Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Hoka Shoe Review

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know I am a big fan of Hoka shoes. A review of a few pairs of their shoes is long overdue so I thought I would put down some notes about my experiences with them. I am not being paid for this although I did get a pair of Huakas from Hoka to review, and I also got a free pair of Cliftons from Run and Become. All the rest I paid for, apart from a pair of Rapa Nuis a friend passed my way when they didn't suit him.

I have been running in Hokas since 2012 when I was in recovery from PF foot and I felt they contributed greatly to the recovery process, limiting the impact of footfalls with their trademark thick soles. I have stuck with the brand for all road and trail activities since then and only use other brands (Inov-8 / Salomon etc.) for technical hill runs and cross country deep mud. (I haven't had Plantar Fasciitis since.)

Rapa Nui Tarmac

My last Hoka review was about the Rapa Nuis: I went through 4 pairs before moving onto a couple of less likely models (Rapa Nui Tarmac (for roads) and Mafate Speed.) The Tarmacs were a little narrow and first time out I skinned my big toe knuckles running a fast five miles (of a 20 miler). I never really made proper friends with them after that. The Mafate Speed were fine but again less comfortable, although I wore them enough to rub most of the outsole flat at the ball of the foot doing some memorable ultra trail races in them.


I think that was when I got my first Challenger ATRs. The uppers are very light and mesh-like with minimum overlays. This allows the usual narrow fit of Hokas to expand to the shape of my feet and almost right out the box they are fine for an all day run (4 ~ 8 hours). If Hoka Shoes have one downside (for me) it is they build the uppers quite narrow. So their shoes with more lightweight (and flexible) uppers are a real boon. The next best thing about them is they are super lightweight. I think this is due to the midsole and outer being a squishy EVA that is made from a marshmallow like material. It has the right degree of flexibility and bounce as well as the Hoka rocker sole: It curves, and the sole rolls smoothly over the ground from heel to toe giving a smooth toe-off as you run. In the last couple of years as the minimalist trend has faded, a number of shoes looking like Hokas have appeared on the market. I haven't yet tried any of the imposters!


I am on my third pair and they are my favourite Hoka shoe.

The outsole of the Challengers is the same as the midsole but with patches of harder material with grippy lugs which have greater durability than the marshmallow stuff. The combination of the 2 surfaces gives good grip on off road trails, only beginning to fail in deep mud or on severe technical hill running conditions. There is a slight downside to these lightweight touches. The shoes for me began to age after about 300~400 miles. (Thicker soled Stinsons went twice that distance easily) I was trying out a new route that turned out to be more road than planned. My Challengers had about 400 miles in them and I found a long day out (most of the 30 miles being on road) left my feet feeling trashed and a little bruised on the forefoot of the right foot. I felt it might be the pounding of the island of harder material on the sole as the other spongy material lost it's support. I can't be sure as it was only on the one side. And if the lighter weight shoe means it can run fewer miles before needing replaced that is a deal I am okay with. I still use the spent Challengers (500+ miles) for shorter runs, work (I am on my feet all day) and cycling. Talking of deals, Hokas – a few of the models I prefer – have come down to a reasonable price. They used to be at the high end of the market but have plateau-ed or dropped in price as other mainstream brands have rocketed through the £100 mark. I've just seen Challengers online for £70~£85.

A lot of my previous Hokas have been binned as my feet have burst through the upper at the widest point of my foot. This hasn't happened in either the Challengers or the Cliftons but the cushioning does not last as long as the previous heavier models with chunkier soles (Stinson / Bondi).

Cliftons in action

I read about Cliftons before I got my hands on a pair. People were swooning about the extra super light weight. Rightly so. These are the weight of very lightweight racers while looking and feeling considerably more cushiony. In fact they are so insubstantial Run and Become weren't keen to stock the model in case there were durability issues. (Hence my freebie pair.) After several hundred miles (80% roads 20% trails) I can report they have lasted fine and show no signs of breaking. Although they discolour in an unattractive way if you run through swamp! Since the soles are similar material to the Challengers I would imagine 400 miles and they will fade.

Crossing the line in second place in Mafate Speeds at Tiree Ultra

If you have ever run a long race in racing or minimal shoes you will know they have next to no support and if you stand on a sharp piece of gravel you know all about it. Cliftons have all the benefit of a pair of lightweight racing shoes but also with those marshmallow soles that weigh nothing, but stop you bruising your foot on unseen hazards. I am reluctant to say much more as the competition might end up wearing my secret weapons. Nice uppers, floaty rocking sole, next to no weight, fab. One downside, I believe Hoka have tweaked the Clifton for the Clifton 2 and it is now heavier (boo) and has more overlays on the upper (boo again). Must go and buy a few Clifton 1s and put them in the shoe cupboard for road racing years to come. Are they substantial enough to run a marathon in? I suspected not and so last marathon was run in Huakas.


