Thursday, August 15, 2013

Running Shoe Philosophy

Hoka Test Run & Some Personal Thoughts on Shoes and the Philosophy of Running 

Last night I ran 6 miles in Hokas (Stinson EVO Trail, size 12) in Brecksville trails (with the Wednesday night Trail Seekers Group, organized by Vertical Runner of Brecksville – - the shoes were given to us to try, courtesy Jerome of Hoka).  This is how these shoes look:

I would like to share my initial impressions from these shoes, plus discuss some other trail shoes I use  plus share some personal/philosophical thoughts on trail running and shoes.

Background: I ran in traditional running shoes from 2000 to 2011. I started running trails in 2007. My first trail shoes was a pair of Salomons. I liked these shoes and became obsessed with Salomon and eventually settled for SpeedCross as my standard trail shoes. These shoes are now in their 3rd version (I was running in the original no. 1 version). They are rather bulky with a 10mm heel drop and aggressive bottoms as you can see in this picture:

In March of 2011 I developed a pain on the side of my left knee (iliotibial band syndrome, ITBS) after ramping up my road training for Boston, adding distance and hills.

This was my 2nd time battling ITBS. The first time was after my first marathon in 2004 on my right knee. After trying just about everything, I solved the problem with the PatStrap. (Note: The patstrap worked miraculously for me in 2004, but it has not worked for a lot of people with this condition, including myself in 2011... Still worth trying, considering how inexpensive this solution is.)

In 2011 I got ITBS again, but this time on the opposite knee.  I tried the strap but it did not work. I tried ART, it did not work.  I tried different shoes and shoe inserts, making the shoes more padded, and it actually got worse. Finally, the problem was solved when I switched to minimalist shoes (shoes with minimal padding - a pair of Fila Skele-Toes).  ITB became a shoe barometer.  Within minutes of trying a new shoe, I knew if it was going to work or not.  What I found out is that it is the padding not the weight of the shoe that is a problem. Some lightweight shoes (Nike Free, for example) did not work because of the padding.

Since then, I became a big fan of lightweight/minimalist shoes. I tried the Vibrams but they were too minimalist for me (and I got a pain in my left heel trying to run too fast in them.) Finally, I settled for the New Balance Trail Minimus shoes (the original version with 4mm heel drop.)

I used these shoes for all my 50Ks in 2011 and early 2012, plus at the Towpath Marathon and in road races for distances of half-marathon or less (for road marathons I used the NB Road Minimus). The NB Trail Minimus shoes worked very well for me. Since I was coming back from an injury I increased my mileage slowly. The shoes felt really comfortable but after my first long trail runs it felt as if someone had beaten the bottom of my feet with a baseball bat!

Eventually I got used to these shoes and ran some great/fast 50Ks. I got to the point where it was impossible to go back to the Salomon SpeedCross (I tried my old pair and they felt too big and unstable since they were worn more on one side, I threw them away.) One advantage of the lightweight shoes is that they wear more evenly and slowly bring you closer to the ground. Here is a picture of my first pair of NB Trail Minimus after lots and lots of miles.  The uppers are separated and you can see wear at the bottom (still striking my heel I guess).  In a thin shoe, this kind of wear is less of a problem than a thick shoe.

Just before Mohican 50 in 2012 I tried the New Balance MT110 and I liked them. A little more padded than the Minimus but still plenty minimalist.  I like the fact that they have a steel plate which protects my feet and makes running in uneven trails a bit easier. In 2012 I ran Mohican 50 and BT50K in 2012 in record time with a pair of NB MT110, just like these ones:

For Burning River (BR) 100 in 2012 I used the NB110 for the first 40 miles and then switched to Brooks PureGrit (original, not v. 2) for the last 60 miles. The PureGrit are lightweight but have a LOT of padding. I call them “my Hokas”. They work well when the ground is hard with rocks and roots and they definitely cause less pain/discomfort in longer distances. Plus, they have a wide toe box and run a bit larger, so I get no blisters from my standard size 12 pair.

