Minimal, Maximal or the curious question of Drop

Back in the day, I would go to a run store, ask for a neutral shoe and then try several models. I would pick the shoes that felt good and if they all felt good, I would pick by criteria such as brand and/ or colour. Job done. I would then go and run. Initially I played safe (looking back) picking shoes with a little more cushioning. However, as I got fitter and faster, my shoes got lighter. Seemed to make sense. At no point did I know what ‘drop’ the shoes had. I didn’t even know what drop was and in all honesty, I probably only considered drop in 2009/ 2010.

Ian on Bike

Coming from a cycling background, running was not something that came natural but I improved through triathlon. Eventually ultra running attracted me; I was looking for something new. I wanted something that intimidated me… running long always intimidates me!

I had big legs; plenty of muscles from cycling and triathlon, so, the longer I ran, the more muscle problems I had. Just part of the challenge I thought. Then I saw Hoka One One whilst running races in France and I thought, maybe all that cushioning will help?

Hoka Mafate Waterproof

I started using Hoka One One way back in 2010. I was using the original Mafate when pretty much nobody in the UK even realised what these shoes existed. I had all the comments, clown shoes, platform shoes, ridiculous and so on.

Of course, most people were correct. They did look somewhat ridiculous but considering I had been introduced to the shoes on ‘local’ terrain (France) I found the acceptance across the Channel more acceptable. Particularly in mountain races when running down long and/ or technical descents was the norm.

The plush ride from maximal shoes was something quite unique. Like running on marshmallow I would say. I loved the feeling and I started using the Bondi B for road runs in addition to the Mafate for trail. Cut a long story short, I sold Hoka One One in the UK and really pushed them. Yes. I loved them that much.

I listened to warnings from minimalist runners and other brands and then one by one, I would see runners switch and then other shoe brands ‘add’ more cushioning to shoes. Hoka One One were ahead of the times…

Ironically, as ‘maximal’ took hold, I defected.

Yes, in 2012 I walked away from maximal and never looked back. For me, it all started with niggling knee injuries. At first it was nothing I could pinpoint. At the time I was racking up the miles and running twice daily. I put it down to ‘just’ run pain. You know, the pain we all get and ignore… I won a race in Turkey (60km) but struggled in the closing stages with severe knee pain and later, when I toed the line at Lakeland 50 (looking for top-10) the knees gave in and from that moment, I stopped racing.

Of course I made a few errors. I didn’t address the issues early enough and I stuck my head in the sand and thought the problems would go away: no!

Stopping running for a while was the only way and in time I addressed many issues and points. My knee issues were caused by running in maximal shoes; the added cushioning, the ‘roll’ and the softness all combined with 100’s of miles in training equalled failure!

Turns out maximal shoes were not for me, or my knees.

Of course, this is a little controversial.

Maximal shoes are a new technology and therefore I don’t think we currently have full feedback on the pros and cons of this type of shoe. I guess I had a 2/3-year head start. The initial benefits touted to consumers were:

  • More comfort
  • Less impact
  • Plush ride
  • Run downhill quicker
  • And so on…

The opposition said:

  • Lack of feel with the ground
  • Too much roll
  • Too cushioned
  • And so on…

In time, I had to agree. For me, I was in the latter camp. Having said that, had I not had issues, maybe I would still be running in maximal shoes, who knows?

In the past 2-years I have in many ways learnt to run again. Getting a feel for the ground beneath me, trying to run with better technique and I have run considerably less. I am not a minimalist runner… I didn’t go down the Vibram route. But what I did do was use less cushioning. I actually just went back to shoes similar that I used in my running/ triathlon days… I used to call them ‘flats.’

Many people don’t realise, but Hoka One One and other similar brands use ‘low-drop.’ Altra for example use zero drop. So, I was already adapted to low drop running. I wouldn’t say my technique was perfect, but I have always been a mid to forefoot striker so basically I just needed to feel the ground again.

In my opinion, maximal shoes caused 3-key issues FOR ME. And I stress here, for me.

1: The added cushioning didn’t allow me to feel the ground. I therefore was ‘hitting’ the ground harder with every foot strike. Of course the cushioning masked this. So, to get feeling, I hit the ground harder, the cushioning compressed and then recoiled. Think about it, my muscles and my knees were working harder but in a different way. All those foot strikes, all the accumulated minutes, hours and miles.

2: The height and cushioning of the shoes caused me to roll. On flat surfaces the cushioning would compress and I would roll inward. The more cushioning, the more I could roll. Again, times this by all the foot strikes… not an issue for isolated runs but when you run day after day and twice a day, that builds up! On technical terrain, the cushioning offered more protection for sure, but again I was rolling and twisting far more than in a less cushioned shoe. My knees were being taken out of align all the time.

