What You Need to Know About Maximalist Running Shoes

Beginning in the late 1980s, fat powder skis revolutionized the ski industry. Then along came fat bikes. Now, the running world is having its innovative heyday, too, with the introduction of “fat” running shoes: the maximalists.

In 2010, a little-known company called Hoka One One introduced the original Mafate, a running shoe boasting two to three times the amount of cushioning as other running shoes on the market.

Other companies like Altra and Vasque quickly developed their own versions of maximalist shoes, followed by even more mainstream companies jumping on the bandwagon—Brooks, Asics, New Balance and Adidas, to name just a few. Hoka One One, meanwhile, was acquired in 2012 by major footwear company Deckers and has introduced more than a dozen new riffs on their original model. In 2014, they reported a 350 percent jump in sales over the previous year.

In many ways, the evolution has felt surprisingly similar to the minimalist trend largely inspired by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller, Born to Run. A few “first adopters” showed up to races in funny-looking shoes. Many people scorned them at first. Then, to see what all the fuss was about, they tried them.

Then they converted.

In fact, in many ways, the minimalist trend paved the way for the maximalist one. Since the early 1970s when Nike introduced its Waffle Trainer, the running-shoe industry has not seen many major innovations. Several years ago, when people began running in Vibram FiveFingers, the mold was broken. Minimalist shoes shook up people’s expectations of what a running shoe should look like—which perfectly set the scene for companies like Hoka One One to introduce a new paradigm altogether.

What’s the deal with these pillowy, soft “marshmallow shoes”? Read on for three key things to understand.

1. They’re not necessarily the opposite of minimalist running shoes.

At first glance, maximalist shoes like the Hoka One One Clifton—with their chunky, high-cushioned platforms—seem to be the polar opposite of minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers or Merrell Trail Gloves. And, in respect purely to thickness of cushioning, perhaps they are.

However, in other respects, maximalist shoes have actually taken many cues from minimalist designs. Many are constructed with lighter-than-ever materials. Many sport a low (0mm-6mm) “heel-to-toe drop”—less beefy cushioning in the heels than running shoes have traditionally had—to encourage a midfoot strike. Many proponents believe this lowers impact. And many of the people who swear by them do so in hopes of reducing the kinds of overuse injuries—plantar fasciitis, “runner’s knee,” stress fractures, etc.—so common among runners.

2. Pay attention to a shoe’s “stack height” to understand just how “maximalist” it is.

Stack height refers to the total amount of shoe material between your foot and the ground. It’s typically expressed in two figures, the first referring to stack height in the heel, the second to stack height in the forefoot.

With the exception of “zero-drop” shoes like Altras, in which the heel and forefoot stack heights are equal, running shoes generally feature a slightly higher stack height in the heel than in the forefoot to account for the impact of landing on one’s heel.

The key differentiator in maximalist shoes is oversized stack heights, typically above 30mm. The men’s maximalist Hoka One One Bondi 4, for example, has a stack height of 37mm/33mm. Compare this to a traditional running shoe like the Saucony Ride 7 (stack height: 28mm/20mm), or a minimalist shoe like the Merrell Bare Access 4 (15mm/15mm).

Maximalist shoe design is more a spectrum than a hard-and-fast category. Paying attention to a shoe’s stack height can give you some insight as to how maximalist the shoe is. Simply put, the higher the stack height, the more cushioning.

3. They’re not just for ultrarunners.

Maximalist running shoes first found their niche at trail ultramarathons (races longer than 26.2 miles). Many ultrarunners welcomed the extra cushioning for slow, multi-hour or even multiday race efforts.

Hoka One One’s roster of sponsored athletes is no doubt fullest in the ultrarunner category, with big names like Sage Canaday, Nikki Kimball, Karl Meltzer, Magdalena Boulet and Dave Mackey.

But maximalist-inspired shoes are also gaining popularity among road runners, recreational and elite alike, and even track athletes. Canaday recently wore a pair of Hoka One One Huakas—a lightweight road-running shoe with a 27mm stack height in the heel—to carry him to a 2:20:02 time at the Los Angeles Marathon in March. HOKA has also added several triathletes to its roster, as well as track athletes like 1500 meter Olympic silver medalist Leo Manzano.

Furthermore, super-cushioned shoes have found quite a few fans outside of even the running community. Many of the positive user reviews on various gear websites are from nurses or other working professionals who stand on their feet all day long and have found comfort and relief in the added cushioning.

Grab your favorite running shoes and join an REI Run Club near you.

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