This story has been rewritten many times since I first started it, never with a happy ending, at least not until now. You see I have not enjoyed running, or maybe more succinctly, I have not felt good or strong or fast while running this past year or so; I was starting to think that age was finally catching up with me.
Every older long time runner, even if you are just an occasional runner, has to deal with their body’s ability to continue running as the years go by. What “older” means will vary by individual, but for me it appeared that after hitting 60 and racing well it has been about a two year downward spiral in my running. I focused on my training, my rest, my diet, but nothing was helping as the frustration grew. Now I have to wonder why I didn’t think of this much earlier, could it just be my shoes?
I have always looked up to my older friends and training partners that continued swimming and biking into and through their 60’s, I hoped that I would be like them. I was also hoping that I would still be able to continue running, fully realizing that it is the one sport that subjects the body to the most pounding. Many people finally give up running due to pain and discomfort; others soldier on painfully doing as much or as little as they can, while others look into surgical options to relieve the pain. Many try to come back from these procedures to run again, albeit with more modest goals, while I’m a firm believer that at some point it’s better to listen to your body and know when enough is enough. Yes I would have a surgery if the injury was affecting my daily life, but I would likely give up running and pursue other sports that are less pounding on the body if it came to that.
I had hoped that by being consistent in my weekly training (6-7 aerobic/anaerobic workouts, strength training, yoga), that I would be able to run “at some pace” for the foreseeable future. We triathletes are a stubborn breed, embracing the sport as a lifestyle, so my inability to go out and run without some left of discomfort was disconcerting, potentially lifestyle altering, while still wondering why my running was sliding in the wrong direction?
If I had only looked down and considered the obvious! And for those that don’t need a “story” about the shoes, you can scroll to the bottom for my “nerd notes”, a short list of bullet points.
While I have followed the trends over the years with regards to updating my tri bike to stay current while looking to gain some speed, I was stuck on the same old running shoes. You see I’ve probably only run in three different brands of shoes over the last 30 years, so I’m pretty loyal to a brand. Once I find the model in a manufacturers lineup that I like I continue to buy it even as they upgrade the model from year to year. And even when they discontinue a model and replace it with another “upgraded” version, I would buy another couple of pairs of the soon-to-be-discontinued model and shove them in the closet to postpone having to move on, using the mindset that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Of course we all know running shoes only have a certain amount of miles in them (we all know that right?), regardless of how worn out they might appear. The shoes I was wearing, a pair of New Balance Fresh Foams, were wearing well but they were also getting old. And why I didn’t think that as I got older that maybe I should be running in a shoe with more cushion versus a lighter weight training shoe is beyond me; I was stuck and running wasn’t fun.
While the minimalist running shoe craze was hitting its peak (simpler uppers, less weight, lower heal drop), the exact opposite craze was just beginning, maximalist shoes, shoes with a lot more cushioning that cradle your feet. With ultra-distance running gaining in popularity, runners were looking for trail shoes with more cushioning to allow them to run these longer distances races and the Hoka brand (officially Hoka One One), was born. Over time other brands introduced their own variants of cushioned shoes, obviously noticing Hokas showing up on more and more runner’s feet at the longer running races and triathlons.
The most obvious change in a maximalist running shoe compared to minimalist shoe, or even a standard running shoe, is a much thicker and more cushioned sole, many millimeters taller and typically much wider. I was not a fan of this look (like that really matters!), while also being in denial that I needed a change, even as several of my friends were trying them out with mostly positive results. I just figured I didn’t need them as my shoes “felt” okay, my biomechanics were good, and they were also nearly twice as expensive as the shoes I have been buying for years, decades even, a poor excuse when I think back on it.
With the New Year came a new resolve to improve my running so I finally gave in and headed out to test drive some shoes. I tried on three different Hoka road shoe models, varying from the most cushioning, to slightly less, and then even less. After trying each on the treadmill I was surprised that the middle version, the Clifton 6, felt pretty normal while running, albeit a little awkward while just walking around, as I got used to the increased height of the sole. I bought them and looked forward to my next run.
