I waited patiently in Sportlink in Norwich, whilst a slurry of beat-up bodies sought out new shoes to fix their running woes. Is running this bad? This addictive? I thought, as a man spoke of his recent back operation, a woman of her chronic knee pain, and veteran athlete Neil Featherby said if he had stopped running when a doctor had told him to… Well, Neil just laughed. Are we really that worse off than the general population, I wondered? I see many broken down, beaten-up bodies in my Yoga classes, and rarely are these due to sporting injuries. Most often the body is rebelling in later life against a sedentary/ indoor lifestyle.
I don’t run to look better, I don’t run to make my body feel better. I run, like with Yoga, primarily for my mind. However, my body needs to be kept in tune to allow me to continue experiencing the benefits. There is no benefit in ignoring niggles that persist beyond a few months. This is why I was here, hoping a change in footwear may help my back and prevent me further damaging my knee. Maybe my back problems were exacerbated by running, maybe barefoot running caused my knee injury, maybe it was under-training, maybe barefoot running affected these injuries for the better, or for the worse. Maybe it was pregnancy that damaged my back and the problem would have arisen anyway (as the back specialists said), maybe running presented the problem earlier than I would have otherwise become aware. Maybe the accident was a coincidence and the problem was underlying. This is all speculation, but I knew I needed some changes, regardless of the cause.
I first tried on some shoes Neil had recommended: Mizuno Wave Kazan. They definitely felt like they would fulfil my needs. (After a google search later at home, I’m glad I didn’t go for them, as they are not performers in wet/ slippery conditions, which is what I was after). I couldn’t resist trying on some Hokas, to compare and and see what all the fuss was about. A little run outside in them, and I felt I couldn’t resist. I felt I could run for ever. It was like the lightest of underfoot pillows, and I was almost forced to lean forwards. I was shocked that I felt so happy in them. Neil agreed he had felt the same. The shop did not have my size in the trail (ATR challenger) model, otherwise I would have walked away with them then and there. Let me clarify, they DID have my size, but my toes felt restricted after years of spacious barefoot-shoes, so I wanted half a size bigger (which I have also since read is advisable in hokas) even though the staff thought this would be too big. I made the error of not trying on the 7 with the thinner soles (they come with two sets) but anyway I still think I needed the 7.5, due to that wider front section of my foot. Neil and I had a good chat, and I felt Hokas may be a good idea, not necessarily a ‘forever’ shoe, but at least until my back felt stronger. He told me Hoka drove him crazy with sporadic deliveries, so better I order elsewhere online. He had been so helpful I wanted to give him my custom, but as it transpired they did not get my size in, so I ordered online in UK. (Sportlink ship to Malta).
I did a trial 30-min run in Hokas in Essex, a riverside path. They felt amazing, but something hurt like a strain on the outside of my right foot. This was gone by the next day, but I put it down to my feet being used to the opposite extreme. There was zero ground feel in the hokas, but this ground feel was replaced by bounce and lightness. I did feel ‘my feet had been left at home’ which was what I preferred not to experience in barefoot running: my feet are used to curling and yielding to the terrain, it was also nice to experience something different, for a change, but i do like to move my feet bones. I wore the hokas on my journey to France, to break them in a bit. I exclusively wear lunas year round day-to-day, so I missed the toe-freedom, but this was all about helping my back by pushing my weight forwards. My second run in hokas was up a long and steep mountain road in the French Alps. It was a hot day and I felt I wished I was wearing lunas on the ascent. My feet felt heavy (despite the seemingly impossible weightlessness of the Hokas). However on the downhill, this is when the Hokas came into their own. Downhill is my thing, but when I twisted my knee on a technical downhill, my confidence took a knock and I was desperate to get it back. Hokas gave me this confidence back, I was flying down the hill, although with no ground feel, my feelings for trail running in them are mixed.
A couple of days later I did the mountain course of the Samoens trail, 20km, 1,200 metres of ascent (1,000 in the first 9 km). This was a good if brutal test of the Hokas. And we fell out. I had the thinner soles in as this feels most comfy for the front of the foot. Maybe I didn’t tie them tightly enough to prevent movement at the back, or maybe I should’ve gone with the thicker insoles, or maybe I needed a bit more time to break them in. I haven’t had a blister since New York marathon in 2006 (and then only because I unwisely tapped my toes), I am not used to blisters at all, and after the first 9k I could feel one arising at the outside of my left heel.
