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Float Like a Butterfly, Run Like the Wind: HOKA Clifton 9 Review

CEO Tinh Phung
I Don't Consider Myself a Masochist. Or a Barefoot Runner. But I am skeptical of any running product that promises extreme comfort. In my reckoning, part of the experience of running is the experience of...

I Don't Consider Myself a Masochist. Or a Barefoot Runner.

But I am skeptical of any running product that promises extreme comfort. In my reckoning, part of the experience of running is the experience of discomfort. That’s why exercise is so good for us — other than the obvious physical benefits, a little chosen exposure to discomfort goes a long way in today’s modern world.

So, I was a late adopter of the max cushioning trend, grumbling about the bulbous-looking running shoes populating marathon types and weekend running trails. “Where’s the foot feel? Where’s the connection to the earth? They certainly can’t last long!” I would exclaim to my increasingly exasperated wife, herself wearing HOKAs.

But during a summer landscaping gig in between grad school semesters, when I found myself walking up to 15 miles a day in sturdy work boots, my feet needed a break while my mental health still needed the clarity only running can provide. So I picked up my first pair of HOKAs (Speedgoats that time), with mild self-admonishments of hypocrisy, and found that I had been entirely wrong.

The HOKA Clifton 9 ($145) is the latest iteration from the brand that brought the max cushioning movement mainstream. The Clifton 8 was already great. Yet, this was more than just a makeover: the design team dug deep into the Clifton’s DNA and created a version that makes tangible improvements on the previous, while staying true to the brand’s ethos of comfort above all else. No easy feat (pun intended).

What’s New?

As previously mentioned, the biggest changes with the Clifton 9 are weight and stack height. The team at HOKA shaved off 4 g in the newest version of its flagship product while adding 3 mm of stack height. They achieved this with a redesigned midsole and upper.

The midsole features a new design of the brand’s compression-molded EVA foam. And, the upper has been stripped down of any unnecessary overlay or hotmelts, leaving a simple, lightweight, and comfortable knit upper in its place.

This left room for a plusher heel and an added reflective heel panel for low-light conditions. The overhaul didn’t stop there — HOKA introduced a redesigned outsole, with more durable rubber to resist abrasion and extend the shoe’s life.

The catch-22 of any flagship product is that it needs to evolve, but still be recognizable. HOKA achieved that with flying colors. Despite the litany of changes above, the silhouette is still undeniably HOKA and supremely comfortable.

Comfort and Fit

HOKA’s top performance promise is comfort, and the Clifton 9 is no exception. This was particularly notable while testing several shoes for GearJunkie’s Best Running Shoes buyer’s guide. The Cliftons are recognizably comfortable on their own, but I found I irrationally looked forward to my scheduled HOKA runs.

They felt like a breath of fresh air for tired feet. When choosing a pair of shoes for a run/walk combo (which my jogging stroller runs with a 3-year-old and 1-year-old often can turn into — too many playgrounds and cool bugs on the running route), I consistently reached for the Cliftons. And when I mildly aggravated an old underfoot injury running on the cobblestone streets of Northern England, the Cliftons had enough cushion and cradle to allow me to hit weekly mile goals while babying my foot until I recovered.

A flared heel piece makes the shoe easy to slip into, even without a loop to hold onto. The tongue is gusseted on the outside of the shoes, which doesn’t noticeably affect your ability to pull the shoe on, but does prevent tongue migrations while jogging. And the knit upper is breathable and comfortable.

HOKA also pulls off some clever variation in color schemes, swapping through a round of brighter, seasonal colors while continually offering more neutral staples of black, white, gray, and tan. My testing pair arrived in a blinding Hollywood A-lister-teeth shade of white. Hard to keep them clean, but I got some approving nods from other runners on the local path.

Ride and Durability

We’ve talked about the shoe’s comfort, but how does that translate to running performance? The Clifton does well when used as intended — i.e., a cushioned shoe for Zone 2 training with capabilities for short bursts of speed. The shoe has a neutral, balanced cushion that still leaves some firmness for a responsive toe-off when speed is on the agenda.

It’s by no means a speedwork shoe, but if you experience that elusive runner’s high and feel like tacking on a KOM attempt on your last leg of what was supposed to be a nice recovery run, the Cliftons won’t get in your way.

It’s worth noting that the Clifton’s ride is, well, squishy. That’s the most technical word I could come up with. It’s not a good or bad thing, but it does feel different than other max cushion shoes out there, like On Running’s Cloudsurfer.

While the Clifton is more comfortable, the Cloudsurfer feels firmer and more dynamic. One is not necessarily better than the other; it all depends on what you’re searching for in a shoe.

My biggest knock on HOKA as a brand is in the durability column. Due to the sheer amount of EVA in the shoe, they tend to feel worn out long before more standardly constructed competitors do.

While I’ve gotten a solid 400 miles out of a trusty pair of Brooks, my HOKAs tend to cap out in the 250-300-mile range. Or at least feel noticeably diminished. I’m not near the 250 mark on Clifton’s newly redesigned midsole yet, but I’m hopeful that the compression molding in this version will give it more life than previous HOKAs.

The best running shoe is the one that helps you get out the door. And on days I simply didn’t want to run, sometimes the prospect of the Clifton’s comfort was just enough to get me moving. The Clifton 9 is an update worth celebrating, making marked progress from the previous iteration. It excels in zone 2 workouts, long runs, or anything where some extra comfort will help give you an edge.

Workout sprints in the Clifton 9 Workout sprints in the Clifton 9 (photo/Matthew Medendorp)