I have a history of conducting really bad science when it comes to fixing myself. For starters, I’m balls awful at self-diagnosing, whether it’s writing or running or dadding or whatever… see, to fix a problem, you first have to know what the problem is, and I’m pretty bad at that. It’s why I married a woman much smarter than I am — so that I have somebody to point me at the right targets. Then, I tend to take on too many things at once or dive headfirst into new things rather than easing in, to the effect that whether I succeed or fail, I never really know what to attribute the success or failure to.
But I’ve got this injury. In my foot. For a while I thought it might have been tendonosis, but lately it feels like good ol’ plantar fasciitis, but one way or another, my freaking foot hurts, and it’s been hurting for a while. And I’ve tried a handful of things to fix it, including seeing a podiatrist, taking breaks from running, stepping up my running, eating only fried chicken on Fridays, consulting with spirit guides… and it still hurts. So it’s time for drastic measures.
I’m not the kind of guy that believes in magic bullets, but there comes a point — and that point in my case is when I’ve been dealing with more-or-less chronic pain for the better part of a year — where you’re willing to try just about anything. So among the many things I’m trying to fix the pain right now are some new shoes.
I know, I know.
They look ridiculous. But I got a pretty sweet deal on them and, like I said, I’m willing to try anything.
If you don’t run in running circles (haw) you might not be familiar with Hokas and their ilk, so to put them in a nutshell (which is impossible, I mean, just look at the size of them), they are a new thing in running, the inverse pendulum swing from the minimalism trend that happened in the late aughts. Where minimalist shoes aimed to make shoes feel less like shoes by dint of removing padding and stabilizing elements and “putting you more in touch with the road,” Hokas and other so-called “maximalist” shoes take the opposite tack: they add frankly ridiculous amounts of padding to desensitize you to the surfaces you’re running on entirely. (I should note that “desensitize” is my word, not theirs.)
Now, I think minimalist shoes are the bomb. I think they are the way and the truth. They may have contributed to my injuries, and I’m willing to own my part in that, because I probably jumped in too fast and didn’t give myself the appropriate time to adjust. That said, I still believe in minimalism, because I believe in evolution, and I don’t think that millions of years of adjustment to the earth below our feet would have crafted a foot that needs perfect shoes to make us good at, you know, walking or running on said earth. Shoes being a construct of the past couple of millenia of human development, I’m going to trust natural selection and say that probably our feet are just fine as they are, and maybe it’s the way we’re treating our feet that’s fargoed up. But I digress. I’m not here to argue minimalism vs maximalism, I’m not here to open the Born to Run debate or touch on barefoot running or any of that.
I’m here because in desperation I ordered these shoes, and I’m going to try them out as part of my latest effort to fix my feet so that I can run pain-free again.
Let me make all appropriate disclaimers: “maximalist” shoes are too new for there to be any studies drawing far-reaching conclusions about their effectiveness at preventing or recovering from injury. However, there is a ton of anecdotal evidence out there, and much of that anecdotal evidence comes in the form of gobsmacked distance runners who are amazed that these shoes have allowed them to start running pain-free after extended bouts with hip pain, knee pain, ankle pain, back pain, foot pain… you name it. So I ordered them, and they got here, and I took them for a run yesterday, and here’s what I learned.
- They are huge. I’ve sat at 5’11” my whole life, and these shoes put me comfortably in the 6’3″ range. My wife, a demure and delightful 5’2″, tried them on and was able to look me in the eye for the first time in her life. The air just feels a little thinner while you’re wearing them, and maybe that makes you a little lightheaded, and maybe that’s why the pain goes away.
- They are soft. Boy, are they soft. Reviewers often describe them as “like walking on clouds”, which is the most overused simile in shoes, and I won’t be using it, because it’s nonsense. You can’t walk on clouds in the first place, and no shoe is going to remove all the groundfeel from your feet. That said, even just stepping into them and taking a few tentative steps around the living room I could feel my feet sinking into their pillowy depths. They compress like a worn-in tennis ball, which is to say, quite a bit, but not so much that you go right through it like you would with a down pillow or, if you must, a cloud. The padding underfoot is sensational, and it really does feel awesome just to walk around in them.
- They are bouncy. That tennis ball analogy I used was not a mistake. I thought hard about the best way to describe what running feels like with these things on, and it struck me. Every step is like landing perfectly on a tennis ball. You land, you feel the resistance, the resistance gives more than you expect, and then as your weight transfers over, there’s a spring effect that feels like the shoe is catapulting you forward just a little bit. That effect was disorienting in the first half mile or so, but once you get used to it, it feels normal.
- They are grippy. Here’s my primary concern about these shoes, especially having tried minimalist shoes and even my bare feet: you get used to feeling what’s under your feet and adjusting accordingly. That’s impossible in these clunkers. My kitchen floor feels exactly like my lawn feels exactly like my driveway feels exactly like pavement feels exactly like the rocky mudfield out back of the tire shop I run past every day. My concern is that I’d end up slipping because I can’t feel the little rocks or sticks or tiny bumps in the ground or whatever, but this concern broke apart in the atmosphere before I got to the end of the street. The sole of the shoe compresses so much that it actually seems to conform to whatever’s on the ground like a coat of paint going on over my shoddy drywall work in the bathroom. In short, the entire sole gets down on every step. It even makes this sound, like you’re running on velcro, with every step. The sound will probably go away as the shoes break in, but it demonstrated pretty clearly what the shoe was doing: bending and flexing to every contour of the road/lawn/tire lot.
- They are light. Enormous as they are, they’re as lightweight as any traditional shoe I’ve had, which seems counterintuitive I guess, until you begin to think about the composition of that sole that bends and flexes and compresses like silly putty.
- They are snug. Shoe sizes vary depending on manufacturer, yeah, I get that, but these fit me oddly. The length is fine, but it’s almost as if there isn’t enough room for the height of my foot in the shoe, which makes me wonder about taking out the insoles, even though I’ve never had to do that with any other shoe. Also, the toe box is — for my taste — exceedingly narrow, and my toes feel pretty squished in there. I can’t say I love that feeling. It’s hard for me to imagine running five or six or ten miles or more that way, but maybe they’ll loosen up as the shoe breaks in.
- They are huge. Did I say this already? It bears saying again. They’re enormous.
The question is, how did they do on the run?
First impressions only, but they felt pretty damn good. The pain in my foot lately feels like a needle going up into my heel, and I had a bit of that at first (as I do on every run). But by the end of the first quarter mile or so, that pain was gone completely; so completely that I switched to a heelstrike briefly to see if the issue was still there (spoiler alert, it was — and the shoes didn’t protect me from feeling the pain in a heelstriking stride), but as soon as I readjusted, it evaporated again. Lovely. Now, my aches and pains have a tendency to work themselves out after the first mile or so, so my good feels might be attributed to that alone, and not the shoes… but I didn’t have any additional pain later in the evening like I’ve had after my last few runs.
There’s more to be seen, here, but at least for the moment, I’m hopeful that the Hokas are going to help me out. It’s my hope that I can use the Hokas to start getting some regularity back in my runs — start pushing my distance up again, in other words — while allowing my feet to “rest”, while I can continue to use my minimals once or twice a week to keep strengthening my feet. We’ll see how that plays out.
In the meantime, however, there is no cure for how goofy they look. Temper that, of course, with the fact that I much prefer wearing something like this…