But then the descent meant the pressure point changed. When we came across slippy sections, I was happy I had chosen the Hokas that morning (especially as I had lost confidence on running technical downhills it was nice to not have to worry about slipping like in the vivos). However, a couple of times I did, and I’m not sure how to describe this, come disconnected, or off, the sole. So, if you are a lady and have ever worn closed platform shoes, it’s that feeling when you slide off the thick sole, so the foot comes flat to the ground snd the sole is off to the side, that happened a couple of times. I guess that is maybe a sign of a loose fit. The final 200m ascent was steep and the blister feeling on my left foot was annoying. We could then run the final distance downhill, but the only thing stopping me was my feet. I felt they had had enough. Even running downhill, even with all the space around my toes, it felt they were getting pounded on and I saw no point in pushing through it, especially as by this point my running buddy had had enough and was no longer running. I was looking forward to getting the cumbersome shoes off. I plan my next run to be in the vivos. Not exclusively, but at least for a few days, to regain some movement freedom in my feet.
- I think having a range of running shoe options is desirable. I feel running in Hokas works different muscles:it more than in barefoot (this could possibly be a result of having taken 6 weeks off) but I feel it is the shoes and this is a good thing. One shoe means your body gets used to it, so different shoes is kind of like cross-training. The Hokas will definitely be a go-to for me for recovery run days and for long flat path-type runs. There is little lost by not using minimal shoes for these runs.
- I already have plans for races I will use the Hokas for. Mellieha-Senglea night run 30k is a downhill road run and last year I achieved my goal of completing it sub 3 hours. I did it in lunas and felt I would have been more comfy with cushioning. Next year I hope to better my time, I feel Hokas may make this more realisable, however I did at one point stumble down a pothole last year from not looking, but with more attention the Hokas should be fine. Whether I would choose them for Gozo Ultra or the like, I am unsure. Ground feel on such a terrain is welcomed, especially foot mobility for the climbing sections, I don’t know how that would be in Hokas, but the organiser told me he had no problem in them. Something that handles the slippy sections well (like the Hokas) and long-distance comfort is also very desirable. Therefore, ideally something in between the two extremes, maybe I will re-attempt the luna ribbon tie. At the moment the jury is out on this decision, but lots of practice in lots of shoes, will make this decision for me.
- Regarding my back, it has felt fine following all three hoka runs. The variable that should be noted however, is that I am alone without my family. I believe it is they that do my back in I’ve had the luxury of taking a bath, or a long stretch after the runs, which I don’t have at home. I am also more relaxed generally with less to do. The tension of family barking demands at me the minute I get in from a run, may not help my back, so I can’t say conclusively at this point that it is the hokas that have made the difference. However, feeling like Hokas make my running posture better (as in forcing me forward and out of my back) has got to be worth something. I felt the run yesterday more in my abs than my back, which has to be a notable improvement in form.
- The main advantage is a lot of cushioning with almost no weight to the shoe. This is advance running technology at it’s best as I see it. (Lunas are the opposite end of the spectrum: running history at it’s best. Both ends have their place in the world of running, low-tech, high-tech and all the bits in between).
- The problems I had with too much foot movement inside the shoe could maybe have been avoided if I had used the bigger soles or followed Neil’s guidance as to getting the size 7. As he pointed out, the lady before me left with a size smaller than he had recommended, as people get accustomed to wearing the wrong sized shoe. If you are thinking of Hokas make sure you try them on thoroughly, with both insoles and maybe no insoles (as Neil Featherby says he likes to wear his) and take time over a decision. If you have any questions or comments about any of this, please leave below and I’ll be happy to get back to you!
- At the end of the day, the shoe is not a major deal. As far as I know proper elite runners spend little of their time discussing ‘drop’. However, a good shoe will make it possible to focus on other aspects of the run (you won’t notice it or think about it) where as a bad shoe will likely steal the focus for the entire duration.
Of course, I be no means think that six hours of Hoka running is comprehensive testing This are preliminary thoughts, whilst I have time to note them down
Cheers for reading and I wish you all a lifetime of happy running, whatever you choose to wear on ya feet!