How HOKAs Became The “It” Sneaker Beloved By Both Marathoners & Fashion People

If you've spent any time looking at running shoes (or everyday ugly dad sneakers, for that matter), it's likely that you've already come across HOKA. Known for its extremely cushioned soles, the chunky sneaker brand doesn't really boast any sleek or sexy silhouettes — but that seems to be part of the overall appeal amongst fanatics who are obsessed with the cloud-like bounce of HOKA styles. And, unlike other global athletic brands that blur the line between the authentic sporty stuff with the more lifestyle-focused, non-athletic wares (that are less appropriate for actual workouts), HOKA continues to operate with a zeroed-in, singular focus: to provide solutions for people who are constantly on their feet, whether they're marathon runners, nurses, or pavement-pounding urbanites. In other words, HOKA sticks to what it knows and doesn't try too hard (or doesn't even seem to care) to be something that they're not.
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"At first, our consumers consisted primarily of runners who were ‘in the know’ about athletic shoe trends, and now everyone is trying HOKA — college kids, Olympic athletes, streetwear influencers, fashion designers, walkers, people who are recovering from an injury, etc.," Gretchen Weimer, HOKA's Global VP of Product, writes me in an email. "Our dedication to providing both an exceptional product and an ethos of inclusivity has led to a substantial amount of word-of-mouth recommendations that has propelled us to become one of the fastest-growing brands in the industry." (On the topic of the brand's inclusive styles, Weimer writes, "We know that men and women often share the same desire for both colorful or neutral-colored footwear, but the difference comes down to the wearing occasion. The approach with our all-gender styles was more driven by that desire, and not trying to specify that certain styles or colors are only for men or women; it feels more inclusive.") And, in a series of very smart partnerships, HOKA has also catapulted into the fashion stratosphere via collaborations with hip brands like Outdoor Voices, Opening Ceremony, and Engineered Garments.
But, even after many successful runs on limited-edition collab styles, HOKA remains loyal to the long-distance joggers who first put the brand on the map. Colorado-based Hayley Cashdollar, who has completed eight marathons, two ultramarathons, and typically runs at least an hour every day and several hours on weekends, says, "I first heard about HOKAs years ago when one of my friends was having trouble with her feet and high-impact HIIT classes. She found HOKA and loved them...so I also took the plunge and found they were perfect for my recovery runs on the day after long runs. They were like running on clouds and were noticeably more comfortable on my feet. I'm not looking for that type of comfort on all of my runs, but it has a time and place and HOKAs are a great recovery tool for me personally." When I asked if she's noticed how HOKAs have been embraced by style folks, she observes, "With sneakers, in general, being so popular, it feels inevitable that something as unique as the big sole on the HOKA would capture the attention of non-runners."
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NYC-based running coach and jump rope enthusiast Caitlin Lee (who has run nine marathons and over 100 road races), tells me she also discovered HOKA through word-of-mouth: "I first heard about HOKAs from my running friends in 2015 or 2016. My initial reaction was that they were ugly and bulky-looking, and it was hard to transition from the idea of ultralight shoes that also looked minimalist. The reason I gave in, though, was because they are truly very supportive and well-made. I feel that they actually impacted my running form, forcing me to use more of my foot, rather than just running on my forefoot," she says. Plus, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she lives, "people stop me on the street all the time — if I'm at a stoplight to cross, someone always has a comment [on my HOKAs]. And I definitely see people just wearing them with dresses or jeans."
When HOKA sent over a pair of Bondi X for me to test drive, I first thought the brand sent me the wrong size — the shoes looked huge. Turns out, I was fooled by the protruding soles. The sneakers did fit true to size. And, the soles were so bouncy and cushy that I felt like I had slight motion sickness (which quickly dissipated once I got used to the squishiness). The shoes also have a rocking quality to them that makes me want to spring forward. As a person who primarily runs for the bus or subway, and occasionally runs for the purpose of cardio (though, TBH, I can only really do up to one mile before I'm pooped), I can see how HOKAs encourage "running behavior." Despite the soles being so thick, the shoes are actually super lightweight because of all the advanced technical details.
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"A few elements that make HOKAs stand out are our Meta-Rocker geometry, which complements the natural gait cycle and reduces the height differential between heel and toe," says Weimer. "And our styles are equipped with carbon fiber plates, allowing for a propulsive ride as the plate curls under toes to deliver a smooth transition through the gait cycle."