I like to equate the roll to the comparison of an F1 car and a bus. Take an F1 car around a corner at speed and it won’t sway or deviate. Take a bus around a corner and it will lean and possibly tip over. This is how I look at run shoes… or more importantly less cushioning in comparison to more cushioning.

3: I also feel that the cushioning made me a lazy runner. I was carefree because the cushioning masked so much. I also became weaker in my legs… I let the shoes do the work.

I think I could only really appreciate the above once I stopped using ‘maximal’ shoes and returned back to basics. I have spent the last 2-years running in shoes with normal or less cushioning and I have tested shoes with various drop; typically 4mm to 8mm.

Now many of you may question many aspects of what I mention above. That’s good! This article is not meant to give you hard facts. I want you to question and assess your running, your form, your contact with the ground and your running well being.

I am not promoting barefoot, minimalist, low drop or maximal. I am giving you scenarios and experiences that I have accumulated over time.

I could say, ‘do this!’

But ultimately, that is when issues arise. Doing ‘this’ is perfect for one athlete but not another. Sometimes you have to get it wrong to find out if you are doing it right.

Maximal is a current trend. Ironically, I went maximal just when most people went minimal… ‘Born to Run’ has lots to answer for! As Vibram clad warriors ran around me, I bounced along like Tigger.

Was I correct? NO!

Was minimalists correct? NO!

To some extent, we had both followed fads. For many, going minimalist and ‘learning to run again’ over a constructive and gradual period was and may very well be, the best thing they have ever done. But for every converted sole, we have a runner (or maybe multiple runners) who are broken at the side of the trail with stress fractures, damaged calf muscles or achilles problems.

But, going maximal (for me) was no better. I didn’t ease into maximal, I went in head over heels committed myself and the cushioning allowed me to get away with it… for a while!

If I learnt one lesson, GRADUAL is a key word. Be that maximal, minimal low drop or whatever…

Fads will come and go.

This conversation will continue in years to come and without doubt, we will be looking at a new aspect of run technique. It’s the nature of things.

But, running and the ability to run is god given. We are designed to run. So in future, when you have children, maybe nurture your child from the feet up. Start from the ground and let evolution do its work.

In retrospect, Chris McDougall was right, we are ‘Born to Run’ the problem is, we have actually devolved as runners.

Fashion and fads will come and go.

Take your time and if it aint broke… don’t break it! Otherwise it may well take you 2-years to get back on the right trail.

Like me!

27 thoughts on “Minimal, Maximal or the curious question of Drop

  1. Hi Ian,

    thanks for the article and being very blunt that this observation only applies to you! 🙂

    I have been running in a 6 different style of Hoka shoes for the past 4 years.. I love them. However, I do not run in them exclusively. When it is very muddy or very technical there is no better shoe than the Salomon SpeedCross 3! I have no problem transitioning from Hoka to Salomon. I love them both.

  2. Nice piece Ian. Are you at the point where you’ll be able to compete again do you think? Also cannot wait to here the cycling training for ultras you’ve mentioned.

    Thanks for a great show

    • Run racing for me will be limited in the future. Unfortunately, my knees are permanently damaged and I will need an operation at some point. I am trying to delay that! In addition, my diary is so crazy with work and travel. I know attend races for work! BUT and it is a big but, I am happy. I love my job and I get my ‘fix’ from being in and around the runners/ races. I still get out and run and I set myself some targets each year… for example, in November I will be working on Everest Trail Race. I won’t be racing but I will need to cover most of the race on foot, so, that’s great.

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  4. Great Post! I ran in Hoka’s (Bondi and Stinson EVO) for a little more than a year after trying them to help out with foot pain. While they did help with the feet, and I never experienced any significant knee issues directly attributable to the shoes or ankle rolling, I did eventually find that what you stated in point #1, for me, hit the nail squarely on the head. As you stated, I found my feet “‘hitting’ the ground harder with every foot strike” and “my muscles and my knees were working harder but in a different way”. I think that, maybe, the different way of using the muscles and change in stride caused by the maximal cushioned and less flexible shoes may be what leads many runners to like them, at least, initially as they do often provide some relief to overused or abused muscles and joints. But I do think that the cushioning merely “masks” the pounding, if it doesn’t make it worse. Also, the foot does not move as naturally on toe off because the maximal shoes do not flex much, if any, in the toe. Instead, the more rigid feet, and the legs, are forced to follow the rocker shape of the maximal sole. It’s a different motion that alters gait and stride. Lately, I’ve been re-learning my running form/mechanics and transitioning successfully back to more normal cushioned shoes with still low to no drop. While I’ve experienced some expected aches and pains due to my toes and forefoot being allowed to flex again, I’ve found I’m able to run “lighter” and more efficiently, now, than in the Hoka’s even over rocky technical trails.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I find it fascinating that something we are all able to do ‘naturally’ can be so complicated. Maybe like me you are finding that starting again is the way forward. Good luck

  5. Interesting to read this article. Do you think the problems with your knees were caused because the shoes allowed you to log so many km’s to begin with? Anything in excess is never a good thing. I would not completely blame the shoes but maybe the extra miles logged. I currently run in Hokas as well as asics, altra, and nb minimus. I rotate each shoe depending on terrain and how my legs feel. This seems to keep my muscles firing and they do not get used to any particular shoe style. I would not completely disregard the benefits of a super cushioned shoe like the hoka if used only when needed eg, fatigued legs, long runs or cool downs after a hard speed session.
    Hokas should be used with caution because they do make you feel so good when running that its very easy to over do it. I love mine but i also love all the shoes in my collection.
    Hope I have encouraged you to rethink on Hokas!

