By Paul Freary
Hoka and Altra are two of the youngest running shoe brands on the market. Both brands came about from a desire by their founders to create something different.
Both Golden Harper of Altra and Jean-Luc Diard of Hoka wanted shoes that provided them with a running experience that wasn’t otherwise available at the time. Lets have a brief look, at the history of these two running shoe brands, and see what sets them apart.
Founding Hoka One One in 2009 in France co-founders Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud say “Radical change often comes about in trying to solve a simple problem. Our original goal was to improve endurance race times by designing a shoe to go downhill faster. In doing so, we inadvertently reinvented the Hoka running shoe.”
The early shoes demonstrate how large, oversized stacks of cushioning foam were sandwiched together in prototype models to create shoes that could simply absorb high impact and provide a sensation of running down a sand dune.
HOKA Brand Name
The brand’s name comes from a Māori term meaning ‘fly over the earth’, a term which has formed many of the brand’s marketing campaigns in recent years such as ‘Time to Fly’ and ‘Fly Human Fly’. Shortened to simple HOKA in 2022 the brand name now avoids any confusion over the pronunciation of the One One element of the original name.
HOKA Early Development
Obviously, in the early days, the large, oversized shoes received criticism, yet the founding pair ignored the critics and created a shoe that would allow them to fly down mountains.
Both Jean-Luc and Nicolas had previously worked for Salomon and while there, Jean-Luc developed the first shaped ski. Perhaps this experience was where the idea for the now familiar ‘rocker’ sole shape of Hoka running shoes came from.
Key HOKA Technology
Every pair of HOKA now looks to combine three technologies tuned to give each athlete a specific experience. The meta-rocker is designed to provide propulsion, maximal cushioned midsoles for comfort and an active Foot Frame engineered for the specific stability of the shoe.
Born at a time when the latest trend in running shoes was the minimalist design, Hoka’s approach was seen as very radical. The deep stack of EVA cushioning appeared unstable and ungainly but soon developed a loyal following.
Made to land each foot softly and then spring back up, the Hoka cushioned midsole acts as a high-performance shock absorber without the weight. The weight is kept at a minimum thanks to the use of a simple EVA material.
The Active Foot Frame cradles the foot, securing your heel in place. The aim is to create a sensation of your foot becoming a part of the shoe, instead of simply sitting on top of it.
A rearfoot Active Foot Frame cups the heel, cradling it to provide general support and is designed for everyday use.
The midfoot Active Foot Frame is made for faster-paced running. Here, the foot frame extends forward to provide an enhanced cradled sensation when striking more mid-forefoot.
Key HOKA Models
HOKA Bondi 8
One of the original shoes from the brand, the Bondi epitomises the Hoka ideal, maximal cushioning!
With a 33mm stack of cushioning and a 4mm drop, the shoe is one of the brand’s most cushioned models.
The eight-generation model is both lighter and more responsive than previous versions, giving it the best ride yet.
The new midsole foam also has a new design, with an extended heel and billowed crash pad. This helps aid the foot strike and gives the shoe a super-soft ride.
The rocker aids the transition into the forefoot and even with that deep stack of cushioning, the shoe can toe off neatly, feeling smooth and plush with every step.
HOKA Stinson 7
The Stinson is another of the brand’s original line-up of shoes, this time a versatile trail model.
Hoka refers to it as a ‘Swiss army knife of shoes’, such is its versatility.
It’s a road-to-trail shoe that’s feature packed, making it a model that any runner could use.
First up there’s the usual Hoka max-cushioning, then we have a multi-surface outsole and finally, the brand’s H frame stability system.
Here the stability provides a more general support rather than correcting pronation. The foot sinks down into the frame's softer inner core and is balanced evenly on any surface. It’s a system that works well and is very effective, even off-road.
With its go-anywhere nature, good cushioning and stability, it’s no wonder the Stinson has always been a popular Hoka model.
The Altra Name
The Altra name is based on a Latin word, ‘altera’, which means ‘to fix or mend something’. It seems rather fitting for the manner in which the brand was initially born.
Altra Early Development
During his formative years, it was Golden that noticed how his running gait changed when wearing different shoes. The biggest change occurred when he compared running in regular running shoes compared to running barefoot.
Running barefoot wasn’t practical so Golden started to doctor shoes by heating them in the family toaster oven to peel the cushioning away from the upper, balance out the height of the heel and forefoot cushioning by removing material in the heel before gluing the shoes back together.
It was after this doctoring of his shoes that Golden Harper felt that his shoes weren’t obstructing the way he ran.
He says, "For the first time in my life, I was wearing a normal-feeling running shoe. I didn’t feel like the shoe was messing with the way I was running."
Altra Running was then founded in 2009.
Key Altra technology
The Altra brand has a distinctive look to its shoes. The most distinctive feature is the instantly recognizable Footshape Toe Box.
Footshape Toe Box
The broader design of the shoe across the toe box area allows your toes to relax and spread naturally. This natural spreading of the toes is the foot's way of stabilizing itself and can also help when both ascending and well as descending.
Golden Harper, Altra Co-founder describes how this design feature came about.
"It just got to the point where we’d show up at a local road race and almost half of the people at the starting line had their shoes with the lacing skipped open in the front half of the shoe."
With an equal stack of cushioning throughout the length of the shoe, the foot has a balanced stance. This balanced cushioning doesn’t sacrifice cushioning, it simply places the heel and forefoot at an equal distance from the ground, encouraging better alignment, running form and a lower-impact landing.
Key Altra Models
Lone Peak 7
One of the brand’s most popular models, the Lone Peak is the best-selling trail running shoe in the USA.
With a 25mm stack of cushioning throughout the length of the shoe, it provides a balanced ride and versatile off-road cushioning. The Altra EGO foam is able to absorb impact and offers a responsive feel on varied trail surfaces.
Of course, the Footshaped Toe Box allows the foot to spread and on the trail offers a steady and balanced ride that can adapt to the terrain.
The MaxTrac outsole features chevron-shaped lugs. The forward-facing point of the chevrons in the forefoot bites into the trails when climbing, while the reversed chevron in the heel helps provide traction when descending.
It’s a light, flexible and versatile trail shoe and given its all-around ability, it’s no wonder it’s so popular.
Offering maximal levels of cushioning, the Via Olympus is the perfect shoe to demonstrate that cushioning needn’t be sacrificed when benefiting from a natural, balanced ride.
With 33mm of Altra EGO foam running the length of the shoe, it’s the brand's highest stack model and gives a luxurious ride while remaining relatively lightweight.
The FootShape Fit provides the familiar Altra fit and with a rocker-shaped forefoot, the shoe encourages a natural propulsion that feels very effective and efficient.