Maxi-minimal Running Shoes – Can Altra replace Hoka

Having been a committed, t-shirt wearing, fan of Hoka ultra-cushioned running shoes for more than 2 years, I’ve recently started to consider the options and allowed my eyes to wander. It’s not that I’ve become disillusioned at all, in fact I want to find something very similar to a Hoka, just perhaps, a bit better.

Hoka Mafate 3

By better I mean:

1. Cheaper than a Hoka
2. More durable than a Hoka

But I want to keep the similarities, so they must be:

3. As cushioned as a Hoka
4. As comfortable as a Hoka

When I first came across the Hoka they were these uniquely outlandish clown shoes. They seemed to be completely against the trend for minimal barefoot shoes (even though they had minimal heel to toe drop) but now we have a host of thick soled running shoes to choose from. I call them maxi-minimal running shoes to describe the huge soles with barefoot style, minimal, heel drop.

Maxi-minimal running shoes

Ranking of cushion thickness

Maxi-Minimal Running Shoe Comparison

I’ve shown the RRP for each of these shoes but Hokas are increasingly available in the UK with good discounts available. I’ve been impressed with Millets who seem to stock the full range of Hoka Ultra running shoes.

Despite loving the feel of running in Hokas, I was becoming alarmed at the amount of money I was spending to accumulate a mound of worn out platform shoes. The Hokas are the most comfortable shoe I have ever run in and enabled me to run free of the fear of knee pain but they do have a tendency to wear out at a shocking pace. My first pair of Hokas had to be sent back within a month because I’d left half the sole on the streets of San Francisco – blog link and the while the later versions had more durable soles they started to wear very quickly on the heel tab and this resulted in heel blisters long before the shoe ought to need replacing.

When I looked at the alternatives the only real competition seemed to come from Altra. Sketchers and Adidas both do a highly cushioned model but the Sketchers has a massive heel to toe drop and the Adidas Boost was an entirely disappointing shoe that gave me none of the liberating joys associated with the Hoka range.

Looking at the price point of the Altra shoes, I’m surprised I went ahead and ordered them, they barely come in any cheaper than the Hoka. In fact when I opened the box with the Altra Olympus I nearly sent them straight back as they have a very cheap feel and at £125 I don’t think that’s warranted. The Altra Torin was much more pleasing from the outset, they didn’t necessarily look like Hoka competitors but they were cool looking.

Altra vs Hoka

Altra Torin Maxi-minimal running shoeAt the outset I said I was looking for a similar shoe to the Hoka (Mafate 3 for trail or Stinson for road use) that was preferably cheaper and more durable. The Altra Torin doesn’t come anywhere close to meeting the similarity requirements, I don’t see it as a maximal shoe at all. It is however incredibly comfortable, it has a firm sole and a roomy toe box and its actually the shoe that I now spend the most time in. I don’t run in it very often though – it is too barefoot style for me nowadays but I do walk in it everywhere and its holding up remarkably well to the abuse of the daily commute. I pull them on and off without use of the laces and 4 months in, it is still showing no signs of wear.

Altra Olympus Maxi-minimal running shoeThe Altra Olympus ought to be a real competitor. The spec charts suggest that this model has a thicker sole than any of the Hoka range although it doesn’t feel like that on the foot. Like the Torin, the Olympus has an incredibly wide toe box which immediately makes you feel less constricted than in the Hoka range. I can’t say that it is a more comfortable shoe though. The sole seems to squirm underfoot in a quite a disturbing manner. You feel as though you are teetering on a mass of jelly and I can’t claim to have enjoyed my running experiences in it.

In terms of durability, I can’t yet call it. Despite having had both pairs of Altras for about 4 months I barely ever wear the Olympus – I’d much rather reach for any of my Hokas.

When they eventually wear out I will replace the Altra Torin as my near permanent walking and play shoe but I won’t be touching the Olympus again. The Hokas are still my number one choice of running shoe although I am still thinking about the perfect maxi-minimal running shoe that might have the sole of a Hoka Mafate but the toe box of an Altra Torin. I wonder if it exists?

For a great comparison of the Hoka range, showing cut away photos, see the excellent article on fellrnr.

Cloudtec On – The Cloudsurfer Review

On CloudsurferI’ve been sporting a trial pair of On Cloudsurfer running shoes for the duration of Janathon. They are the odd shoes with built in clouds, otherwise known as the CloudTec system, in the sole. You look at these shoes and either think fad or innovation. When they first came out I probably veered towards the former assessment but since my adoption of Vibram Fivefingers and then Hoka One One I’ve become accustomed to the more extreme end of the running shoe market. It’s interesting that the more innovative or trend bucking shoes seem to be associated with the ultra running scene.

