Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Hoka Shoes. Rapa Nui Review. 12/06/13

I became aware of Hoka shoes through the ultra community. Hokas were developed by Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud to combat the fatigue and impact of (long distance trail) running. While their thicker soled looks fly in the face of minimal fashions they have become popular with ultra runners because they are very comfortable over long distances.

Hoka Evo Stinson

It was with trepidation I tried on their Evo Stinson trail shoes last September. Running up and down the street outside Run and Become (about the only local stockist) felt like running on a mattress, just as moving from a thin wheeled racer to a suspension mountain bike takes a little getting used to. And they were not cheap either at around twice the price of a normal running shoe.

One of the reasons I was drawn to this concept was I was suffering from Plantar Fasciitis. I was forced to stop running in February 2012 having pushed too hard over the Winter: racing weekly in thin soled off-road shoes at cross country events on ice hard ground, then ignoring the PF symptoms till I could hardly walk. The recovery was a long one and the three biggest components of the recovery were stretching my legs, particularly calves and feet; taping my left foot before races and longer work-outs; and Hoka Evo Stinsons. I wore the Hokas for road running and trails. The only thing they are less suitable for is hill running: wet rock, muddy, steep or contouring single track you are better off with hill shoes.

Mary has a pair of Mafates 

In early October I was able to crank out an 80 mile week having had trouble with 30 before the Hokas. A friend who tried on my Stinsons bought a pair the following week. Another pal read my blog and did similar, reporting major improvements in his PF problems which had dogged him for 2 years. I believe the reduced impact (the spongy EVA midsole absorbing more) is a major factor in the PF equation. I am not saying they will do this for everyone – a couple of friends have found them unremarkable and a bit clumpy – I am just relating my experience. The great thing about the shoes is their knack for making 20 miles feel like 14, which is why they are becoming commonplace at European ultras.

Rapa Nui

I ran more than 1,000 miles wearing the Stinson's – the treads wore down and a split eventually developed between the uppers and sole in the right shoe, but I put in a solid 34 mile run mid-April in them as their swan song, the cushioning still working well, before the Rapa Nuis arrived just 10 days before the 53 mile Highland Fling. As the Stinson was a refined design of the Mafate, so the Rapa Nui is a leaner, more lightweight version of the Stinson. Less of the famous giant sole, the Rapa Nuis could almost be mistaken for normal running shoes. They retain much of the original design: lightweight, well cushioned, rolling shoes with medium grip for trails.

They have a “rocker” sole: rather than flat they roll from heel to toe, making the transition smooth and efficient. Although reduced from previous models the sole is still well cushioned and helps keep feet and legs feeling fresher over high mileage days. The weight is incredible. 275g at size 8 they look bigger and heavier than your average trainer but are probably lighter than most racers on the start line. The fit is slightly different. Most people (including myself) buy a half size larger than their usual. The shoe is not spacious at the toebox and I found when running steep down-hills in the Stinsons I picked up an occasional black toenail. I tried on a larger size but they felt too long. Similar fit feel for the Rapa Nuis although I have avoided any major hill running in them so far. I find them quite narrow along the arch of my foot making for a good snug fit – I don't want any movement in a trail shoe when I'm running as this leads to blisters.

The laces are “quick-fit” rather than ones you tie. I first came across this system on Salomon shoes and here they work well. I don't remember any significant slackening off over the 9 hours of the (Hoka sponsored) Highland Fling. One small gripe is the lace cord is too long; requiring wrapping it round the second securing loop towards the toe of the shoe several times (reducing the quick fit boast.) I could probably cut and re-tie the length if it was going to be important in T2.

The best thing about these shoes is I don't notice them. Good kit disappears and lets you get on with your race. Afterwards you think oh yes that worked. During the race it's not an issue. The Rapa Nui do not have the level of cushioning of previous Hokas but still have enough to make a 53 mile race less painful. They are great for the sort of terrain of the Highland Fling: mixed ground from beaches and technical trails to tarmac roads. Not particularly gnarly treads they are sufficient for most trail conditions (exceptions: ice, very wet rock and deep mud) as the large soft sole spreads over the obstacles much like a mountain bike tyre grips and absorbs impact over rocks. There is a very gravelly path from the Pentlands down to the car park at Bonaly. During a race last year I romped down this in the Stinsons while the runner behind lost a lot of ground wearing hill shoes. (Although he did make up ground in his metal studded Inov8s on an icy section.) Hokas at their best float over rocky, rubbly, gravelly ground, the thick soles protecting feet from sharp objects, and protecting legs from fatigue and impact. Returning to ordinary shoes you notice the lack of this and you can feel it in calf muscles.

