Outsole Width a Determiner of Run Shoe Speed

I’m going to be reviewing three popular training models of HOKA One One this week: the Stinson ATR 4, the Bondi 5 and the Vanquish 3. These are all great shoes. Well, one is great, one is good, and one… just not my kind of shoe!

The interesting thing to me is how these shoes behave as a result of features that you never read about. One is the width of the outsole (the bottom of the shoe). Below are all three of these shoes.

The Bondi 5 is on the left, the Vanquish 3 center, and the Stinson ATR 4 right. I’m a confirmed Bondi guy, for training. Why? Because I train almost exclusively offroad, on narrow and curvey up-mountain billy goat trails. I need a base of support under me. See how wide that Bondi is? And, not just through the heel, but also in the forefoot.

Likewise the Stinson ATR 4. That shoe is about the same as the Bondi 5 in rearfoot outsole width, but it’s slightly wider in the forefoot (with an asterisk which I'll describe near the end).

But the Vanquish! Not so much. It’s a narrower shoe and when I run on trails in this shoe I have to be careful. Especially this Vanquish, because the 3 is narrower than the 2 that it replaced. The Vanquish 3 reminds me of the old original HOKA One One Conquest, the one with all the RMAT in it (making the original version of that shoe quite hard – not cushy). While there are several differences between the Vanquish 3 and the original Conquest (the tongue, the materials), the narrowness of the outsole is one thing the two shoes share.

And here is the upshot: The Vanquish 3 is the fastest of these three shoes I’m writing about this week. (For me.) Just, in terms of raw tarmac footspeed. However – and I’ll get to this when I review this shoe – it gained some weight! It’s a fair bit heavier than the old Vanquish, and it’s even heavier than the Bondi. HOKA has the new Vanquish at .4oz heavier than the new Bondi, I have mine at .2oz heavier (I’m running in 11.5 versus size-9 mens which is what shoe companies use for stated weights).

But the Vanquish is for me a faster shoe. Why? (From here on in, I’m writing solely on the basis of my experience; hazarding an educated guess.)

It's because of outsole width. Is there data on this? Is there the shoe industry version of bicycle tire rolling resistance, where we know that speed is in part a function of outsole dimension? Not that I know of.

And, I don’t think it has anything to do with friction, per se, as if that’s the end-of-story. I think it’s a biomechanical thing; and a time-on-ground thing. Let me explain.

One reason I think the fastest shoes are the flattest shoes (why racing flats traditionally have less drop than trainers a generation ago with 12mm and 15mm heel-to-forefoot drops) is that, even for midfoot strikers that heel is going to hit first, and lever your foot down. It’s like an airliner touching down.

I think – just based on five decades as a competitive runner – that this isn’t simply a fore/aft thing, I think it works in the transverse plane (is that the right plane? Pardon if my plane nomenclature fails me; what I mean is side-to-side). I come down on the outside of my heel (as we all do). Because of this I strike first, and earlier(!), when running in a shoe that has a wider footprint in the rearfoot. Same thing when I toe off. That wider shoe leaves the planet later than the narrower shoe, because while I (and you) land on the outsides of our heels, almost all of us blast off from the insides of our forefeet (if you don’t believe me, look at the wear pattern on your shoes).

It’s not just that my wider shoe spends more time on the ground. It’s that the shoe levers my biomechanics. It forces me to alter my footfall, both as I touch down and as I toe off. So, it feels clunkier. I feel uncoordinated. It feels motion controlly. Even if two shoes are identical in every way except for the width of the outsole, the shoes will behave for me very differently.

Now, to be clear, I’m still a Bondi guy! Why? Because I need that wide base of support where I train. I always feel just a little like I’m running on shoes as wide as ice skates when I’m trail running in the Vanquish 3. Not so the Vanquish 2! That shoe was fine on the trails – because it was wider!

What differences are we talking about? My size Bondi 5 has a rearfoot max outsole width of 10.0cm versus 9.3cm for the Vanquish 3. The Bondi 5 has a max forefoot outsole width of 12.0cm versus 11.2cm for the Vanquish 3. I’m measuring the width of the outsoles at the point of ground contact, not the entire outside width of the shoe. Oddly, while the Stinson ATR 4 is definitely wider than the Bondi, it isn’t wider at the point of ground contact. There are knobbies on that shoe (it’s an offroad shoe) and the max width from knobbie to knobbie is less than on the Bondi. (Which is one reason I really like the Bondi as a trail shoe!)

But the Vanquish 3 is a faster shoe on the road, even thought it’s heavier both than the old Vanquish 2 and the new Bondi 5. In this case, the width of a shoe's outsole has become a primary metric determining speed, overwhelming the differences in the shoe weights.