(Published in Trail Walker, Spring 2015) Extra thick soled hiking shoes are being promoted this Spring and hikers will even see extra thick hiking boots heavily advertised soon, as well. Some of these shoes, referred to as “maximalist” shoes, have soles that are more than three times as thick as even standard hiking shoes. While ‘maximalist’ shoes have been around for a few years, they were mostly a boutique product available from the manufacturers on line or in independent outdoor gear stores. Now, national and regional retailers like REI and Campmor are even selling this unique type of shoes.
The maximalist trail shoes stand out primarily for one feature, mid-sole material almost 1.25 inches thick, often made of a proprietary mix of ethyl vinyl acetate (EVA) foam blended with rubber to create increased cushioning. At first glance, the shoe looks like a ‘platform’ shoe that has no business on a rocky, uneven hiking trail. Yet, these shoes are now routinely worn by some of the most successful trail athletes who are winning ultra-trail marathons, like the famous Western States 100 mile race (Karl Meltzer) and posting speed records on the Pacific Crest Trail (Heather “Anish Anderson”) and John Muir Trails (Liz Thomas).
Hikers, backpackers and ultra-marathoners have embraced these re-designed shoes for three reasons. First, the generous cushioning through the mid-sole layer of the shoes provides shock absorption whether running or hiking on the trail or on the road. Second, the shoes have either minimal “drop”, (the height difference between the heel and the forefoot), or, no ‘drop’ at all. Proponents of shoes with minimal or zero “drop” claim that they promote a natural gait with a less forceful impact and allow for a more efficient functioning of the achilles tendon. Third, the maximalist shoes, which now include mainstream brands such as Vasque, Brooks and Skechers, in addition to the two most popular brands, Hoka One One and Altra, generally have a wider and more anatomically shaped toe box. Altras have zero drop while Hoka Ones have a minimal drop.
A few years ago when shoe manufacturers promoted “barefoot” running and trail shoes, like Vibram Five Fingers, they cited research and quoted biomechanics experts supporting the shoes’ benefits. And, they maintained that their shoes hearkened back to our ancient hominid roots as barefoot walkers. Now, very few ‘maximalist’ companies are citing any research backing their claims and the thick soled shoes in no way mimic human ancient foot wear or ambulation. Yet, the shoes are catching on with elite and recreational trail runners and hikers. And some weekend hikers claim that these cushioned, low drop shoes with a lot of room for their toes, helped resolve nagging problems like heel pain and shin splints. One note of caution, thogh. Theelevated platform design of these shoes may prove unstable to anyone prone to ankle sprains. And, if you are getting good results with your current hiking shoes, than, no need to switch.
Howard E. Friedman DPM