20130106-175255.jpgI opted for the rather classy black and lime green version of the Cloudsurfer which inspired whoops of delight from one of the teenagers in the house who wanted to try them on immediately. My SoftStar RunAmocs did not generate the same level of response from the Yoof.

The On concept is fairly simple – the firm clouds deform or compress on impact thereby providing vertical and horizontal cushioning. The front pods compress fully for take off with the teeth meshing together to form a firm push off point. You can see this very well from the series of animations that On include on their homepage and On claim that their design ensures that you have cushioning only where required and full efficiency is maintained.

I was expecting them to be super bouncy but they have a relatively normal running sensation. I am probably far too heavy for the shoes and as they compress even when I’m standing as delicately as I can manage and as a result I will not experience the cushioning levels of a “standard” sized runner.

20130106-175531.jpgMy first impressions on the run were good, especially for steep downhills where I felt sure and steady. Then I went out one dreary damp night and felt very unsteady on my feet – the soles do not appear to have good wet weather grip. I didn’t exactly slip but I had the sense that I could. Yesterday I went for a 13k run in them along the Thames where they had a variety of surfaces to deal with from tarmac, cobbles, hard trails and thick, deep, gloopy mud.

They didn’t cope well with the ankle high mud but then not many shoes do and they weren’t as bad as I expected. They did attract an awful lot of mud into the pods which made a complete mess of the treadmill this morning but I stayed upright through it all.

I will be wearing these in the future but I’ll probably restrict them to dry conditions and treadmill running.

Other reviews from the blogosphere:

  • American Peyote, loves them but has concerns about long term durability of such an expensive shoe.
  • Ransacker also noticed the lack of traction in wet conditions.

Janathon update:

I had a pre-work trog on the treadmill to satisfy the Janathon gods and another 3k logged.

Stout-athlon update:

I was looking forward to the bottle of Marston’s Oyster Stout. I remember it as one of my all time favourite ales. It poured well with a deep, dark burgundy but the head disappeared before I had chance to take a snap. It turned out to be a one-dimensional brew, with a flat smell and more of a sensation than a taste. It wasn’t unpleasant by any means, it was just a very easy, if uninspiring tipple.

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Newton Terra Momentus Review

I’m in search of the ideal trail shoe for next months Great North Trail Run, to be held around Keswick in the Lake District. I’m not really at half marathon fitness so I feel the need to be kind to my feet which are going to be painfully slow plodders.

20120527-222042.jpgSearching around the net I was drawn yet again to the Newtons. It’s hard to avoid them in their full green livery but its less the style and more the concept that intrigues me.

Newtons encourage the efficient forefoot running stance by the existence of the unique cushioned actuator lugs under the metatarsal region. These are designed to encourage the idealised barefoot running style. See this external review if you want to know more about the construction of the Terra Momentus.

Unlike the more minimal barefoot shoes such as Vibram fivefingers and Vivo Barefoot which can lead calf injuries if adopted in too gung-ho a fashion, the Newtons come with an acclimatisation guide and the store where I bought then sent me an email with similar information and a link to a video guide.

That’s corporate responsibility.

My first run was on the treadmill, not really the designed terrain but as I was acclimatising slowly, I thought it would be ok. After 2k I felt the lugs burning into my feet, rather as though I had a pencil taped under my shoes.

Quite irritating really.

By the time I took these out on to the trail I had replaced the insoles with my custom pair from profeet. That combined with the appropriate terrain removed my awareness of the lug. I knew it was there though and did have a fear of scuffing it on twigs and sending myself sprawling.

It didn’t happen thankfully.

Its hard to tell without video evidence, whether the Newtons affected my running style. I did find that I completed the Mitcham common circuit in double quick time but that could still be the Zombie effect.

My sense with these shoes and indeed with efficient mid to forefoot running styles, is that they are more suited to the faster runner than the plodder. I think they benefit and indeed encourage greater lift, which is easier with pace. I will keep at it though and keep you informed if I experience an epiphany.

New Balance and the Tart

I’ve been prepared for snow since August.

Since last years transport freeze I’ve been determined not to find myself stranded at Victoria next time the flakes cho0se to descend. I decided to purchase, and keep ever-ready, a pair of YakTrax Pro, snow running gizmos. A crampon affair that should keep me running and impervious to the wrong kind of snow announcement.

