Trail Tested: Hoka Challenger 7
Small upgrades have vastly improved this road-to-trail cruiser
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The night before the CCC 100K in Chamonix, France, a few years ago, I was sweating over my shoe choice between an early version of the Hoka Challenger ATR, a well-cushioned all-terrain road-to-trail shoe that I had run copious training miles in, and the just-launched original Hoka Speedgoat, a long-awaited max-cushioned shoe with aggressive traction from a Vibram Megagrip outsole.
I liked the lightweight Challengers (about two ounces lighter than the original Speedgoats) and had run a lot of miles in them, but was leaning toward the bulkier Speedgoats for more protection, traction, and stability, especially because rain was in the forecast. Furthering my dilemma, I bumped into Hoka pro runner Magda Boulet at the race expo that afternoon and found out she was having the same debate.
Early the next morning, when Rich Boulet’s rental car pulled up to pick me for the drive through the tunnel to Courmayeur, I hopped in the back seat and asked Magda which shoes she chose. “Challengers,” she said. “No-brainer. It’s lighter, faster and more agile, and will be good enough on the few technical sections of trail.”
As I tied the laces of my Speedgoats, I realized Magda was probably right and I might have made the wrong choice. It never did rain, so the trails (and sections of road) were dry and stable the entire way to Chamonix. Magda later told me she felt quick and nimble en route to finishing second behind Ruth Croft, while I admittedly felt like I was wearing “too much shoe,” as I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack several hours later.
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Would I have run faster in Challengers? Probably, but I probably would have felt more comfortable running for 62 miles on a mostly buffed-out CCC course in the Challengers, even though I would have slowed slightly on a few treacherous and muddy sections. The point of that story was that the first several versions of the Challengers were really good road-to-trail shoes that could hold their own on moderately technical terrain if needed, even if there were glaring weaknesses.
Fast forward to this month and I’ve been running in the newly released Hoka Challenger 7, which has been vastly updated and is even more adept at being a road/trail crossover shoe. (Note, “ATR” has been dropped from the name, but it’s still an “all-terrain” shoe.) Several modest changes—a thicker midsole made from a new compression molded EVA material, a slightly more aggressive outsole, and a new engineered mesh upper—combine to make it a much better version of its former self.
Lighter, livelier, and more comfortable, the new Challenger 7, like its predecessors, is a great road-to-trail shoe that can hold its own on moderately technical terrain. It’s a much better shoe than it’s ever been, even though it’s still a hybrid or “gravel” shoe best for tackling a mix of milder surfaces.
- Weight: 7.9 oz. (women’s size 8), 8.9 oz. (men’s size 9)
- Heel-Toe Offset: 5mm (31mm in the heel, 26mm in the forefoot)
Wear-Testing The Hoka Challenger 7
I’ve taken the Challenger 7 out 10 times in the past month on a variety of runs that have included sections of paved roads, bike paths, gravel roads, dirt roads, snowy trails, and rocky ridgelines. My first impression was that it still offers the smooth, light sensation of a road running shoe with just enough trail traction to run on mild to very moderate natural terrain. (But runner beware: there’s no built-in toe, sidewall or underfoot protection for trail obstacles!) The Challenger has always been a trail cousin of the lightweight Hoka Clifton road shoe, and that connection remains in the latest iteration with fit, feel, flex and ride sensations you’d expect from an effective road-to-trail shoe.
I appreciated the thicker and slightly more dense midsole, especially on trails. The midsole has the same 5mm heel-toe drop but the stack height is higher (2mm for men, 3mm for women) and the shoe is roughly an ounce lighter, and those tweaks change how the shoe runs and feels quite a bit. In addition to being higher off the ground, the midsole foam also feels both a bit springier and semi-firm—especially on harder surfaces. It’s not nearly as energetic as the supercritical foam of a road-racing super shoe, but it’s much more lively than previous editions of the Challenger. That’s a necessary change and part of the overall evolution of trail shoes. The firmness isn’t awkwardly stiff, but instead a huge improvement in cushioning and stability from the original midsole material, which I always thought was too mushy-soft, a bit wobbly, and not very durable.
On mild trails and gravel roads, it’s a comfy cruiser that serves up a light, agile ride that corners, climbs, and descends very well. Its lean design, rocker geometry, and low-profile lugs allow it to easily run at up-tempo paces over moderate trail terrain without concern for stability, but it also feels right at home at more conservative paces, too.
A smaller technical improvement to the Challenger 7 is the slight upgrade to the segmented rubber outsole. There are more aggressively angled lugs on the edges of the forefoot for better lateral/medial grip and directional lugs in the heel for better braking on downhill terrain. That doesn’t make this shoe exceptional on rugged terrain, but it allows it to do a better job on loose dirt, gravel and other types of technical terrain without inhibiting the smooth sensation running on roads or bike paths.
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Pros and Cons
The Challenger 7 is an extremely versatile shoe that can cover a lot of terrain that most trail runners encounter on a regular basis, especially those who run trails in urban, suburban, or foothill settings.
It can be a workhouse of a training shoe for a wide range of runners, including road runners who dabble in trails, runners who are new to trail running, and even advanced ultrarunners, like Boulet, who are engaged in high-volume training for months on end. Even if you’re training for bigger or more technical mountain races, the Challenger 7 can be a good tool for training runs on mild/moderate terrain.
The thicker midsole is vastly improved for better ride, handling, and durability.
The new upper is made from a higher percentage of recycled materials and does a good job of locking down the foot on hard and smooth surfaces.
The step-in feel of the interior feels soft and plush with ample padding in the heel collar and the soft, gusseted tongue.
The flared heel design eliminated any irritation or tension on my Achilles tendon and also made it easier to pull the shoe on.
Although improved, the Challenger still isn’t the best on long stretches of technical terrain — but it’s not supposed to be.
The outsole is improved, but it’s made from a super-grippy rubber compound and the lugs aren’t configured to handle gnarly terrain or large smooth or angled rock faces.
The upper doesn’t provide optimal midfoot hold on technical terrain, especially when a footstep results in an inward,medial rolling motion.
The Challenger fits a bit narrow toe box and a bit roomy under the arch. Runners with medium-width or wider feet should definitely consider the wide version of this shoe.
There really isn’t any trail-specific protection built into the Challenger 7, including the lack of a reinforced toe bumper.
The Hoka Challenger 7 is an ideal shoe for trail runners who prefer the fit, feel, and ride of a road running shoe and also desire a little bit of trail traction. In that way, it’s great for runners who run trails right from their front door and typically run a mix of pavement, gravel roads and mild trails on a regular basis. Personally, I love running in the new Challenger (especially because it’s more durable) and look forward to running a lot of miles in it this spring and summer as a supplemental tool to my quiver of more technical trail shoes.
Boulder-based Brian Metzler has run more than 75,000 miles in his life, competing in every distance from 50 meters to 100 miles, running the Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim run across the Grand Canyon and back several times, racing pack burros on many occasions and going up Colorado’s Longs Peak 20 times. In 2018, he ran the Great Wall of China, completed the Leadman series and ran a 100K in South Korea. He is the founding editor of Trail Runner and the author of “Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes.”