I opted to start out with a short and easy run, just in case the shoes really didn’t agree with my feet or running style, but I was quickly up to speed on the shoes, feeling like I was running with much less effort. The true benefit of these cushioned shoes is what they call “the return”, how much spring effect you get from the added cushion, while not having so much cushion that you just sink down into them. It was clear there was more spring in my step, less jarring on my body, and with whatever running ability I currently had I was easily running 15-20 seconds/mile faster at the same HR and level of effort. Even better, I was able to run nearly five miles without stopping, something I hadn’t planned on and that I hadn’t done in some time; could it really just be about the shoes?
I tried not to give the shoes too much credit right away, thinking that maybe these past weeks my running has improved even while I wasn’t enjoying it, and that maybe I was rested and this was a one off event; remember the part about being in denial? Well as the weeks passed and the runs got longer and longer, I continued to run without issue. Finally I could no longer deny it, the switch to cushioned shoes was working, and I was running with joy again, without discomfort during the run or the following days.
If you talk to enough runners that have switched over to the Hoka brand you will likely hear similar stories; the shoes really do make that much of a difference. Of course you will have to make up your own mind, based on my story and all the other stories and reviews that have been written about these shoes. The reality is that they may not in fact solve your particular problem, which could be more serious or it could just be that you need a new or fresh pair of the shoes that you’re already running in.
But, if you’re reading this and you have been running without joy yourself and you haven’t upgraded your shoes in some time, maybe it’s time to move on. Whether it is a new model in your favorite brand, or another brand with a similar model, or to be bold and think outside the box for once, maybe now is the time. I did and I’m glad and now my running form and joy have returned to a place they have not been in some time.
The only sad part of all this, now that my running form has returned to some degree, is that because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic (which is the really, really sad news of the day I might add), there are no races on the horizon for the near future to really test myself again. The reality is that racing is not important in the long run if we cannot do it safely, so until then, whatever you do, be safe, take care of yourself so that you can also take care of others, and if your running isn’t very fun these days, try something new for a change and see if it changes your luck.
Final Nerd Notes
- Sizing: I normally wear a size 11 ½ in a running shoe but these seem to run large so I’m in a size 11 instead, ½ size down
- Width: I generally have no issues with shoes being too wide or too narrow, so I guess I have a normal width foot and these feel fine
- Weight: Slightly heavier than lightweight training shoes, but the cushion and extra spring in your step outweigh the weight gain
- Wear: I try to run more pavement than concrete, and dirt paths where possible, but running wears out shoes regardless. I feel that I can get 250-300 miles before these shoes will be worn enough to warrant replacement. The New Balance shoes I had been running in probably went 400+ miles, so I feel that these are wearing out faster, but of course your mileage may vary. But you also have to wonder if I was pushing the limits of how long I should really have been running in my older shoes?
- Extra Height: It didn’t take long for me to get used to the height of the extra cushioning in the shoe, even on the 5+ minutes in the treadmill in the shoe store. Within one to two runs out on the street I stopped thinking about it at all
- Running Off-Road: These shoes were designed for the road, with very little tread for loose or sandy conditions. Of course you can always run in road shoes on groomed fire roads or trails that aren’t very rocky, but if the dirt is loose or wet, be very careful. A few times I had to catch myself from falling in a situation that I didn’t think needed too much extra caution. I plan on buying a pair of their off-road shoes soon, which are heralded for almost having too much traction, which I would consider a good thing
- Color Choices: For once a manufacturer doesn’t force us “older guy” to buy the latest/hottest/ugliest colored shoes, but instead actually offers many different color options, thank you Hoka!
- Latest Model: While researching these shoes I learned that the last two iterations, numbers 4 & 5 (and maybe even #3), were not as well received as the original models. This version, #6, has been seen as a return to all the good things of the earlier versions, correcting the mistakes/updates made on since then, JFYI
- Would I Buy Them Again? YES!!!