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Shoe Review: Hoka Skyward X ($225) – Maxing out on Maximal Cushioning



About 15 years ago, Nico Mermoud was walking through the The Running Event trade show in Austin, Texas, with a bag full of samples of new, yet-to-be-launched shoes from the new shoe brand he was helping launch with colleagues Jean-Luc Diard and Christophe Aubonnet. The running world had seen a lot of new brands pop up in recent years – K-Swiss, Newton, Under Armour, and Vibram Five Fingers, to name a few – and was also in the middle of a minimalist shoe revolution when the biggest trend was shoes with very little midsole cushioning. So what did Mermoud, Diard, and Aubonnet come up with that was different? Their new brand, Hoka, was centered around lightweight, maximally cushioned shoes and rockered geometries that promoted efficient running.


Among the people most intrigued by the new Hoka sample shoes was Mark Plaatjes, who not only had been the 1993 marathon world champion but was also one of the country’s leading running physical therapists and running retailers. Long story short, Plaatjes and then-Boulder Running Company co-owner Johnny Halberstadt bought all 600 or so pairs of Hoka’s first production run and, amid the peak of the minimalist shoe boom, maximalism was born and Hoka was off to a flying start. 


While the Hoka founders were banking on the idea that runners love cushioning, their shoes were also easy to run in. By sourcing lightweight materials – including first-generation midsole foams that made their shoes seem impossibly light – and incorporating the rocker shape, they created softly cushioned shoes that allowed runners to run with an uninhibited natural running gait.


Unless you’re new to running or haven’t bought running shoes in a long time, then you certainly know how Hoka shoes have exploded in popularity and led to the modern shoe design paradigm focused on comfort, cushioning, and propulsion. (By the way, Plaatjes is now the owner of InMotion Running in Boulder, Colorado, and still sells a lot of Hoka running shoes.)


Fast-forward to this spring and Hoka has released its most cushioned shoe yet – the Skyward X ($225), a new everyday training shoe with an exceptionally thick, soft and bouncy oversized midsole, a carbon-fiber propulsion plate, and numerous other features aimed to enhance running comfort and efficiency. But it doesn’t fall into the category of a marathon racing super shoe or even that of a super trainer, but instead pushes the boundaries of the supermax everyday training category. 


What’s New: Everything about this shoe is brand new. The key elements are the high-stack Peba/EVA foam midsole sandwiched around a carbon-fiber plate that all contributes to a soft, bouncy, and propulsive ride, but the rocker shape (something that most Hoka shoes have featured since the start) is also crucial to this shoes’ runnability. Other features include a stretchy and supportive flat-knit upper, segments of durable rubber on the outsole for traction, and a flared heel collar for easy entry and comfort.


Fit/Feel/Ride: The Skyward X fits true to size with a medium interior volume and a sufficiently roomy toe box that allows for plenty of wiggle room. The soft, medium-thick tongue isn’t gusseted, but it’s supported on each side by wide interior saddle support bands that are integrated into the lacing system. All in all, it provides a secure fit that’s enhanced by the stretchy, supportive, and breathable upper material. The step-in feeling is soft and seamless despite having only a modest amount of padding around the heel collar and a rather basic sockliner.


The most intriguing aspect of the Skyward X is the ride. Hoka definitely broke the mold to build this shoe. With its cartoonishly thick midsole and convex carbon-fiber propulsion plate, it produces a very springy and cushy sensation in every stride. It’s a premium cushioning platform – one of the most energetic midsoles Hoka has ever put into a shoe – with a lively layer of responsive Peba foam directly under the foot and above the plate, and a stable and secure layer of EVA foam below the plate. It has a stiff and propulsive demeanor, but it feels decidedly different than max-cushioned, plated racing super shoes or super trainers because, well, it’s just very high off the ground.


Why It’s Great: If you’re looking for a supermax training shoe – either because you like that energetic, max-cushioned sensation or because you’re a taller or bigger runner who wants or needs more cushioning and support – then you’ll likely love the Skyward X. Although it takes a little bit of getting used to, once you get rolling with consistent strides, it’s a shoe that can feel buttery smooth from heel to toe at slow to moderate paces. For that reason, it can be great for recovery runs and long runs in which up-tempo running isn’t a necessity. (I ran a 12-miler at about 9-minute mile pace in it and really liked it for its comfort, cushioning, and resiliency, but I also didn’t feel like I could shift gears to faster paces.)


Noteworthy: The Skyward X has an enormous 48mm/43mm midsole stack height profile (46mm/41mm for the women’s model) – which is over the World Athletics legal standard for racing – but ignore the foolishness of calling it an “illegal” shoe. It would technically be illegal for elite runners in sanctioned races, but there is no restriction on any runner wearing it in training or in a race. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend wearing it in a race if a fast, performance-oriented result is desired. It’s a very responsive shoe, but it’s not very fast. The extremely high-off-the-ground profile certainly offers a new sensation and could pose lateral stability issues for some runners who already run with gait instability issues.


Specifications:

Weights: 9.6 oz. (women’s 8); 11.3 oz. (men’s 9) Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm; 46mm in the heel/41mm in the forefoot for women; 48mm in the heel/43mm in the forefoot for men


Why You’ll Love It: You’ll love it if you’re looking for an exaggerated amount of energetic cushiness. Oddly, this is similar to what two of Hoka’s original shoes (the Mafate trail shoe and the Bondi road shoe) felt like when they first came out in 2010. Those shoes were relatively light and cushy, but they didn’t have the propulsive spring that the Skyward X has. However, the reception of those original shoes was relative to what runners have been used to, and the same applies to this one. If you’ve run in high-stack shoes like the Saucony Kinvara Pro, New Balance Supercomp Trainer v2, or Adidas Prime X2 Strung, you’ll appreciate what the Skyward X is all about. If you’ve been training in soft, lower-to-the-ground shoes – for example, the Hoka Clifton 9, Saucony Endorphin Speed 3, or Nike Pegasus 40 – then this shoe might initially feel like it's from outer space.


Pro: The flat-knit upper offers a great combination of breathability, suppleness, speciousness, and support. To me, the best way of knowing the upper is a good one is when you don’t notice it for being too sloppy, too hot, or too restrictive, and that’s the case here with no noticeable flaws.


Con: Compared to most other everyday trainers, it’s a bit heavier. (It weighs about an ounce more than the Adidas Prime X2 Strung, another supermax training shoe, and it’s two ounces heavier than most other everyday trainers.) It’s also not a shoe that seems conducive to faster paces.

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