In summary, the Rapa Nuis have taken the place of the Stinsons as my go to shoe. I have raced a wide variety of distances from 53 mile off-road ultras to 5 mile road races. While there is no shoe that ticks all the boxes this comes close and I wear it for over 90% of the running I do. Unlike some trail shoes it feels great on the roads and is first choice for races/training runs that involve both on- and off- road. I ran a road marathon in them and felt less damage afterwards than usual.

There are a couple of small downsides: although comfortable they don't feel superfast. Some shoes, light racing shoes, feel like they want you to run fast. The Hokas, perhaps because of the cushioning don't feel remarkable out the box and after I have praised them to the skies you might wonder what all the fuss is about when you try them on. Their benefits become evident over the long haul. Another friend who initially wasn't blown away said she now wears her Stinsons for everything, while dust gathers on a new pair of normal trainers.

Another considerable downside is availability. The Hoka website says they have sold out of nearly all their shoes. The Rapa Nuis took much longer to arrive in shops than initially predicted. There does seem to be serious delivery problems. I guess the word is out.  

What they do best: 53 miles and the Rapa Nuis are still off the ground.

Here is Mary Lye's blog on what happened when she was drawn to the brand...


  1. Very good review. Thanks. I am about to buy (with a duff hip) and of course I needed to have my skeptical side quelled a little which you did an admirable job of. Thanks mate.

  2. Thanks Gordon. To update the above I am now on my second pair of Rapa Nui. The first didn't last as long as the Stinsons - possibly not having the same density of midsole meant they needed replaced sooner. And I have just bought this week a pair of Bondi Bs for road running and I am very pleased with them so far. They are as mattress-like as the Stinsons - I had forgotten just how comfy they can be - even running at race pace.

  3. Thanks for the nice review of the Rapa Nui's. I am not a fanatical runner or anything, but do appreciate trail running and do some short distance orienteering runs and adventure races. I've been using salomons for quite some time. I am not that familiar with the whole forefoot versus heel strike debate, but I am presumably a heel striker. I get knee pains from time to time. Anyway, looking at the Rapa Nui and your review gives me more confidence to give them a go. Based on your knowledge of running, do you think I should be concerned about the change in drop? The Salomons tend to be 10mm drop but the Hoka's are more like 4-6 mm. Any thoughts would be appreciated and again, thanks for the review! Found it with Google!

  4. Hi Fish,
    There are no guarantees that what I found will be the same for you, however, I went from normal Asics road shoes to Hokas, which would be about the maximum drop to nearly a minimum with no obvious problems. Although I had PF problems big style I am mostly injury free and not the sort who has achilles or knee problems, and consider myself to be fairly bomb proof re injuries. I would suggest you try on Hokas at a reputable shop. I found them very squishy / spongy but didn't notice the (change in) heel/toe drop at all. My local shop did discourage a runner friend of mine from buying Hokas suggesting he might benefit from a shoe with more support as he had pronation issues. Everyone is an experiment of one - so good luck and I hope they work for you like they have for me. I am saving up for my 5th pair, probably another pair of Rapa Nuis as all the grip (the nubbins on the outsoles) has gone from my first 2 pairs, though they still have some miles left in the midsoles.
    I hear good things about the Salomon Fellraiser. However I have been for the last 18 months only using either Hokas (road and trail) or Inov8s (hill and cross country)

  5. Thanks for the feedback! Unfortunately, I live in a pretty small town with no retailer in town (to my knowledge) - I'll have to call a few of them to check, or find an on-line shop here in Ontario that is good with returns. The Fellraiser will also take some time to get here, but looks good for snowy conditions too.

  6. Remember if you are buying Hokas online that most people find they need half a size bigger than normal. (I am judging this by UK sizes: I normally take 9.5 in UK shoes, but need a size 10 in Hoka.)

    Happy running!

  7. I suffer from PF too and have a big inserts to wear in my Brooks Glycerin trainers (had to get these as they have a "big cup" to accommodate the inserts). Do you think the HOKAs would accommodate the inserts, or enable me to get rid of them?

  8. There's no way I can say yes for sure but these shoes have helped a number of folk with the condition and it is a real possibility.

    I found that PF foot problems (for me) are probably the result of tight calves so remember to foam roller and stretch calves as much as poss when it plays up. Good luck and best wishes.