Only a short while ago, running shoes had a simple design: mostly flat with a modest upward tilt at the toe. But then brands like MBT and Hoka, among others, revolutionised the scene with their unique maximalist rocker style.
More and more shoe brands today are integrating the rocker design into their lineup. It’s evident that this isn't just a fashion trend—it's a design that genuinely works. Step into this guide with us as we dissect everything about rockered shoes, enabling you to gauge if they're the perfect fit for your runs!
What does a "rocker" mean in running shoes?
While many in the running community are already familiar with the term, some still find the concept of a "rocker" mysterious. Well, a rocker shoe is one that features a pronounced curve reminiscent of a rocking chair's base. Yes, that’s where the name comes from!
The ASICS Superblast is an excellent example of a highly rockered shoe.
The concept behind the “rocker” is straightforward. Think about the motion of a rocking chair.
Its rounded base allows it to rock back and forth with ease. Similarly, the curved design of the rockered sole propels you forward during your stride. Just as it takes less effort to rock in a rocking chair compared to pushing a regular chair back and forth, rockered shoes try to replicate that effortless transition, although they don't work for every runner.
Why? Because there's a significant caveat to consider: everyone has a unique running style, which is why rockered shoes are not for everyone.
Just head to a popular running spot in your city and watch runners for just 20 minutes. You'll be astounded by the variety in foot strikes and stride lengths among different individuals. The same shoe simply can't be perfect for such varied techniques.
The perfect example
This difference might lead you to believe that rockered shoes are superior. However, that's not necessarily true. They're just different and might be either a perfect fit or not quite right for your running style. Let's discover if a rockered shoe is the right choice for you.
Rocker shoes: A perfect match for these runners
Using a running shoe with a rocker can make a noticeable difference in your running dynamics. A recent study highlighted that rocker-soled shoes alter the movement patterns and muscle activity in your legs during a run.
What's the science behind it? Rockered shoes essentially mimic the natural curves of your foot and ankle. This design aids in reducing the pressure on the ankle and toes, especially during the final moments of your stride while running.
Hoka is among the brands that have adopted rocker technology, as seen in the Clifton 9.
Rockered shoes might be the ideal match for you if you have:
- Plantar fasciitis or heel pain. It's been discovered that for these conditions, rockered shoes work if the sole is curved. However, it won't help if your feet inside the shoe are also curved.
- Toe or forefoot pain, like Morton’s neuroma. Tests have shown these shoes can consistently relieve this type of discomfort.
- Achilles tendon issues. This design shifts the pressure away from the Achilles area. In fact, have you seen orthopaedic boots for Achilles issues? They have a pronounced curve, similar to many rockered shoes!
- Limited ankle movement or dorsiflexion. Rockered designs offer relief for this limitation.
- Regular calf or hamstring discomfort. These shoes have been found to reduce strain in such instances.
- Reduced toe extension.
- Longer runs in your schedule. Especially in the final miles of a long run, many shift their foot strike towards the heel. Rockered shoes can assist in this transition so you can keep rolling forward.
- A heel-striking running style combined with instability. It's been measured that a rocker aids in achieving a smoother stride, promoting forward motion and minimising sideways movement. For this benefit, a full heel-to-toe rocker is vital, not just a toe-focused one, like in the plantar fasciitis case.
- Master runners! As age progresses, mobility and strength can decrease in the ankle, foot, and toe joints. Rockered shoes reduce strain in these areas, shifting the workload to the knee and hip. This could be especially advantageous for mature runners.
Another crucial aspect we consider is the pure joy of running. Maintaining your dedication to the sport requires the experience to be both enjoyable and invigorating.
We've found that rockered shoes often provide a more thrilling ride than non-rockered ones. They frequently simplify the act of running. If strapping on a rockered shoe gets you lacing up even on frosty mornings, then its value is evident—even if it might not align perfectly from a biomechanical standpoint.
When rockered shoes might not be your best choice
Certain runners may benefit more from avoiding rockered shoes, suggesting that a classic, non-rockered option might align better with their running style.
PUMA often opts for a non-rockered design in many of their running shoes, such as the Velocity Nitro 2.
For instance, when relying on rockered shoes that lessen the load on the foot and toes, there's a potential risk of diminishing foot strength over time. This effect mirrors that of carbon plates, and the impact can heighten when the two are combined—as seen in models like the Nike Alphafly 2.
Moreover, if we encounter knee or hip challenges, it's essential to tread lightly with rockered shoes. Shifting pressure away from the foot and ankle doesn't make it disappear. Instead, it relocates to other parts of your body, notably the anterior chain. This shift might introduce added strain on your knees and hips, possibly resulting in injuries like:
- Runner's knee (Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome)
- Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS)
- Meniscus tears
- Patellar tendinitis, also known as "jumper's knee", which is inflammation of the patellar tendon connecting the kneecap to the shinbone
- Hip flexor strain, arising when one or more hip flexor muscles become overstretched or torn
- Hip bursitis
- Labral tear of the hip
Moreover, forefoot strikers with responsive ankles and toes might prefer a more natural sensation, often choosing flatter shoes for their daily runs. Such footwear can encourage increased activity of the Achilles tendon and toes, which is the opposite of what rockered shoes offer.