Of course, when the snow came, I was in the middle of the Peak District surrounded by virgin snow, while my YakTrax were cosy at home, in the cupboard, where I left them. I’ll never get that boy scout badge.

Fortunately I had just taken delivery of a new pair of trail running shoes that Sports Direct had kindly sent me to review. They were in the boot of the car – just where I needed them.

I opened the box to reveal a surprisingly handsome pair of shoes the New Balance 813 GTX, ladies version. I think I was worried they were going to be pink or a bit wishy washy but they have that solid trail feel about them and they have GoreTex which is an absolute blessing in the snow.

I think at £42 they are probably the cheapest running shoe I’ve run in so far but nothing about them feels cheap. I often think we are being conned by shoe manufacturers, what on earth do Asics put in their shoes that makes my usual model cost £130?! More fool me obviously.

So £42 + Gore Tex + super grippy sole + handsome = mighty good value trail shoe

We opted to start our run out by the start of the Monsal Trail – an 8 mile gravel track along the route of the disused Bakewell to Buxton Railway. The choice of location was based solely on my determination to sample the long awaited tart of Bakewell fame. It’s been a fairly longstanding gripe of mine that I’ve managed to reach the age of 40 without trying a real tart.

Runs are so much better with purpose, I’m usually driven by the post run Stella but in freezing conditions that promise of a warm cuppa and a pastry works pretty well too.

I was mighty pleased with the shoes, they fit perfectly which suggests they are a wide fit, they are super comfortable and came with that new shoe affect that makes you admire the reflection in puddles and shop windows.

Here’s an assemblage of my trail shoes, New Balance on the left, Inov8 MudRoc in the middle and Salomon GTX on the right, showing the tread differential between them. The Inov8 is the most aggressive sole with deep tractor treads ideally suited for wet muddy conditions. The Salomon is ageing a bit now so the tread looks flatter than it should but its the least aggressive of the three, with the New Balance 813 treading the middle ground.

Custom Insoles from Profeet Fulham

Profeet is a custom insole, gait analysis and specialist footwear shop based in Fulham and as they have a marathon sponsorship package running at the moment I thought I would invest in their top of the range 3D analysis service and bag £20 for the Samaritans.

Profeet foot strike

The shop was bustling and seemed to be set up like a swanky gents barbers with it’s leather armchairs and one on one service.

Steve took me through the routine starting with a few treadmill runs alternating between my existing shoe and short barefoot jogs. Then I ran along a track landing on a pressure pad which displayed a moving hotspot as my foot moved through heel strike to toe off. I was fascinated to see that I had a normal arch – I’ve always felt that I’ve been as flat-footed as they come, but nope, I have normal feet.

Steve’s initial shoe suggestion was for a neutral shoe with some minor cushioning but after trying on ten different pairs of shoes with ever increasing stability elements, we finally arrived back at the shoe I came in with – the Asics Gel Kayano 17, a heavyweight in the stability running shoe arena. It was only then that video gait analysis showed a stable foot without excessive movement through the heel.

Having settled on shoe we moved on to the insole formation, which was quite a pleasant experience involving warm foam and a little sit down with a cup of tea.

An hour and quite a bit of running later, I’m ready to leave the shop with my frighteningly white shoes, chunky insoles and very much lighter wallet. I hope they are good for my feet – I’ve had some considerable success with my plantar fasciitis recovery program but I’ve been keen to play things safely as I gradually ramp up the training runs. I’m up to 5k individual runs now so I’ll soon be ready to knock out some proper distance runs and put the custom insoles to the challenge.

Vibram Five Finger Speed Review and the Campsite Run

A beautiful pair of Vibram Five Fingers arrived just before the camping expedition.

Unfortunately all the photos were taken post camping trip where of course it rained relentlessly and so the Five Fingers have lost a little of their new shoe gleam.

I wanted to get a slightly larger pair of VFF’s as my earlier pair of Vibram Five Finger Sprint were pulling a little bit on my longer toes. I opted for the Vibram Five Finger Speed because they are cool and yet also the most normal style in the range. I’m not necessarily attracted to normal but I was hoping to get them past the family’s acceptability rules so I can actually wear them in public and outside the confines of nightfall.

It seemed to work as no one complained when I packed them for the camp and I even managed to sneak in a shopping trip to the local Lidl while wearing them.