    • Hi Suzy, I appreciate your points but no… I have been doing endurance sport for 27-years and it was using ‘maximal’ that caused my issues, not the mileage as I was doing the mileage well before changing shoes. However, it all adds up and I think I may well have had knee issues (eventually) irrespective of shoes. Maximal did not help! I test shoes regularly and currently I am testing two pairs of maximal shoes. So I have gone full circle. BUT and this is a big but, my testing of the maximal shoes is not going well… I got immediate knee pain when using the shoes and it also made me realise that I had no feel, no life and for me, it just isn’t pleasurable to use this type of shoe. I say this from an impartial perspective. I do think though that occasional use of ‘maximal’ may well be a good thing for some people, just not me! As I say, everything I write is ‘for me’ but I do feel having tested and run in pretty much all types of shoes on road, trail and mountains, I now have a very good perception of what ‘I’ consider to be good. If Hoka work for you, that is great. Maybe the secret for you is mixing it up with other shoes. What I love is the thought process this post has created not only for you and others but me too!

  6. Interesting article. I’ve gone minimal this year when the trend seems to be maximal, especially in ultra running. The reason I went down this route was to get a better feel for the trails and to be more connected to what’s underfoot. I’ve used traditional 12mm drop cushioned shoes to this point and not had any problems apart from the usual aches and pains running up to 60 miles per week. Minimal shoes, New Balance MT110v2’s for trail, MR10v2’s for road, Inov-8 Roclite 243’s, have been a revelation and I LOVE running in them. I went back to an old pair of my shoes and hated running in them. My feet are much stronger now they are working fully in the (running) process and I am actually quicker on rocky, tricky downhills where, yes, stones can occasionally hurt to land on. If this happens more than I’d like I shorten my stride, increase my cadence and try and adapt to the terrain. There is no better feeling than to be racing down a tricky descent with great feedback through your feet. If you don’t allow your feet to work like this I can only think you risk over recruiting/working your other joints. I still find it amazing how little evidence there is to support any particular shoe type. Perhaps this just tells us that we just all adapt to what we put on our feet anyway, within limits or that maybe we can adapt and survive without injury for a long time before problems arise.

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  8. Wonderfull Article! I started my ‘running-carreer’ two years ago with minimal Inov-8 Shoes. For an beginner, it is limitating you cause the muscles only adept slowly. BUT i think, i got a very good Sense for what is good for me and what is not. I mean not only mileage but also technique and terrain. I found that running on the Road has a lot more Impact on my Body than running on trails. In the last year i realy specialized on Trail Running at a very early stage in my running and i look forward to do some Skyraces next year!

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  13. I am also starting to suspecting highly cushioned shoes (Clifton, Challenger ATR) have been an influence in me getting ITBS last year, which is still lingering. Early last summer I started upping my mileage past 60 miles a week, (previously it was all sub 40) and I switched to Hokas around the same time. Prior to this I was predominantly wearing the Salomon Sense Pro, which while not full on minimalist shoes, are significantly less cushioned.

    It felt great, I managed to up the miles easily and my feet and legs felt great, much better than running in my normal shoes. I ran a couple of marathons in Cliftons, all good. A couple of months into this I got a nasty case of ITBS following a 25 mile trail run, which is still lingering six months later.

    Now, I hadn’t really made a connection with the shoes but looking back over my running logs, the times both before and after the injury I have felt were both when running for extended periods in Sense Pros.

    After months of steady recovery with lots of hip/hamstring/glute strengthening and stretching, the ITBS is back (after wearing fairly cushioned road shoes for around 100 miles of training) and its time to start the recovery regime from almost the beginning again – but this time I will be sticking with less shoe for sure.

    • Andy, for many, Hoka and similar are a revelation, they were for me… But not now. It’s still a new concept and I am not saying it’s bad, for some people, cushioning really works. For me though, less is more.

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  18. Completely agree here, and it was my experience with higher-cushioned shoes. I found myself constantly rolling my ankle, and I knew it was a matter of time before it became a serious injury.

    What exactly was the pain in your knees your describing? Was it a shooting pain, or dull aching pain?

    Thanks for the write-up. It put a lot of my thoughts into better words.

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