What led to the rise of rockered shoe design?
Introduced in 2023, the Hoka Mach X offers a rockered running experience.
They're effective, notably in lessening the effort on the ankles and toes—even when walking, as evidenced by a 2020 study. And as outlined in the section on rockered shoes' benefits, this geometry makes running easier for most individuals.
Another pivotal element is the pronounced stack height in modern running shoes. Take, for example, training shoes like the ASICS Superblast, which go beyond the 40 mm threshold. Assisting runners in flexing the forefoot becomes vital in such cases. Due to the difficulty in flexing the forefoot area in high-stack shoes, designers often integrate a rocker to facilitate the transition during toe-off.
Additionally, the heel-to-toe drop plays a key role. The greater the drop in a running shoe, the less crucial the rocker is, both biomechanically and in terms of performance. Conversely, as observed in zero-drop shoes like Altra, they often feature a pronounced rocker.
Finally, brands love to claim that their shoes can enhance speed. Thus, it's logical to see many contemporary running shoe brands incorporating rockers, especially in their speed training and racing models.
How to start using rockered shoes without risking an injury
In the world of running, gradual adjustments are crucial. Whether transitioning from zero-drop to high-drop shoes, from flexible to stiff carbon-plated shoes, or shifting from a heel-strike to a midfoot or forefoot strike, every change requires a period of adaptation. Rockered shoes are no exception.
To begin incorporating rockered shoes, we recommend a phased approach. Let's consider a practical scenario: If your running rotation comprises two non-rockered pairs and two rockered pairs, aim to slowly transition 10% of your mileage weekly or even monthly to the rockered shoes, assuming you want to maximise their use.
For instance, if you run 50 miles a week, begin with a relaxed 5-mile run in the rockered pair. The following week, do two 5-mile runs, and by the third week, attempt a 10-mile run and a 5-mile run.
Continue this progression if you're feeling good. If you encounter any niggle or something that feels off, maintain the same mileage in the rockered shoes the subsequent week/month or even reduce it slightly.
Types of rockers in running shoes
There are three primary types of rockers: heel-to-toe rocker, toe rocker, and shoes without a rocker. Now, let's provide an example of each, accompanied by a detailed explanation, so you can easily distinguish between them.
Full-length rockers are prevalent in running shoes. Essentially, this means the shoe's sole has a continuous curve from the heel to the toe.
The rear curve primarily benefits heel strikers by facilitating a smoother roll forward upon foot impact. Conversely, the curve at the front enhances push-off using the toes.
While many running shoes sport a slight upward curve at the back, the distinguishing factor for full-length rockers is the curve's starting point. For these shoes, the upward curve initiates right under the heel, not behind it.
We typically encounter this rocker design in shoes designed for recovery days and regular training sessions—times when runners are more inclined to land on their heels due to a relaxed pace.
The toe rocker design is strategically positioned, starting from the midfoot and extending to the toe. This specific design is tailored to benefit those runners who predominantly strike with their midfoot or forefoot.
By facilitating a quicker transition to the toe-off phase, it minimises the dependency on ankle flexion, thereby optimising the running efficiency. This design also imparts a sensation of forward propulsion, allowing runners to maintain momentum without significantly altering their technique.
The ASICS Gel Kayano 30 showcases a toe rocker design.
Choosing the right rocker can sometimes be really hard. You might be seeking that added boost—the sense of being thrust forward that a rocker can provide—without compromising the health and mechanics of your knees and hips. In such scenarios, the toe rocker emerges as a promising solution.
If you find yourself wavering between the benefits and potential drawbacks of rockered shoes, the toe rocker might just be the balanced choice you're searching for!
Shoes with no rocker design are more traditional in the realm of running footwear. These shoes maintain a relatively flat profile, lacking the upward curve present in full-length and toe rockers. And are the ones that we all used to run for decades, like the so-called racing flats.
While shoes with rocker designs can guide specific foot movements and help with transitions, those without rockers, like the Adidas Adizero Adios 8, offer a direct experience during running.
Without the distinct curve, these shoes tend to offer a more grounded feel. They can be particularly beneficial for those who want a direct connection with the ground or runners who've honed a specific technique that doesn't require the aid of a rocker.
This design gives you genuine feedback from each step on the ground and proves especially beneficial during speed training, especially for those with quick-reacting ankles and toes. Typically, the faster you run, the better these non-rockered shoes will suit you.
We often see runners choosing non-rockered shoes when they're aiming for more control and stability, or for track workouts.