The Vibram Five Finger Speed were remarkably easy to put on, a push and a wiggle was all that was required to engage the toes in the right place. Perhaps that’s the result of finding a pair that actually fits.

I did a lot of scrabbling around the camp while wearing these and my little toe did occasionally pop out of its little recess while I was squatting down trying to light the Kelly Kettle. They were perfect for running though, extremely comfortable and no pressure points at all.

The soles are a bit more built up than the more minimal models. The VFF Speed has additional toe and heel pads just like the Bikila Five Finger and by the looks of it the new Vibram range seems to have maintained the trend for extra pads.

Not all barefoot or minimalist runners will like this. It increases the weight of the shoe slightly and of course all the additional padding will reduce the feedback between the floor and the foot. In these particular conditions – rubble and thorn strewn trails, I was grateful for the slight reduction in floor feedback.

I’ve read somewhere that the Speed model uses the same sole unit as the Bikila but they don’t have the additional 3mm insole and so have slightly more ground feel.

And so for the run.

Having spent 2 soggy wet days entertaining kids on a camp site, I was well and truly in need of a run. Lynn and I set off after clambering over the rickety style that marked the escape route from camp.

Generally my breathing is up the spout for the first 3 minutes of any run and then gradually eases off until I can manage a converstaion by the 20 minute point.

This run was tougher than usual, I felt as though I had a bit of kick in me and kept pushing along keeping pace with Lynn. I was closer to my 5k race pace which is sufficiently fast (in my books) to ensure that I never catch my breath.

The Vibram shoes were so comfortable. I’d spent the most of the trip wearing my Soft Star RunAmocs which are an incredibly practical shoe for this sort of trip but I felt pain when wandering over the rubble paths. In contrast the Vibram Speeds left me feeling positively sprightly.

It was a joy to feel so light footed and yet protected, these have easily moved into my favourite shoe territory and even the kids thought they were cool.

A Running Conversion

I was offered some lovely Mizuno running shoes to try out last week but they were pink so I looked around to find an unsuspecting victim and spotted a non-runner beside me.

The non-runner has been known to run on occasion but the occasions are brief and of the sprint and die variety. She was a bit reluctant to try the proper thing especially when I mentioned treadmills and 30 minutes but you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

I didn’t quite grasp the degree of reluctance but there was a heavy thread of edginess present as we gathered our gear and prepared for the gym. I thought I was being rather helpful but I got my head bitten off when I asked if she’d ever been on a treadmill before.

Stroppy with a capital S doesn’t even come close.

We arrived at the gym and I could sense we only had one breathing person left in the car. Recognizing a severe case of gym related anxiety I offered up a reassuring slap on the back and got myself growled at again. We almost cleared the car when we spotted our neighbour entering the parking area. You don’t want to bump into your neighbour on your first day at the gym, wearing spanking brand new, bright pink trainers, so we made a dash for it and arrived at our treadmills sweating but safe.

It’s quite difficult explaining the use of a treadmill to someone who clearly wants to get the whole thing over and done with. In the end we switched it on and decided to learn on the fly, with the suggestion that she followed my pace until she got the hang of things and wanted to up the pace. A few minutes in I noticed a funny side to side action from the treadmill beside me so thought it prudent to point out the emergency red button which she immediately pounded and we got to start all over again.

I few more minutes later, amongst much huffing and puffing I suggested she take on some water but the bottle was sitting just out of reach on the floor. Apparently my non-runner had been expecting a non-running break for refreshments. I passed my bottle over and watched the next incident unfold. Lynn dropped the bottle top and started to bend down to pick it up before sensing the relentless drag of the track beneath her. She managed to right herself and pick up the pace barely millimeters before tippling over the edge.

I have to say it was one of my more enjoyable running experiences, positively entertaining. Of course this wasn’t just about the conversion of a non-runner, it was also about the shoes. I shouted above her grumbles about stitches and being tired and wanting to stop and asked her about the shoes – “How are the Mizuno wave shoes?”

It was quite amazing, her face brightened, the beetroot tinge seemed to leave her face and she actually smiled. “They’re very comfortable….no they really are”.

I wasn’t doubting her, they did look comfortable. They are very light and still seem to have a heavily cushioned sole. Even the pink bits weren’t so noticeable when they were worn with jogging trousers. I’ll go for a pair of these when my Asics have worn out, they are cheaper than the Kayanos I wear but seem to offer a similar fit.

The satisfaction must have lingered because she’s already suggested she join me for my training run tomorrow.