When you walk into the specialty running shoe store, the dazzling array of running options is certainly eye-appealing, but it can also be overwhelming.
How do you know what style of running shoes to buy, let alone the brand and model?
Maximal cushioning running shoes have a super thick sole, which can certainly be appealing for runners with knee pain, shin splints, or a history of stress fractures because the added cushioning looks like it will attenuate the shock and impact forces when you land.
But, is the added cushioning as effective as it looks? Are maximalist running shoes more comfortable and do these higher cushioned running shoes actually reduce injury?
In this article, we will look at what the research shows about maximalist running shoes and whether high-cushioned running shoes reduce the risk of injury.
We will cover:
- What Are Maximalist Running Shoes?
- A Brief History of Maximalist Running Shoes
- Downsides of Maximalist Running Shoes
- Benefits of Maximalist Running Shoes
- Do Higher Cushioned Running Shoes Actually Reduce Injury?
Let’s jump in!
What Are Maximalist Running Shoes?
Maximalist running shoes may also be referred to as highly-cushioned running shoes, ultra-cushioned running shoes or maximal running shoes.
You can think of maximalist running shoes as the opposite of minimalist running shoes—they have a lot of cushioning and a thick, plush sole.
Because of the thick sole, maximalist running shoes have a high stack height, which essentially means there’s more material between your foot and the ground.
Note that with the exception of zero-drop running shoes, running shoes have two stack heights: one in the heel and one in the forefoot.
Because most runners are heel strikers, most running shoe companies make the heel stack height higher than that of the forefoot in an effort to provide extra cushioning under the heel.
A traditional neutral running shoe with a standard amount of cushioning might have a stack height of 26 mm in the heel and 18 mm in the forefoot.
In contrast, a maximalist running shoe might have a stack height of 38 mm in the heel and 32 in the forefoot.
Although many of the top running shoe brands make at least one maximalist or high-cushioned running shoe these days, certain brands like Hoka One One are well-known for making thick-soled running shoes.
A Brief History of Maximalist Running Shoes
Depending on how old you are and how long you’ve been running, you might recall the beginnings of the barefoot or minimalist running shoe craze that began in the early 2000s.
Popularized in response to Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, which introduced mainstream runners to the fascinating story of the barefoot Tarahumara runners, minimalist running shoes feature a very low stack height of just a couple millimeters.
Interestingly, around the same time that barefoot or minimalist running shoes became all the rage, Hoka One One emerged with their maximalist running shoes.
These high-cushioned running shoes often have 2-3 times as much cushioning as traditional running shoes, which is achieved by a much thicker slab of EVA foam, or other similar materials, in the midsole.
Essentially, a super thick and plush foam sole was designed to act as a buffer between your feet and the ground, serving as a first-pass filter to absorb some of the impact forces when you land on your feet.
The initial target market for maximalist running shoes was ultramarathoners, as they spend hours upon hours running.
However, maximalist running shoes are also popular amongst masters runners because the extra cushioning is thought to reduce the stress on your joints, which may be achey in older runners.
Downsides of Wearing Maximalist Running Shoes
So, do high cushioned running shoes work? Does thick cushioning reduce the risk of running injuries?
Interestingly, despite the fact that maximalist running shoes look like they’d provide a cloud-like pillow to absorb more of the impact stress, shock, and force from running, evidence points to the contrary.
For example, one study found that running in maximalist running shoes on flat land as well as downhill not only didn’t decrease impact stress, it actually increased impact loading.
In another small study, 15 female runners ran a 5k on the treadmill on two different occasions. In one trial, they ran in maximalist shoes (Hoka One One Bondi 4) and in the other trial, they ran in regular running shoes (New Balance 880) with a traditional amount of cushioning.
Researchers collected biomechanical data during the treadmill runs, discovering that runners experienced higher vertical loading rates and higher peak impact forces while wearing the maximalist running shoes compared to when they ran in the traditional shoes.
Vertical loading rates refer to the speed at which the body is subjected to impact forces, while peak impact forces refer to the maximum instantaneous amount of force the body is subjected to.
Therefore, running in maximalist running shoes places higher stresses on the body and at faster—and thus more risky from an injury standpoint—rates.
The researchers hypothesized that this increase in impact forces while wearing the maximalist running shoes was potentially because the runners were unconsciously altering their biomechanics while running in the highly-cushioned shoes.
To test whether runners would adapt to the extra cushioning over time, a subsequent study was carried out, investigating whether training regularly in maximalist running shoes would cause a natural shift in the runners’ biomechanics such that they would acclimate and their legs would absorb less impact stress over time.
