And Then Along Came Hokas

March 6, 2015 0

By Rich Englehart

© Copyright – 2015 – Athletics Illustrated

Back in 1992 as I was approaching the age of 40, I decided that I should do some stretching because I was now “old” and needed to be more active with injury prevention. I totally overlooked the fact that whenever I’d stretched in the past I got injured.

Inevitably, I had trouble, bad trouble, with my right knee.

I had always trained in either shoes of the 1970s and early 80s which were pretty minimalist by current standards or in entry level shoes, you know, the cheap ones that the companies sell in discount stores, or increasingly in racer/trainers, ala Ron Daws, author of Self Made Olympian, eater of buckets of ice-cream and shooter of derelict cars that he drove to their death. Cars that he bought as near wrecks, drove them into the ground and shot them – putting them out of their misery.

Daws, an Olympian and Coach was known to frequent department stores, scour the shoe departments to seek out (to buy) the cheapest possible shoe available. Turns out he was rarely injured. He also had no talent! But he could train well enough to make the US Olympic team in the marathon, in very cheap shoes.

Anyway, I decided that maybe I should get serious about running shoes to get with the times and seek out shoes that offered the new-fangled features I had been hearing about, called “support” and “cushion” and maybe that would help my knee. I did and the pain got much worse.

My first reaction was to think that if that higher tech shoe made things worse, I should get something even more technical and even more expensive; really fix the problem! But then I thought that if “more” shoe made things worse maybe “less” shoe would make things better.

So I dragged out my racing shoes for a run and immediately my knee felt much better. I ran in the racers for a few days until the knee felt completely normal and then went back to my lightweight racer/trainers thinking – that even though the lesser shoe provided injury-free running, it is still too flimsy for daily running. I mean it must be! That only makes sense and anyway the shoe salespeople were really pumping the new supportive and controlling shoes.

After a short time the knee pain was back, so I dragged the racers out again and again the knee got better, prompting me to go back to the racer/trainers and again, after a short time the knee started to hurt.

Eventually I worked out that it was stupid to continue to go back to a shoe that made the knee hurt (and yes, I had replaced the racer/trainers thinking that maybe they were just worn out, however, the new ones also made the knee hurt) and leaving one that caused no problems. This all played out over maybe three months in the summer and autumn, from there I did all of my running in racers, injury-free.

Initially I considered this phenomenon as another example of my overall contrary nature.

When I mean contrary nature, I mean I get slower when I run intervals, spend the daytime hours feeling tired and sleepy and wanting to nap, but liven up when it gets dark. I often feel sick when I eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables; you get the picture, very contrary-like.

Over the next few years I would mention the shoe-knee-experience to other long-term runners that I knew and many of them would tell me that they too had many problems with high-tech shoes and needed to run in light, simple shoes that are flexible. Of course we know Arthur Lydiard was a fan of the latter kind of shoe and disdainful of the former. In fact, before he knew exactly what Plantar Fasciitis was, he called it “American Shoe Disease” as it was caused by cushioning or big “supportive” running shoes. Lydiard athletes that ran easily over 100 miles per week plus additional supplementary running never got that injury.

This led me to share my story by writing an article called, Matters of the Sole, which appeared in the magazine, Marathon and Beyond. It was mostly experiential with accounts of preference for simple shoes from the legendary, Jack Foster, Joe Henderson, Anne Audain and Nobby Hashizume, along with my own experiences.

I cited research done by Steve Robbins, MD, who Lydiard also referenced and who claims that athletes using more technical, expensive shoes are injured far more often than those using simple, cheap shoes.

As far as I’ve been able to tell, this was the first article published in a running magazine advocating what would become minimalist shoes. I sometimes wonder if I started the whole movement, but usually dismiss that as grandiose, but I do read pretty much everything written about running and I cannot recall anyone else with an article speaking of minimalism before Matters of the Sole. The closest I ever saw were comments in books like Lydiard’s and there was something about shoes becoming overly cushioned in Ron Daws “Self Made Olympian.” At that time, I received quite a few e-mails and even a phone call or two from people wanting advice on moving to minimalist shoes or eventually on running in bare feet, something I know nothing about.

After I’d made my switch to racers I found that racing shoes were getting beefier, more like the racer/trainers that no longer worked for me. I noticed that some running shops were not even carrying racers anymore. I really hoped that my article would get enough people into racers – not that I was looking to create a movement or anything – but just into traditional shoes and not the new beefier versions. That did seem to have happened.

Shortly after my father died in 2003 all sorts of physical things fell apart for me. One is that I’ve had bad arthritis in my right knee. I’ve had a couple doctors insist that I should replace it. I’ve refused and have improved the knee a lot with exercises. It’s still quite bad but I have managed to shuffle along doing something that resembles running for an hour or two a day through it all. What I have found is that I still need as little shoe as possible. I have a massive stock of Asics Piranhas and Blazing Fasts as well as some of the New Balance Minimus models, the Mizuno Wave Universe and after I’m done here I’ll go out and shuffle along in the Saucony Kilkenny because the streets still have icy, snowy bits and a cross country shoe provide better grip.

And then along came Hokas.

I’m really scared of heights and so even trying on a pair seems intimidating though I have entertained the idea of doing so. I’ve also thought that if I coached a basketball team I’d try to get all my players to wear them because the added height would help with rebounding. The main reason I am intrigued by Hokas is that I have run into a geezer or two who inform me that running in them has really done a great job of reducing pain from things that hurt them, like my arthritis. There are plenty of Let’sRun.com message board posts to that effect as well. But I haven’t taken the leap because:

a.) My “best” runs still come in shoes like the Blazing Fast and Hokas are the antithesis of that sort of shoe.

b.) They are very expensive. I hate the idea of paying $150 for a shoe that I may just use for a week and then have them sitting in my closet for the rest of my life.

My youngest son is 18 and also has been intrigued by these Hokas. He actually got a pair of Cliftons – a similar shoe. He liked them but had serious blister trouble and began using them, ironically, to play basketball. I assume he’s switched positions from point guard to power forward.

Recently the blister issue has lessened and he has used the Cliftons for running once again. He wears them for distance runs only. He says they feel weird when he runs fast in them, but he also says that he uses them when something hurts.

After a few run in the Cliftons he says that whatever hurts is better but that he’s afraid to use them more extensively for fear of the blister issue returning. Interestingly, he does his other runs in Mizuno Cursories and Nike Lunar Air Racers; shoes that are pretty minimal.

Twenty-three years later, I continue to be “old” and maintain my avoidance of stretching and wearing controlling and cushioning shoes. Maybe one day this old dog will learn a new trick, like a lay-up or a fade away jumper. I guess I am still considering how to get with the times. If I figure out how, I will line up for a pair of Hokas, that is if they are still popular at that time.

Rich Englehart is a lifetime runner who was regionally competitive. He once raced the legendary Finn, Lasse Viren. Rich is a fan of running and a big fan of Arthur Lydiard. He drove Lydiard around during his final speaking tour of the US.

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