OK, barefoot runners, your moment as The Next Big Thing in running shoes is officially over. You had a great run (see what I did there?) but the pendulum has swung back, as it inevitably does, and "barely there" is giving way to "maximal cushioning" as the next intriguing idea in helping us all get some exercise without destroying our legs.
The shoes look like modern, colorful versions of your grandmother's orthopedic footwear, and some have called them clown shoes. But make no mistake, at least five companies -- including industry behemoth Nike, and two other members of the big seven, Brooks and New Balance --have recently introduced shoes with soles that are perhaps 3o percent thicker than those on traditional running shoes. And they are much, much softer than the "minimalist" and "barefoot" shoes that have dominated the conversation in recent years.
The newcomers join Hoka One One, the company that first started marketing extra-cushioned shoes in 2010. The company's president, Jim Van Dine, calls the design "the most dramatic advance in running footwear in 30 years," citing the new lightweight foam in the sole and the shoe's geometry.
Van Dine, 60, a former national caliber runner, said the soft ride of the Hokas has revived his own running career after a knee injury had reduced him to three miles once a week. He believes the shoes can do the same for many people whose legs have taken a pounding, especially aging Baby Boomers like me, and others seeking a cushier feel while running.
"Runners get hurt just as much as they ever did, and take just as much time off to recover… One could make the argument that [in the past 30 years] we really haven’t moved the ball down the road at all," Van Dine said.
Of course, barefoot and minimalist shoes made similar claims that they could prevent injuries. They have definitely revived the running careers of some people and have passionate adherents. But they also were the subject of huge embarrassment last month when barefoot pioneer Vibram agreed to pay $3.75 million in refunds to purchasers after a class action lawsuit accused the company of making claims about its iconic FiveFingers shoe that it couldn't back up. (By the way, here's the web site where you can file a claim if you're owed a refund.)
Over at Brooks, which is offering the thick-soled Transcend, Jon Teipen, senior product line manager, said "the reality is that most people weren't going to try to run barefoot... The majority of the market still likes cushion, still likes support, still likes a more substantial shoe. But the industry wasn't talking to them." He has a point. According to this excellent article in Running Times magazine last year, minimalist shoes comprise just 11 percent of the U.S. running shoe market, and only 4 percent if the Nike Free isn't included.
Ultra-marathoners were the first to try the new shoes, which quickly became popular among them. According to Outside Magazine, a third of the 275 runners who finished the July 2013 Utah Speedgoat 50K were wearing Hokas.
Van Dine believes that any negative reactions to the oversize shoe will go the way of initial sentiment toward oversize tennis racquets and golf clubs, which have become mainstream equipment in those sports. The company, now owned by Deckers Outdoor Corporation, which also makes Ugg boots and Teva sandals, sold $10 million worth of the shoes in 2013, and expects to sell $35 million this year and $100 million in the next couple of years, he said.
"The minimalist thing has really, I would say, normalized," Teipen said. "It’s not going to go completely away. Barefoot is dead."