In the wake of the 2009 best-selling book, Born to Run, minimalist footwear became a hot topic of conversation in running circles. According to SportsOneSource, a sports industry research firm, barefoot-inspired shoe sales reached nearly $400 million in the U.S. in 2012, a 30-percent uptick from the previous year. Even the major players in the market, like New Balance, Saucony, and Brooks got in on the action by designing minimalist options to compete with Vibram FiveFingers’ impressive sales numbers.
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As many trends play out, it seems that 2011-2012 was the peak of popularity for minimalist running shoes. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2013, sales declined by 13 percent. By May of this year, Matt Powell, an industry analyst with SportsOneSource, reported that such footwear only made up about 4 percent of the total running market.
To be sure, minimalist running shoes are a valuable solution for some runners, but the numbers suggest that many are gravitating back to more traditional models. Additionally, the industry is seeing an influx of soft, thick-midsoled shoes dubbed “maximal,” “fat,” and “high cushioned” that are appealing to runners of every ilk.
While it may seem counterintuitive, the designs of these supremely cushioned shoes are not antithetical to those of the barefoot models, but rather showcase the melding of construction philosophies, all with a goal of keeping runners training longer and healthier. The concept, which first appeared in Hoka One One footwear in 2010, features taller stack heights to provide smoother rides. Think fat tires on mountain bikes that allow you to navigate rocky and rutted terrain or wide skis that almost float on top of the snow.
Despite the fact that these maximal shoes have a greater amount of cushioning, their heel-to-toe differential is still generally less than many traditional running kicks (which often feature as much as a 12mm drop from heel to forefoot). It was the barefoot movement that first brought to light the benefits of a decreased differential. Despite their design, the new maximal shoes also turn out to be surprisingly lightweight. Maximalist converts point to the added comfort that accompanies extra cushioning, but also to the fact that they feel less fatigued, even through long training days.
Perhaps the greatest take-away from the minimalist movement is that runners have begun to rethink cushioning, prompting brands to offer a little something for everyone. Consider taking one of these new models for a spin in 2014. Fat shoes may just be the perfect solution for your miles.
Vasque Ultra SST
Showcasing Vasque’s new ShapeShifter Technology, the thick midsole is built to conform to the contours of the foot, as well as the rocks and ruts of the trail. Aimed at ultra and trail running buffs, this model features a 6mm drop from heel to toe via soft, high rebound EVA and geometrical sole pods. Since the trails can be unpredictable, this design accommodates heel and forefoot strikers alike.
Hoka One One Conquest
The beefiest looking of all the maximal options, the Conquest is lighter and more responsive than previous Hoka models. A rounded bottom promotes effective movement through the gait cycle, while the injection-molded foam allows for a durable, resilient midsole. A cradle design in the heel also provides for ultimate stability and comfort.
While these don’t have the stack height of a Hoka One One model, they are the most highly cushioned shoes ever put out by Brooks. Delivering 25 percent more cushioning than Brooks’ BioMoGo DNA system, the midsole provides a soft ride and impressive energy return. With an 8mm heel-to-toe differential, your foot will respond as it would to a more traditional running shoe, but will be better cushioned, offering increased comfort and decreased fatigue.
New Balance Fresh Foam 980
Living up to its name, the Fresh Foam 980 features the brand’s plushest midsole cushioning ever. Utilizing the latest in 3D printing technology, the cushioning system has a scant 4mm offset, taking a page from the minimalist playbook. A flexible upper void of any protruding seams or overlays make this one of the most streamlined models in the category.
With a 32mm stack height throughout the midsole, the Olympus stays true to the Altra zero-drop philosophy. Touting a “foot-shaped” design like all Altra models, the Olympus has a wider toe box than most running shoes, allowing your toes to naturally splay. Largely a trail brand, a stone guard in the midsole’s forefoot that complements the supreme cushioning will protect you from rocks underfoot.
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