This time, runners did two trials—one wearing each type of shoe—at baseline.
Then, they trained for six weeks in the maximalist running shoes, gradually increasing the percentage of their total mileage done in the high-cushioned running until all of their training was done in these shoes.
After the six weeks of acclimating to the maximalist running shoes, the runners completed the same trials on the treadmill.
Interestingly, researchers found that no adaptations were made after training in maximalist running shoes.
Moreover, results indicated that both the loading rate and peak impact forces were again higher in the maximal running shoe, and eversion at toe-off and plantarflexion at initial contact were higher in the maximalist running shoe.
Resultantly, the researchers concluded that running in maximalist running shoes may increase the risk of injury due to the fact that running in them subjects the legs to higher and faster forces and alters foot and ankle motion.
Another study confirmed that runners who switch to maximalist running shoes demonstrate greater eversion angles of the foot at both ground contact and toe off.
Excessive eversion at impact is associated with overpronation, and can cause excessive strain and tissues.
Finally, a study found that wearing running shoes with thicker midsoles increased ground contact time.
Benefits of Maximalist Running Shoes
Although there is plenty of evidence suggesting that maximal cushioned running shoes may actually increase loading forces and increase the risk of injury (or at least have a neutral impact at best), there are some studies demonstrating a positive effect of a more cushioned or softer midsole.
A review of 63 studies identified a couple of studies that found that running shoes with softer or thicker midsoles can indeed provide significant cushioning effects.
For example, one study found that ultra-cushioned shoes reduced the maximal impact force experienced by the leg by 35% relative to minimalist running shoes.
However, these studies also noted that high-cushioned running shoes may decrease plantar sensations at ground contact. This, in turn, can potentially increase the risk of certain foot injuries and reduce proprioceptive feedback.
A small study also found that running in maximalist shoes reduces plantar pressure in the feet compared to wearing a minimalist running shoe (New Balance Minimus Hi-Rez).
The magnitude of this reduction was especially significant in the forefoot.
Sometimes, runners want to try something new when it comes to running shoes, which is where the common conundrum sets in: Do higher cushioned running shoes actually reduce injury or is it better to go the minimalist route?
If you’re currently wearing a traditional running shoe with a standard amount of cushioning, evidence suggests that it’s less risky to switch to a maximalist running shoe rather than a minimalist shoe.
The study involved observing the changes in biomechanics and injury risk in thirty runners when shifting from traditional running footwear to either maximalist or minimalist running shoes.
After four weeks in the new footwear, over half of the runners wearing the minimalist running shoes became injured.
Of note, both types of experimental shoes (maximalist and minimalist) caused a significant increase in the vertical ground reaction forces and plantarflexion angles relative to those wearing the traditional running shoes.
Do Higher Cushioned Running Shoes Actually Reduce Injury?
Although there’s a fair amount of evidence pointing to the risks of wearing maximalist running shoes, you don’t necessarily need to immediately ditch your Hoka One One running shoes and start wearing the least cushioned running shoes you can find.
Most podiatrists and shoe experts say that just because the body may absorb more force when you wear maximal cushioning running shoes doesn’t necessarily mean that wearing Hokas will cause an injury.
Rather, some of these experts postulate that maximal running shoes alter the application of forces or stresses on the foot and lower limb compared to traditional running shoes.
As such, depending on your personal “weak” areas or injury risk, running in minimalist running shoes may actually decrease the risk of injury.
For example, runners who struggle with foot injuries, particularly issues such as metatarsalgia, metatarsal stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma, bunions, fat pad atrophy, or other toe and forefoot injuries may really benefit from wearing maximalist running shoes since they may reduce plantar pressures.
Additionally, many maximalist running shoes have a rocker sole, which can help support the heel-to-toe transition while you run and minimize necessary foot motion.
Although this is thought to weaken your foot muscles overtime, and may not be advantageous for many healthy runners, it can be an incredibly helpful and pain-reducing feature for runners with arthritis in the feet, tarsal tunnel syndrome, and joint effusions.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the optimal amount of cushioning in a running shoe. It largely depends on your needs, biomechanics, training, injury history, running shoe history, and preferences.
One good takeaway, however, is to always transition gradually if you do decide to change to or from a running shoe with a very different amount of cushioning. Give your body time to adapt, and heed warning signs if you notice pain.
If you need help choosing your next pair of running shoes, check out our How to Pick the Right Running Shoes Guide.