Below, I asked Weimer to identify and elaborate on the brand's five top-selling sneaker styles for women, what activity they're best suited for, and how each style is differentiated. And, for your sneaker-shopping convenience, these are also sorted in the order of most hyped to least hyped, based on real customer ratings and reviews found on hoka.com.
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Product Breakdown: Available in 10 colors, widths regular and wide, women's sizes 5–12
Best For: Road running
What The Brand Says: "This is the most cushioned shoe in the HOKA road shoe lineup, delivering a smooth, balanced ride over any distance with its ultra-soft memory foam designed to accommodate a narrower heel and a collar that conforms to a wide variety of ankles, cradling the Achilles," says Weimer.
The Hype: 4.5 out of 5 stars and 4,412 reviews on hoka.com
What HOKA Fans Say: "I have very wide feet and usually have to resort to men's shoes to get the width I need. Hoka Bondis are so very comfortable, and I can get them in women's styles! My shoes are so very comfortable and I love them very much. I've now gotten my husband, my two best friends, and their husbands to get Hokas for themselves. One of the men even claims that wearing them has helped his back issues a bit. I love these shoes, and highly recommend them. I'm on my third pair BTW, and have no intentions of ever changing brands."
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Product Breakdown: Available in 7 colors, widths regular and wide, women's sizes 5–11, all gender sizes M5/W6–M14/W15, and in waterproof GORE-TEX
Best For: Trail running
What The Brand Says: "Named for HOKA athlete Karl 'Speedgoat' Meltzer, the Speedgoat 4 is part of an award-winning family known for making quick work of technical terrain. Grippy on the uphill and secure on the downhill, the Speedgoat 4 is fit for every trail," says Weimer.
The Hype: 4.2 out of 5 stars and 525 reviews on hoka.com
What HOKA Fans Say: "These are hands down the most comfortable shoes I've ever worn. I'm an RN, running on my feet all day, days on end. These are awesome, comfortable and cute! I literally feel like I have a bounce in my step."
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Product Breakdown: Available in 7 colors, widths regular and wide, women's sizes 5–12
Best For: Road running
What The Brand Says: "The Clifton 8 delivers the perfect combination of soft and light with one of our most energetic foams to date, perfect for pounding pavement," says Weimer.
The Hype: 4.5 out of 5 stars and 408 reviews on hoka.com
What HOKA Fans Say: "I got the Clifton 8 after reading so many reviews, and seeing they had a 30-day wear and return policy. I wore them for park days at Disney World, and they are the first shoe in years to make my feet feel the same in the morning and at night. I have broken my big toe, and have Plantar Fasciitis in my right foot, so no shoe is ever comfortable too long, but these were great. They are like walking on clouds. And I didn't need to do much breaking in before wearing them to the parks. I wore them a day or two to work before heading to Disney. Highly recommend!!!"
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Product Breakdown: Available in 8 colors, regular width only, women's sizes 5–11
Best For: Road running
What The Brand Says: "Positioned as an endurance racer, the Carbon X2 delivers the same propulsive speed as its predecessor in an adaptable silhouette geared for training and racing alike," says Weimer.
The Hype: 4.5 out of 5 stars and 109 reviews on hoka.com
What HOKA Fans Say: "These are wonderful! I am loathe to praise them too much, yet, as it's only been a few dozen miles, but - fingers crossed - I've had no ITB/knee issues since the switch [to these sneakers], and have been loving the sheer feeling of propulsion in these."
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Product Breakdown: Available in 5 colors, widths regular and wide, women's sizes 5–12
Best For: Road running
What The Brand Says: "Delivering the best cushion-to-weight ratio on the market, the Rincon 3 is an extremely light silhouette with an asymmetrical tongue, thinner pull tab, and a vented-mesh upper for ultimate breathability," says Weimer. "Also, our extra-light midsole foam sports aggressive cutouts and enhanced rubber coverage for improved durability."
The Hype: 3.9 out of 5 stars and 36 reviews on hoka.com
What HOKA Fans Say: "Man… I'm usually a Clifton girl but I was really interested to give the Rincon a try and I'm SO glad I did. I was a little nervous about how light the shoes were out of the box, like cmon these are really gonna feel good?!?! Well butter my biscuit YEPPPPP! I felt super light and my feet and the responsiveness of the shoes is impressive! Glad I made the switch!!"
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