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Do Ultra-Cushioned Shoes Really Help People Run Better?

'Maximalist' trainers don't transform performance, suggests a new study—but that hasn't stopped top athletes from wearing them.

Forget those silly FiveFingers—these days, the most popular trainers seem to take their design cues from pillows, cumulus clouds, and overstuffed sofa cushions.

After years of running on ultra-light minimalist shoes designed to mimic the natural movement of feet, more and more runners—especially long-haul endurance runners—are snapping up so-called "maximalist" trainers designed to offer as much cushion as possible. At the vanguard of the maximalist movement has been Hoka One One, which saw 400% sales growth between 2013 and 2014 and inspired competing super-cushioned models like the Brooks Transcend, Saucony Kinvara, and Altra Olympus. (We recommended Hoka's Clifton II for long-distance runners in our fall shoe guide.)

So while maximalist shoes are undoubtedly popular, the question remains: Do they make running any easier or healthier compared to more traditional shoes?

John Mercer, a professor of biomechanics at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, decided to find out.

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Mercer invited 10 runners, all around 28-years-old, to run two different treadmill tests. One was at different speeds and the other at different inclines. The runners ran each test twice—once wearing a neutral shoe (by Adidas) and once in a maximalist trainer (the Hoka Bondi 4). They wore masks to track their running economy—that is, how much oxygen they used as they ran. 

The conclusion: The shoes didn't really make a difference. "It seems that the cushioning of the shoe (extreme vs. regular) plays no role in the influence of running economy," the study authors noted in their study, which was presented last week at the annual conference of the American College of Sports Medicine.

Case closed, right? Not so fast.

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Measuring the efficiency of a runner's stride is only one way to analyze how helpful their shoes are. Mercer's test doesn't take into account how shoes might differ in different conditions, or across runs of much longer distances—a half-marathon, say, or even longer.

Furthermore, running shoes make a difference in the long term as well. With every stride, a runner endures forces several times their body weight. Multiply that over long distances and months of training and that force starts to take its toll. So it could be the case—just projecting here—that while maximalist shoes don't make a difference in the short term, they could (maybe!) pay off in the long term by reducing small injuries and soreness.

Consider the anecdotal evidence: Hardcore harriers have been among the most ardent fans of maximalist shoes. Leo Manzano, an American Olympic medalist in the 1,500, swears by Hokas. "They’re incredibly light," he told the New York Times in 2015, shortly after Hoka picked up Manzano as one of their sponsored endurance athletes. "My legs felt really fresh after a long run in them. It’s like running on a cloud."

Bottom line: Don't take the new study as law. When it comes to running shoes, research and years of runner expertise suggests there's only one thing you need to care about: comfort. Stay tuned for our round up of maximalist shoes.

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