Is the thick cushioning in the best cushioned running shoes beneficial for runners? Running is a popular sport and fitness activity, enjoyed by countless individuals worldwide. As the interest in running has surged, so too has the demand for cushioned shoes, with a dizzying array of styles and designs available on the market. One popular trend sticks out in recent years: highly cushioned shoes, also known as maximalist shoes. Advocates claim that these maximalist shoe designs, characterised by their thick, heavily cushioned soles, provide superior comfort and protection, reducing the risk of running injuries. While on the other hand, critics argue that such shoes alter natural running mechanics and may actually increase injury risk. This article will delve into the contentious world of maximalist shoes, exploring the science behind shoe cushioning, its effects on running performance, foot health, and injury prevention.

The Allure of Maximalist Shoes: Cushioning and Comfort

The concept of the best cushioned running shoes, often considered the epitome of maximalist shoes, emerged in response to the perceived need for increased cushioning to absorb impact forces during running. Especially long distance runners (marathon or ultra-trail) love the extreme cushioning of these cushioned shoes. The logic seems straightforward – the thicker the sole, the better it can absorb the shock of foot-strike, even out irregularities when running trails, and thus reducing the risk of injury. This belief is reinforced by the immediate comfort that runners often experience when wearing highly cushioned shoes, leading to the widespread acceptance of the “more cushioning equals less injury” mantra.

However, is there any scientific evidence to support these claims? And if cushioning is indeed beneficial, how much is too much?

Are Hokas Bad for Your Feet?

Contrary to popular belief, numerous studies have suggested that increased shoe cushioning does not necessarily equate to reduced injury risk. In fact, some research has indicated that runners wearing more cushioned shoes exhibit stiffer leg movements, potentially leading to higher impact forces when their feet hit the ground. This is somewhat counterintuitive, as one might expect softer shoes to result in softer landings.

The explanation for this phenomenon lies in the body’s natural response to unstable surfaces. When we run on a soft, cushioned surface (such as the sole of HOKA shoes, a maximalist shoe), our body instinctively stiffens the joints to maintain balance and stability, effectively negating the shock-absorbing benefits of the cushioning. This can lead to leg stiffness, especially in stiff running shoes. Next time you ask yourself are HOKA shoes good or why do HOKAs hurt my feet, stiffness and cushioning might be the culprit.

The Physics of Running: Impact Forces and Shoe Cushioning

To understand the impact of shoe cushioning on running mechanics, it’s essential to delve into the physics of running, particularly the biomechanics. When a runner’s foot strikes the ground, two primary vertical forces act on the body: the ground pushing upwards (the ground reaction force) and gravity pulling downwards. The net force acting on the body, or the force running, is the difference between these two forces.

Interestingly, studies have shown that the net force (and therefore the impact on the body) is actually greater in more cushioned shoes, often referred to as impact shoes. This is because the cushioning in highly cushioned shoes compresses under the weight of the body, causing the leg to stiffen and absorb the impact, resulting in higher vertical loading and loading rate. This could be a consideration when choosing low impact running shoes.

The belief that more cushioning in cushioned shoes reduces the risk of running injuries is widespread. However, this notion is based more on perception than scientific fact. Although cushioned shoes may feel more comfortable and seem to lessen the impact of running, they may not necessarily reduce the risk of injuries. This leads to the question – are soft shoes bad for your feet?

The Impact of Maximalist Shoes on Knee Health

One important aspect to consider in the maximalist shoe debate is their effect on knee health. When runners land on their heels (as most do when wearing cushioned shoes), the arches and ankles can’t effectively absorb impact, leaving the knees and hips to deal with the body’s natural shock absorption. This is a common concern among users of HOKA shoes, with some reporting HOKA shoes knee pain.

Conversely, barefoot or minimally shod runners tend to use a gentler, impact-absorbing midfoot strike, allowing the arches and ankles to contribute more to shock absorption. This more even distribution of forces across the lower extremity joints could potentially reduce the risk of knee problems, including osteoarthritis.

Role of maximalist shoes in running injuries

The Role of Footwear in Running Injuries: A Complex Relationship

Running injuries are multifactorial, meaning they can result from various factors, including muscle imbalances, running gait, nutrition, overtraining, and poor recovery. Footwear, including maximalist or minimalist running shoes, is just one piece of the puzzle. Therefore, it’s important to know the role of footwear in running injuries, especially when comparing traditional shoes and their biomechanics.

It’s also worth noting that transitioning too quickly from traditional shoes to minimalist running shoes can increase the risk of injury. This is because conventional shoes often make our feet weak, leading to potential injuries when undergoing a shoe transition towards minimalist shoes or more cushioned minimalist running shoes without a sufficient transition period. Therefore, a slow and measured approach to transitioning from conventional to more minimalist shoes is essential.

The Benefits of Minimalist Running: Strengthening the Feet

Instead of depending on maximalist shoes for comfort and injury prevention, we suggest strengthening the feet and legs to enhance running performance and minimise injury risk. This includes ensuring good ankle and big toe mobility, strengthening the lower leg muscles, improving single-leg stability, and learning to effectively use the big toe, which is responsible for 80% of foot stability.

The Case for a Running Shoe Rotation

Considering the complexities and ongoing debates surrounding shoe biomechanics and cushioning, one practical approach is to have a running shoe rotation, including traditional shoes and loading shoes. This involves using 2-3 different pairs of shoes with varying levels of cushioning, thus exposing the feet to different surfaces and conditions. This biomechanics approach can potentially reduce the risk of overuse injuries and improve running performance by ensuring the feet and legs are adaptable and resilient.

Minimalist vs Maximalist Running Shoes

The world of running shoes, including maximalist running shoes like HOKA shoes, is vast and complex, with a multitude of factors to consider when choosing the right pair. While maximalist shoes and highly cushioned shoes may seem appealing due to their comfort and perceived injury prevention benefits, it’s essential to bear in mind the potential downsides and make an informed decision based on individual needs and circumstances. Are HOKA shoes good or are the best cushioned running shoes the right choice for you? It’s a question worth considering.

Definite ‘must-haves’ for shoes that promote healthy feet should be: zero-drop, wide toe-box and cushioning according to the state of your feet (are they compromised?) plus area of use. Consider a little bit of heel-drop if your ankles are really stiff. Opt for minimal running shoes if you’re willing to transition slowly and want to improve on overall posture and balance.

Conclusion: Striking a Balance for Optimal Foot Health

In conclusion, while maximalist shoes and highly cushioned shoes may offer immediate comfort, their long-term effects on running mechanics and injury risk may not be worth it. Ultimately, the key to optimal foot health lies not in the amount of cushioning in our shoes, but in the strength and resilience of our feet and legs. By adopting a balanced approach that includes a variety of footwear, focusing on foot strength and natural running techniques, we can run with confidence, knowing we’re doing what’s best for our feet and our health.

Whether you’re a seasoned runner or a beginner, remember that the best running shoe for you is one that suits your individual needs, fits well, supports your natural gait, and feels comfortable. Don’t be swayed by marketing claims or the latest trends. Listen to your body, trust your instincts, and choose footwear that helps you run fearlessly, comfortably, and injury-free.