During the winter of 2013 I was experimenting running in roads with some minimalist Inov-8 shoes that are more appropriate for Corss-Fit than running, and started having some issues with my lower foot (heel/Achilles pain on the left foot and general feeling of tireness/pain the next day after running/racing fast). At this point I started running more in the Brooks PureGrit, and also Inov-8 X-Talon 212, seen here:

For Mohican 50 this year (2013) I used the Inov-8 for the first loop and switched to PureGrit (with great relief!) in the second loop. In BR100 I switched between these two shoes (2 pairs of each, 4 shoe switches) and it worked OK. The X-Talon 212 worked very well in the muddy parts of the course (like the “bog of despair” between Meadows and Snowville - the best way to run these sections is fast through the mud with a lightweight shoe with good traction control and the Inov-8 X-Talon 212 is perfect for this.)

Back to the Hokas:

I had a feeling that I would not like the thick padding of the Hokas but I wanted to see what the fuss is all about. I was especially curious since some of my friends are running and racing very well in Hokas.

So, here are my initial impressions for the Hokas:

  • Overall I got a favorable impression, which surprised me. I had no issues running with them (I did not feel unbalanced or at risk of twisting my ankle) and I enjoyed the ride. The shoe fits well and it has a wide toe box so I am sure I will not be getting any blisters from them. 
  •  They are definitely better for running on hard ground with rocks/roots. You can step over the small rocks/roots without worrying about hurting yourself. 
  •  In downhills they are amazing! They promote/support very fast running thanks to the soft landing and not worrying about small rocks etc. Running fast downhill in hard trails in these shoes is a blast!
  •  In flat/soft surfaces and in uphills they do not have an advantage, in my opinion. It seems that I need to lift my legs a bit more than I am used to. In sand/grass/irregular surfaces especially, they are problematic and possibly slower than less padded shoes. 
  •  Racing on a mixed course (up/down, soft/hard), like the one I ran yesterday, I am not sure that I can run faster with these shoes. Whatever I gain by running downhill faster I believe I lose by walking uphill a bit slower. 
  •  Most people say that Hokas are good for recovery runs. Some people switched to Hokas to solve issues with their lower foot. I see how these shoes “pumper” my lower feet but I am not sure on the effect on the knees or hips (I have the feeling that they are harder on these parts, until you get used to them). I cannot forget that it was a knee problem (ITBS) that led me to lightweight shoes in the first place.
  • I see how these shoes can have an advantage in courses like part of the Western States 100 (rocky and downhill). It seems that this is the shoe recommended for this course. But I am not sure about our local (N. Ohio) trails. This year we had a lot of snow and rain so the trails were muddy/wet/soft, not the type of surface where Hokas work best. Still, it seems that some people (like my friends Jim Heun and Jim Mann) race well in Hokas even in muddy trails. 

Finally, there is the philosophical question of trail running. Trails have irregular surfaces with roots and rocks (among other features). Does it make sense to wear a shoe that makes your feet oblivious to these irregularities? Shouldn’t you embrace the rough surface instead of trying to avoid it?

When I ask this question, people give me funny looks. “You mean we should torture ourselves?” No, I mean experience the trail in its full glory. Many runners could get used to running with either type of shoes (minimalist vs. well-padded). I think there is an advantage to running trails with minimalist shoes. Your feet grow stronger and you experience the trail better. If you have a particular issue for which Hokas (or other padded shoes) is the answer that allows you to continue running, then by all means use these shoes. But if you are a versatile runner whose feet can adapt to many different shoes, I’d say go with the less padding which potentially can make you a faster and stronger runner.

One last note on the philosophy or running: Minimalist shoes are a part of my minimalist running philosophy which also includes such aspects of running as clothing, gadgets and nutrition. I find that I enjoy running with a minimum amount of equipment/food. I tried compression socks when I was experiencing calf pain. I think in the end they hurt me (in BR100 in 2012 for example) so no more compression socks for me. I believe that a minimum amount of loose fitting clothing works best. I occasionally run with GPS and some times with music (especially in boring solitary winter road runs when there is nothing to see or hear) but lately I have been enjoying running/racing without GPS. (But a good headlight at night is a must, and carrying a cell phone is a good safety practice.) Nutrition: No fancy backpacks, no gels/electrolytes or processed food for me. I eat a good breakfast before and a good lunch/dinner after a run. I only have real food as needed during the run (and it is not needed for 20 miles or even for a 50K). I carry a hand-held bottle and drink plain water to thirst. Lightweight shoes fit right in with my minimalist running philosophy.