I race maybe one road marathon a year (not counting ultras) and largely resent the obligatory training miles on tarmac. It helps greatly to have shoes that help 20 miles to feel like 14 and Hoka go a long way towards making this happen, with their super comfy soles. 2 marathons ago I ran in Rapa Nuis. The trail versions. Just because they were the comfiest shoes I had and if you are not feeling (huge) pain in your feet or legs after 22 miles you are more likely to crank it up a notch and finish strongly. It worked and I ran the 28th fastest marathon time in the UK that year for my age group. (Power of Ten.) This year I was going to do my marathon penance in Challengers but it was the week after the foot bruising episode and I worried I may make the injury worse. So I pulled out the Huakas. These are such an extravagant colourway (another bad habit of Hoka!) that I prefer wearing them after dark. They are similar to the Cliftons but have a more substantial narrower upper and heftier sole and as a result cause more toe rub and hence blisters. The marathon result was poor but it was not a shoe issue – the weather was pretty dire (strong headwind) and I wasn't in as good a shape. I did get blisters but they were mild. If I didn't have Cliftons I'd like the Huakas more. And if they were a different colour, more still. They are road shoes and I don't wear them that much. One thing about them they have these quick lace system laces. My advice about these is cut them out and replace them with the normal laces that come in the box with the shoes. I think every pair of Rapa Nuis burst their quick laces. Probably because of regular immersion in foul bog swamp and the like. But obviously it would be bad news if this happened mid race. And there is no warning – no fraying beforehand just a ping and your lace is slack. Ditch 'em and use normal laces.

broken lace using quick lace system.

Which brings me to the Speedgoat. I had high hopes for this one and bought a pair without adequate walking about in them beforehand. They seem not dissimilar to the Mafate Speed. Speedgoats are named after Karl Meltzer and (I believe) matched in colour to his Red Bull sponsorship. Maybe once, but the colourway has warped slightly in it's journey from there to here and now is just another Hoka one-colour-too-many-on-the-same-shoe design. It would be slicker without the yellow. And a darker blue.

First run in the Speedgoats was over the Pentlands for a couple of hours. Steep pointy hills, which I presumed was what they are for because there is a picture of a mountaineer on the insole. WRONG. I should have broken them in. I forgot some Hokas need more breaking in till my feet and the uppers reach an agreement. (Challengers had made me forget this.) The Speedgoats reminded me by shaving off a layer or 2 of skin from the smallest toes either side. I resented this and it has taken quite a few miles for me to forgive the shoes although I am beginning to enjoy them more. Though they are unlikely to match the Challengers in my affections. A small point about the laces: there are fewer than normal eyelets. (4 rather than 5, 6 or 7). This and waxy-like round-section laces makes them untie or slacken off and I often have to retie them during an hour workout. Not good for an ultra shoe. If I remember to tie them brutally tight then triple tie the knot they will stay pretty firm but I think the slackening off on the first trip over the Pentlands contributed to movement between shoe and foot and then toe grating. Be aware! (I have just looked at the Hoka website and new Speedgoats seem to have 5 eyelets, so they have addressed this problem already.)

Rapa Nuis - ahh we had some good times

The uppers are durable. Almost like a plastic mesh. As they wear in they seem like they might be useful for stomping through rough heather (I wouldn't risk this with Challengers and expect them not to fray.) I have not risked my wee toes again yet. And the soles? Well they are heavier and more rubberier that the Challengers. Again probably good for durability and the Vibram nubbins on the sole (which nearly clack on tarmac) seem very gnarly and in no hurry to wear down. But there is this thing. My feet feel like they turn out as I run. All other Hokas have a high but stable flat platform on which you run. These seem to have a tendency to rock out the way which isn't desperate but just a mild distraction. An hour into a run and I don't notice any more but I did wonder if it is meant. If you are running on technical ground in the hills (I hoped this would be the first Hoka to enable this) you don't want to feel uncertain about stability. So I suspect although I will put in many more miles in the Speedgoats I won't be buying a second pair. Which is a shame as the cushioning feels right and they feel light but durable with a decent grip.

Hoka have been bringing out more shoes than I can name. They do seem to have been going in the right direction (lighter, more comfortable) but not all their shoes will suit everyone. Beware of buying online if you have not worn them before as sizes are not in line with other makes. I take a 9.5 in Asics and 10 in Hoka. But once you have got one pair the right size all the other models are similar, though some narrower through the forefoot and toes than others. They haven't yet nailed the hill running market but are getting closer. I keep an eye on what other shoe brands are doing in the way of road and trail shoes but for the last couple of years haven't found any reason to move away from Hoka.

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