From top: Vasque Ultra SST, Hoka One One Conquest.
Runners are about to get a little whiplash: Starting in 2006, minimalist shoes multiplied on store shelves like the waif-thin cousins of the typical running shoe. Slimmed-down cushioning and zero (heel-to-toe) drop was touted as the answer to making our feet stronger, our running form more natural, driving hoards of runners to eschew cushioning like gluten. Then some people got injured.
While minimalist shoes still have their place in this season's lineup, several brands decided to swing the pendulum back towards platform-like, oversized foam midsoles that top out at a cushy 32mm. The trend got its start with Hoka One One back in 2010. The goal was to make a better running shoe; one that could handle the shock of pounding the pavement, and, in Hoka's case, reduce stress and strain on the metatarsals with a fulcrum-like rocker bottom.
"No one shoe is right for all runners, but there's a saying, 'It's the pounding, stupid,'" says Jim Van Dine, brand president of Hoka One One. "Ultra runners and adventure racers were our early adopters for a reason. They said their legs didn't feel as fatigued after long runs or as beat up after downhill runs."
Fans and makers of oversized foam midsoles claim this is because the shoes are not only more comfortable, but they also absorb more shock and boost the energy return of each step more than the typical cushioned shoe.
Wear them as your go-to shoe or make like an elite runner and simply add them to your quiver. Competitive athletes rely on heftier kicks as recovery shoes for easy and long runs, and switch to a lighter, thinner choice for workouts and races. Whatever your decision, you've got plenty of choices.
From left: New Balance Fresh Foam 980, Brooks Transcend, Altra Olympus.
Hoka One One Conquest
Handle any terrain—or weather—with this new shoe that has 29mm of sculpted foam, a rocker to propel you into each step, a rub-free seamless upper construction, and water drainage system that prevents puddles from weighing you down. (hokaoneone.com, $170)
New Balance Fresh Foam 980
The ombré, single slice foam of these super-light kicks gives runners 25mm for a cushioned ride and only 4mm of drop. Breathable air mesh and seamless upper add to the cool comfort. (newbalance.com, $110)
The incredibly soft support shoe has the plushness of its foam counterparts but includes midsole plates (instead of the traditional posts) to guide your foot through each step. The heel sits at 24mm, but with an 8mm drop, the heel-toe drop is closer to a traditional shoe. (brooksrunning.com, $160)
Zero-drop meets max cushion in the Olympus, a trail running shoe with 32mm of foam and a wide toe box to let toes spread for a more natural foot strike. Sticky rubber soles grip slippery rock and a quick-drying mesh top keeps feet dry. (altrarunning.com, $130)
Vasque Ultra SST
Tackle the trails with the 28mm maximum cushioning shoe with 6mm of heel-toe drop, a lace-free BOA closure to ensure a more consistent fit, and an upper stitched to the midsole for a simpler (read: blister-free) construction. (vasque.com, $170)