Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hoka Bondi B shoe review

A friend of mine who suffered a stress fracture in his femur bought a pair of Hoka ComboXT shoes back in November 2011. Qiute simply, he needed something to give maximum cushioning as he got back into running and is, in fact, running the Highland Fling Race in April. He raved about the shoes so much, it got me thinking; could these shoes help me in some way, either in training, racing or both? I am now 150 miles into the shoes and I thought I’d pass on my thoughts.

You basically have a choice of three shoes in the range. The Mafate is the full trail shoe, with a more aggressive grip pattern but I found these much too wide across the toe box area. The ComboXT was my preferred choice, being the intermediate shoe (recently superseded by the Stinson), unfortunately, I was not able to get a pair in my size. This left me with the Bondi B road shoe, which at least came in a more conservative colour scheme.
Out of the box, there is no denying that these shoes are unorthodox but don’t be put off. When I initially tried on the Mafate trail shoes I was a little concerned with the lacing system that uses small webbing loops for eyelets. I am sure they are strong enough to cope with the rigours of ultra-racing, but I much prefer the more standard lacing system on the Bondi B and ComboXT/Stinson models. There is a loop on the tongue to thread the laces through, something I always use in my running shoes, just to help keep everything in place.

The uppers have a number of reinforced areas, including the toe box, main flexion points and the sides, linked to the lacing system. Despite the fact that these are designated the “road” shoe in the range, they have proved to be very resilient. Apart from the mud, the uppers show no sign of wear and tear, even after two particularly long runs on the West Highland Way and the Lakeland 100.

The top of the shoe is literally only the tip of the iceberg; it is what happens below this that makes these shoes special. The mid-sole is up to 2.5 times thicker than most trail shoes with the aim of dissipating up to 80% of the shock associated with foot strike. This is what jumped out at me when I first started to look at the shoes. Recovering from an operation to both the heel bone and Achilles tendon, anything that might ease the pounding was worth a shot.
The first real surprise is just how light the shoes are. These shoes are no heavier than most of my other running shoes (Yes, I’ve got quite a few pairs) and when they are on your feet they certainly don’t feel clumpy in any way. In fact, with some of the other attributes, you actually feel lighter out on the trail – go figure!?

Despite the size of the mid-sole, you don’t sit 6cm off the ground; you are partially sunk within the shoe which, I feel, is rather clever. What this does is hold your foot in a really stable position so that when out on the trail, even along technical single track, you never feel that that you are running on soft sponges and the shoes feel surprisingly responsive. You do not feel as in touch with the trail as you would in a minimalist shoe but that was never the aim of these.

When you first run, you assume that you will be forced to heel strike but nothing could be further from the truth. The shoe has a very small drop from heel to toe (4mm), this means that you run with a natural mid-foot strike but still get all the benefits of the cushioning – win:win?!

I have noticed that the shoe has “loosened up” as the miles have been clocked, particularly in the flexibility of the mid-sole; further adding to the comfort.

My main worry when buying the road shoe was the grip; would a road shoe give enough traction to run with confidence on the trails? I spent some time in the shop comparing the grips from all three shoes in the range and, whilst the Mafate do have a more aggressive grip, I thought that at the speed I move at in an ultra race, I could live with the Bondi B grip. Out on the trails, I’ve had no real problems apart from the adventures in the snow, though I doubt even my old faithful Salomon Speedcross’ would have coped with that. The footprint of the shoe is huge and this certainly helps with the grip and the stability, installing confidence on all surfaces.
When you first put the shoes on and start to run, they feel  different, as I’m sure you would expect. I started with small strides and concentrated on a smooth mid-foot strike and within just a few miles I felt very much at home with them. After a long day at work, I find the comfort of the shoes quite refreshing and the thought of training on tired legs is less daunting.

The shoes are especially good on rough, rocky terrain where you would normally suffer with the pounding, feeling every rock and bump. With the Hoka’s you tend to run over this type of terrain worrying less about where you place your feet. On my two 30+ mile runs, it has been  the cumulative effect of this  stress free running that I think has made all the difference. At the end of these runs, my legs have definitely felt less pounded, with a little more life in them. Now, I am quite happy to acknowledge that all this could just as easily be psychological, rather than physiological, but I will take any benefit I can, especially after 80+ miles!

Downhill is a dream. I would not consider doing a fell race in them but that is not what they are designed for. The type of descents we get in ultra races suit this shoe down to the ground. Again, you don’t have to worry too much about where you put your feet, the shoes simply take the sting out of the trail, meaning your quads take less of the strain. Think; how will your legs feel towards the end of your ultra? Think; how would you like them to feel?

That final thought is the one you have to keep in your head. These shoes are not for everyone; if you are a minimalist runner, walk away from these. If you are really that bothered about how your shoes look, perhaps you should walk away. If you are on a budget, walk away. If you are looking at running fast 10kms or half marathons, walk away. I am a runner recovering from surgery who wanted a shoe to allow me to race and train ultra distances. I asked myself what is most important to me and the answer kept coming back to “enjoyment of my running”, these shoes give me that.

I now have a dilemma. When I did the West Highland Way Race, putting fresh  shoes and socks on at the halfway point was one of the best decisions I made. I am definitely going to wear the Hoka’s for the Highland Fling 53 mile race in April, but what to do for the Lakeland 100 in the summer? Do I wear the Hoka’s for the full race and forego the magical shoe swop at Dalemain? Do I wear my Speedcross’ for the first half and then change into the Hoka’s? Do I get hold of another pair of Hoka’s (I still like the look of the Stinson B combination shoe)? What’s a boy supposed to do?


Andy Cole said...

Go with the Hokas Dave. One pair got me round the L100 last year, comfortable to the end. One sock change at Braithwaite.

Dale Jamieson said...

I second Andy's comment. I wore the HOKA'S (Bondi Bs) when I ran the WHW late November and just changed the socks late on. What I would say is that recovery from long road runs wearing these is similar to fell running with inov 8s on.

Anonymous said...


With the extra cushioning that these shoes give, I wonder if there could be fewer impact injuries by wearing them?

I'm thinking of a very good ultra runner who is currently sidelined because of a broken bone in his foot. If he'd been wearing Hokas, with less impact, might he have avoided the injury?

Just a train of thought....... I guess it is still "early days" for Hokas; so no opportunity yet to compare Hoka wearers injuries with non Hoka wearers injuries; both regarding numbers of injuries and types of injuries.


Nick said...

If they are comfortable and don't mangle your feet, go with them for the duration. You are lucky to have Hoka-shaped feet and you'll be in clover.
No. 1 priority is shoes that fit properly. No. 2 is cushioning. I enjoyed zero foot stress with La Sportiva Crosslite because they fit my feet. Cushioning is minimal compared to Hokas.

Ernesto said...

Great review. I am recovering from an LTL sprain following a trail 50 in November where I took some good falls and wrenched my ankle five or six times in a row. Been two months since I could get a run in. (After never missing more than two days for six years.) I just inherited a pair of Hokas from a guy in our club who ran a few runs in them and said they hurt his feet. I just did my first pain free quarter mile on the treadmill in them. High hopes.