Rocker-Specific Shoe Recommendations
In the table below, we have curated a list of 15 running shoes, each exemplifying the different types of rockers available in the market and purposes. This comprehensive recommendation aims to give you a clearer understanding of the variety and nuances of shoe rockers.
|Saucony Endorphin Shift 3||Heel-to-toe||Daily training|
|Mizuno Wave Rebellion Pro||Heel-to-toe||Competition|
|ASICS Nimbus 25||Heel-to-toe||Easy runs|
|On Cloudsurfer 7||Heel-to-toe||Daily training|
|Hoka Mach X||Heel-to-toe||Tempo|
|Puma Velocity Nitro 2||Toe||Versatile|
|Saucony Endorphin Pro 3||Toe||Competition|
|ASICS Metaspeed Sky+||Toe||Competition|
|ASICS Gel Kayano 30||Toe||Stability|
|Hoka Arahi 6||Toe||Stability / Daily training|
|Brooks Ghost 15||None||Daily training|
|Nike Pegasus 40||None||Daily training|
|Altra Lone Peak 7||None||Trail|
|Nike Streakfly||None||Tempo / Short races|
|Brooks Hyperion||None||Tempo / Short races|
Hoka Meta-Rocker: Early Stage and Late Stage
While Hoka hasn’t invented the rocker in running shoes, we have to credit them as the running shoe company that really pushed this technology to the mainstream. However, they always offered a little bit of confusion because of their two types of Meta-Rocker: Early Stage and Late Stage:
- Early Stage Meta-Rocker: starts near the midfoot (~60% of the length). Hoka claims that this type of Meta-Rocker is made to go fast, and gives smooth transitions from heel to forefoot.
- Late Stage Meta-Rocker: starts closer to the toes (~75% of the length). In this case, Hoka says that it’s made for everyday runs and added stability.
But nothing like a visual to understand these two concepts, right?
Rocker designs across various running shoe brands
Today, many running shoe brands have incorporated rocker technology into several of their models. Yet, while most brands utilise this feature, only a few, like Saucony and ASICS, have given it a distinctive name.
Saucony integrated rocker technology into some of their running shoes. This addition marked a notable shift in the brand's approach to running shoe dynamics.
The design, which features a rocker curvature, aims to facilitate a smoother transition from heel strike to toe-off, but that's also the reason why Speedroll doesn't work well for forefoot strikers.
The Endorphin series, which encompasses models such as the Endorphin Pro 3 and Endorphin Speed 3, includes the Speedroll technology, and it’s paired with Saucony's Pebax-based PWRRUN PB foam. This combination is intended to support both speed and comfort in the shoe's design.
In recent years, a few runners have reported experiencing toe pain with Speedroll shoes. While this issue seems minor for some, it persists for others. If you experience similar discomfort, it might be beneficial to consider a different brand or a shoe without such a pronounced rocker.
ASICS introduced the GUIDESOLE technology with their premium-priced MetaRide running shoe in 2019. They conducted extensive research at the ASICS Institute of Sport Science, a facility where the brand has meticulously developed and tested products since 1980 before introducing them to the market.
The GUIDESOLE technology is characterised by its precisely engineered curve, designed to facilitate a smoother transition from heel strike to toe-off. This design aims to minimise ankle flexion, potentially lessening the strain on essential muscle groups, thereby enhancing running economy—the Holy Grail of long-distance racing.
While the MetaRide didn't drastically shake up the market or rival competitors like the Nike Vaporfly Next%, it paved the way for true next-generation racing shoes such as the Metaspeed Sky+ and Metaspeed Edge+. In these models, the GUIDESOLE technology plays a pivotal role, as depicted in the video above.
Trail shoes and rocker soles
Rocker soles might not be the best fit for trail running unless you're tackling gravel paths or beginner trails, much like many ultra-marathons in the United States.
In these cases, trail running shoes perform almost as well as their road counterparts, making them a solid performance choice. However, they fall short on more technical trails, and that's why most trail shoes doesn't implement a rocker.
Take the Brooks Divide 4 as an example of a traditional non-rockered trail shoe.
Adidas Terrex Agravic Speed Ultra. Photo: Adidas
Then there's Adidas, which is leaning into the ultra-rockered design. Their upcoming trail racer, the Adidas Terrex Agravic Speed Ultra, has a noticeably pronounced rocker, despite being entirely designed for trail running.
Adidas isn't alone. Brands like Saucony, with the Endorphin Edge, and Brooks, with the Cascadia 16, are jumping on the bandwagon. Still, rockers in the trail world are generally more understated. Meanwhile, some brands, like Nike and ASICS, are choosing to avoid rockers in their trail designs at least for now.
Rockered shoes have secured their place in the running world. Scientific studies confirm that they enhance performance for many runners, offering not only efficiency but also a unique and fun ride.
Yet, adopting this technology requires certain considerations. There's an essential adaptation phase when transitioning to rockered soles. Additionally, it's wise to mix in some miles in non-rockered shoes to maintain ankle dorsiflexion and toe strength. Over-reliance on the rocker design might have long-term negative consequences.
The On Cloudmonster boasts a monster rocker design!
Finally, it's crucial to understand that rockered shoes aren't a universal solution. They resonate differently with each runner. But if you discover they're a great fit for you, then they might just be the next addition to your running shoe rotation!