I was lucky enough to receive a pair of these to try out, and I was very keen to as I am often asked on my opinion of them. Interestingly enough the sorts of people who tend to query me are ones who are struggling with injury, find it hard to run large volumes or are worried about the accumulating years of pounding the pavement on their bodies. This Hoka brand is a great option for those groups.
I had planned to wear these shoes in The Legend marathon, which worked quite well as Hoka were an event sponsor, and it is renowned as one of the toughest Marathon courses around. It is based around the training ground of the great Arthur Lydiard, and those wonderful athletes he trained to Olympic and Commonwealth glory and World records. There would be very few athletes around who haven’t heard of the Waitakere Ranges, and the famed Waiatarua circuit. I’m one who has trained for many years on these roads, but never actually raced on the course. I was excited by the thoughts of finally doing that.
I have been sponsored by New Balance since 2007, and this was going to be my first race wearing a different brand of shoe since then....I have trained in many different brands, but never raced in others, so this was somewhat of a special occasion.
I had a week to get used to the shoes, and this is more than enough time. I had worn the Hoka One One Conquest previously in training so was used to the changes I would notice with the increased cushioning, higher ride height and other characteristics. Now this isn’t recommended by most, or any at all, but the first run was a 28km aerobic run over parts of the course I would be racing in the week later. I wanted to get a sense of the shoe on that similar terrain, and still needed to get a long run in. This run was great, it was at a comfortable pace at around 5:00/km, the shoes performed beautifully and my legs felt a million dollars after it. A real surprise for a course that has 700m of vertical gain. Later that week I also ran a 5km Tempo run at <4:00/km in which my legs weren’t feeling that great, and a couple of easy jogs where they felt excellent....certainly had a full gamut of paces through that week. The one thing I loved about these shoes was the feeling of smoothness and reduced impact on the downhills.
The Legend Marathon race was interesting. I had a good day out, not spectacular, but not horrible. I had a return of a very old and frustrating niggle in my right Gluteus Maximus muscle, which tends to come on when running too fast coupled with poor Core muscle control, so this had possibly come on from my poorly judged pace over the first 12km....a touch too fast.
The course has a tough 7km opening loop which has a couple of long hills in it, and equally long downhill’s. Through this part I was feeling pretty good, and clipped along about 4:10/km. Half way up the long and steep West Coast road at 16km I was feeling my gluteal injury coming on and began to struggle powering in to the hill to drive forward. If you look at the Hoka profile you will see they have a Rocker shape, so the shoe facilitates toe off without actually flexing through the forefoot, just ‘rocking forward’. In most cases this is great, it allows the wearer to just sit back and the action of toe off becomes almost passive. But perhaps running up a steep hill at a moderate to fast pace this is a bit counterproductive. I was probably running a bit too aggressively here, and had I just sat back and got up the hill ready to attack the down I would have been much better off.....a good lesson in learning the characteristics of a shoe before lacing them up for a tough race. Unfortunately by the time I have processed this in my mind I was 18km into the race and my mistakes couldn’t be undone.
The next part of the course was a long 15 minute downhill which was awesome as I was able to rest back a bit and just let the shoe do its work. Whilst I was dealing with some pain and not able to power through the stride much, my quads were having a great time and not getting bashed at all. This is where the Hoka Clifton is at its best.
At about the 27km mark there is a flat section on a gravel path with some uneven surfaces (this course really does have everything). It is a tough section to run as despite it being flat it’s still hard to maintain a rhythm. I really noticed the benefit in the shoes here as they allow you to clip along at a steady pace due to the aforementioned rocker, and again the legs weren’t suffering too much. The uneven surfaces weren’t a problem as the outsole has full ground contact and a wide flare so they aren’t likely to throw the runner off balance at all. You still respond to changes in terrain despite the massive amount of cushioning.
The final 8km of the race has a long steep downhill and a final section of flat road to the finish. While I was running down here I was amazed at how little pain my quads were in. I had found my rhythm a bit more, the Gluteal issue wasn’t troubling me as much and I was moving quite freely. Considering it was the closing km’s of a tough marathon I was very happy with how I was feeling.
I finished the race in an ok time 3:12:50, despite having to stop and stretch a few times, and I walked a couple of the aid stations, so I wasn’t too disappointed. At the end I was pretty buggered, but I wasn’t sore in the quads, and calves, just tight in my Glutes and Hamstrings.
Upon reflection I figured out where the race had got away from me, and it wasn’t the shoe to blame, it was more a case of user error. As I run faster I tend to shift to a more aggressive lateral forefoot strike, and I feel a more flexible forefoot allows me to propel quicker and more efficiently. The Hoka Rocker Bottom shape is designed in such a way that it negates the need for forefoot flex, and therefore I needed to change my gait slightly to reflect this. For me this shoe is great for running in the 4:30-5:00/km pace range. For the faster paces I need to sit back a bit and ‘run in the bucket’, which is all good, but takes a few changes in gait over an adaption period – a slightly shorter stride, quicker cadence and a bit more midfoot/heel strike. The next time I do a faster run in these shoes I will change my gait a bit to see how that feels. If hell froze over one day and I found myself running an Ultramarathon I reckon this will be the go-to shoe.
I really got a sense of how this shoe would work for people who have suffered from joint and impact stress injuries as this degree of shock dissipation is something I have not noticed in a shoe before. If your goal was to get your run volume up and weren’t able to get to a softer surface (grass, trail etc) to do this then shoe becomes a great option. If you were an Ironman athlete looking for a great shoe then this will work well too, with the reduced eccentric contraction in the quads you might find that an over geared or hilly bike ride won’t affect you so much on the run leg.
As is the rule with any new equipment, get to know it well in training before taking it to the races.
New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep. Like any commitment, following through means taking the steps necessary to set yourself up for success. Part of that is having the right gear and finding the right fit.
Whether you’ve decided to train for a marathon or just want to get outside more, the wrong running shoes or apparel can make it that much more difficult to keep up with a new good habit.