Shoes – My Bottom Line:

There are a lot of shoes out there, with companies coming up with new models every year. Finding a shoe that you like can be confusing. I am sure I could run with just about any pair of shoes that offers decent protection. I tend to stick with pairs that I have used and like and I am not inclined to experiment with new pairs often.

I tried the Hokas out of curiosity to see what the fuss is all about. I enjoyed my test run with these shoes. I see how Hokas can work well for some people who want extra protection and padding, but I will pass on them (and other extra padded shoes that are becoming popular right now) and stick with the shoes that I am using at the present time:
  • Brooks PureGrit (original model, not v. 2) if I need the padding for recovery or in hard trails with rocks/roots.  This is a good compromise for a padded shoe, more than most minimalist shoes but less than the Hokas. These shoes however are slippery and not a good choice on muddy courses or wet rock/wood. 
  • Inov-8 X-Talon 212 (or 190 which feel more comfortable but do not last as long as the 212) for muddy courses where I need a good grip. Note that even these shoes are slippery on wet wood or on ice as I learned the hard way last year when I fell hard on icy ground in a Buzzard 50K training run. I am thinking of putting screws in my older PureGrit pair, to solve this problem next year. Also, the X-Talons 212 have a narrow toe box and I think they run a bit smaller than the 190. My feet suffered (lost nails and some blisters) at BR100 running for long distances (feet swollen) in them. I am now trying size 12 ½ instead of 12. 
These are my main trail shoes at the present time.  But now that my feet have recovered from the heel/Achilles pain I mentioned earlier I will start using again the NB Trail Minimus and NB110 pairs that I have.  I am still looking for a good road shoe for the winter road runs and the upcoming road marathon races.

Hokas or barefoot, run well my friends!

Update (4/4/2014)

I read again what I wrote back in August and my ideas about shoes and shoe selection have not changed a bit.  I still wear the same shoes:

  • New Balance MT110: For lightweight trail running
  • Brooks PureGrit: For padded trail running and also roads
  • Inov-8 X-Talon 212 and 190: For muddy/slippery trails

I am happy I am able to find these shoes new usually under $50/pair.

What has surprised me a bit in the last year is the new wave of maximalism.  Especially the popularity of Hokas (mostly among women, for some reason).   

Here, I am standing in the front line of the Fools 50K race, in what turns out to be snowy, slippery, and muddy (in the 2nd half) race, I look down and see that 3 out of 4 runners around me are wearing Hokas!  This surprised me because Hokas are not a good choice for this terrain.  But, at least I know that the woman who won first female in this race did not wear her Hokas exactly because of the slippery terrain.

I think the most reasonable advice when it comes to shoe selection is not to be married to one type of shoes, but alternate between different types.  This is not a new advice.  I have a book about marathon running from the 70s where the author says (writing out of memory) "while other runners carry a suitcase full of pain pills, I carry a suitcase full of different running shoes."  His advice for healthy feet is to run in different types of shoes.  Mixing different types of running surfaces (track, roads, trails) is a good advice too.

Here is a blog from a minimalist shoe enthusiast which reviews the current state of maximalist shoe invasion and reflects the advice of alternating shoes:


Maria Liv said...


Just wanted to start of saying that your blog is awesome! I've now spent almost an hour reading your blog, haha.

I wanted to ask you if you had followed the 3 pm diet agian? Did you loose interest or you keep doing it?

About the low carb diet, saw that you did that also, do you like it or you like other ones?

I'm looking for a fun diet and want your opinion. I'm really jelous that you are in a running group and just that you can run outside.

I live at the moment in a country where it's impossible to run outside, so I have to go to the gym, where the treadmill is my only friend.

Keep up the good spirit and keep writing.

Salute, Mary.

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