Running shoes used to be all about cushioning, period. But with the recent emphasis on form and injury prevention, trail running, ultra-running and barefoot running, shoe choices have exploded. The alternatives seem endless: minimal shoes, maximum shoes, super-cushioned shoes, no-cushion shoes. Here’s a sampler of some standout designs for different categories of runners.
Ultra-running on a cloud
Hoka One One Bondi B: Designed to reduce the cumulative damage of ultra-running, One Ones offer a lineup rarely, if ever, seen in a running shoe: an oversized, 2-inch-thick pile of cushioning, a relatively flat rise from heel and forefoot (40 millimeters, one-third that of normal running shoes), lightweight (10.5 ounces in size 9) and no medial posts, high-density foams or other stability devices.
Likes: It’s like running on a cloud — extremely comfortable and shock-absorbing. Although I normally run barefooted or in minimalist shoes, I found that these were conducive to a soft forefoot landing and fairly stable (probably due to the extra-wide bottoms). The plush cushioning is particularly effective in reducing impact on long descents, which are staples of ultra-running races.
Dislikes: Expensive; questionable durability due to the typical breakdown of foam cushioning and lack of hard rubber on the sole; and inherent imbalance. Though its thick cushioning theoretically cuts injuries by greatly reducing shock, it also reduces road feedback and balance, increasing the potential for long-term joint strain. Also, the huge cushion encourages heel striking.
Price: $169. (866) 732-9144; https://www.hokaoneone-na.com.
The bubble shoe
MIzuno Wave Prophecy: Wild-looking, complex “wave plate” design for heel-strikers that replaces a normal shoe’s midsole foam with two molded, varying-density plates arranged in four plastic, see-through, shock-absorbing suspension arches.
Likes: Effective and durable. The wave plates absorb shock as advertised, and the lack of foam to break down portends a long life for the shoe. The wide toe box is very comfortable. The fairly low front end provides decent ground feel when compared with the Hoka One One.
Dislikes: High cost and weight — 13 ounces in size 9. The tall heel (13/8-inches) encourages the high-impact heel strike the design is meant to minimize.
Price: $199. (800) 966-1211; https://www.mizunousa.com.
Barely there sandals
Invisible Shoes Connect: Minimalist, economical running sandal for wannabe barefoot runners that is made of a thin, cupped rubber sole pre-punched with two reinforced ankle holes and an intricately threaded lace. After September, it comes with a free hole puncher.
Likes: An almost-barefoot feel, but with some protection. The 4-mm-thick sole (about 5/32 inch thick, including lugs) of soft, pliable rubber provides barefoot-like balance, letting you feel every contour in the road or trail but without the momentary stabbing pain of a sharp pebble. It’s so light — 4.3 ounces in size 9 (compared with about 6.5 ounces for a Vibram Sprint) — that you hardly feel it. The slightly cupped, curved-up toe and heel zones keep feet from catching on the ground; the soles can be custom trimmed with scissors. I ran a 5K in them and appreciated the extra protection (and speed) over the course’s rougher sections.
Dislikes: Requires you to measure the length of your foot, punch your own big-toe hole and tie your own laces — a potential challenge for some. Misplacing the do-it-yourself hole punch could mean a waste of money. The company will send you a customized pair for an extra $15.
Price: $24.95; $29.95 for the thicker-soled, 6 mm Contact model. (800) 499-8880; https://www.invisibleshoe.com/store
The original alternative
Nike Free Run +2: A barely changed version of a transition-to-barefooting shoe that was first created in 2004 to mimic the injury-fighting benefits of barefoot running. To encourage a soft forefoot landing and tactile ground feel, it features a low profile (3/8 inch at the ball of the foot and an inch off the ground in the heel) and a soft, flexible foam midsole/sole segmented by deep cuts.
Likes: Better-than-average ground feel and comfort. That’s due to the low forefoot positioning; a stunning flexibility that allows the shoe to be rolled up like a pill bug; a reinforced, sock-like upper; and an asymmetrical lacing system that’s said to reduce pressure over the top ridge of the foot. Solid rubber sole patches under the big toe and heel keep the sole from wearing out too fast.
Dislikes: For a “barefoot” shoe, it carries a major flaw: a too-tall heel that encourages you to heel strike.
Price: $90. (800) 344-6453; https://www.nikestore.com.
Wallack is the co-author of “Barefoot Running Step by Step.”