hard surfaces, they turn to more supportive shoes.
The best way to find what works best for you is to visit your local running shop and try a few pairs of shoes on.