The company that would become one of the biggest names in sports began with a guy selling imported shoes from the back of his car. Phil Knight, a former runner for the University of Oregon, started Blue Ribbon Sports in 1962 to sell Onitsuka (later known as Asics) shoes in the US. In 1964, his former coach, Bill Bowerman, joined him and began experimenting with new running shoe designs, and that itch to push the envelope has been a Nike hallmark ever since. Although it’s now a global behemoth, Nike has maintained a strong commitment to creating shoes that help runners go faster and longer.
Building the house of swoosh and air
Early successes helped the company (which changed its name to Nike in 1978) establish itself among runners. In 1972, Knight and Bowerman released the Cortez, one of Nike’s most iconic shoes. Designed to be lighter and more water resistant than other sneakers, the Cortez gained a following for its full-length cushioned EVA midsole, a new feature that gave runners unprecedented comfort and shock absorption.
Another notable Nike invention of this era was the Air Sole design, which featured two air-filled bags in the midsole to absorb shocks. It debuted on the Air Tailwind shoe in 1978, but Nike continued to refine the design and released Zoom Air cushioning in 1995—technology that continues in the Air Zoom shoes of today. For decades, this cushioning system has provided superior bounce and responsiveness for much less weight than other materials.
Nike's advanced upper constructions
Nike has grown exponentially since the 1970s, but it has maintained its dominance in running even while branching into other sports. Part of this running industry success is attributable to advanced upper designs that especially benefit runners. Many Nikes utilize a Flyknit upper construction, where a lightweight yarn is woven tightly in some areas of the shoe and loosely in others. Flywire, another upper technology, uses a series of cables that connect a shoe’s laces and loop under the arch to provide a fit that grips your midfoot. Many brands offer woven mesh designs, but Nike’s features are built to match the way your foot moves as you stride. They create a secure, sock-like fit where you need it and greater breathability and flexibility in other areas—all without piecing together different materials.
Taking a side in the foam wars
Unlike other brands, Nike does its chemistry in-house, and its foams are the product of years of experimentation. One early success was Lunarlon, a blend of EVA and bouncy nitrile rubber that debuted in the Lunaracer in 2008 and won a following for its springy, responsive feel. More recently, Nike released React foam in the Epic React Flyknit in 2017. Designers honed the formula to maximise cushioning, energy return, and durability while maintaining a low weight. RW lab tests on the Epic React confirm the foam’s impressive balance of softness and bounce, and testers felt a noticeable improvement from Lunarlon-based shoes.
The ZoomX foam found in the Vaporfly 4% ups the ante even more. Refined to save weight and increase softness, the foam is matched with a carbon fiber plate in the midsole; these two elements deliver 85% energy return and exceptional bounce at toe-off, which helps propel you forward. Sports medicine researchers and The New York Times backed up Nike’s claims, but the best proof is at the podium: In 2017, 19 top finishers in six major marathons wore Vaporflys. Even so, you don’t have to be a pro to reap the benefits.
While Nike has plenty of high-end kicks to choose from, the company offers bargains, too (we picked several below). Considering that many of its models, like the Pegasus, are also highly versatile, investing in a pair of Nikes often means getting shoes that can handle nearly any run you decide to take. Find the right pair for you below:
Price - £129.95
Best Nike shoe for - Races, racking up PBs, and going fast over long distances.
The Zoom Fly is built on some of the same technology used in the Vaporfly 4%, which makes it a great pick for everyday runners who want a speedy pair of kicks to take them through training and race day. A knit upper with integrated Flywire cables offers support for faster paces, and the React foam midsole includes a carbon fiber plate (the same one used in the Vaporfly) for added bounce. It’s a versatile training shoe that can also stick with you through longer races. A Flyknit version of this shoe is out on 1 October 2018.
Air Zoom Pegasus 35
Price - £104.95
Best Nike shoe for - Everything from a recovery jog to marathon training.
The Pegasus has long been a staple in Nike’s lineup, and it’s no surprise: this is an incredibly versatile shoe. The latest version comes with a full length Zoom Air unit in the midsole wrapped in Cushlon foam for good cushion and a little extra bounce in your step. A bootie-style upper grips the midfoot but offers a roomy toe box for a snug fit that doesn’t feel cramped. On the bottom, the full rubber outsole is cut with grooves for flexibility, which promotes your natural stride and keeps the rubber in contact with the ground as you move.
Air Zoom Pegasus Turbo
Price - £159.95
Best Nike shoe for - Speed sessions and race day just got faster.
Although the beloved Pegasus can handle nearly anything you throw at it, it’s not designed as a speed shoe—but the Turbo is. Nike replaced the Peg’s older foam with its new ZoomX variety, which is also used in the Vaporfly 4%. This foam is lightweight, soft, and it quickly returns to its normal shape on impact, which means these shoes feel exceptionally springy. A thin layer of more durable React foam and a grid of rubber on the outsole adds traction, but beware of the fit: a wide forefoot and flexible upper mean these shoes run large.
Best Nike shoe for - Setting records.
Released in July 2017, the much-vaunted Vaporfly 4% is born from Nike’s Breaking2 project, which has the goal of helping athletes complete a marathon in under two hours. Needless to say, this shoe is built to go fast. The midsole features ZoomX foam for ultra low weight and superior energy return, and a full length carbon fiber plate stiffens up the midsole. Combined, these features deliver an incredibly springy foot feel that helps launch you forward. And keep an eye out for the next update: Nike is adding a Flyknit upper for an even better fit (Flyknit version will be available for purchase on 1 October, 2018).
Epic React Flyknit
Best Nike shoe for - Speed work and longer runs—if you like a snug fit.
The Epic React marked the debut of Nike’s React Foam, and although shoemakers love to make inflated claims about their foams, the Epic did score above average for cushioning and energy return in RW lab tests. The Epic’s midsole is made entirely out of React, but Nike carved away material from certain areas where cushion isn’t necessary to save weight. The Flyknit upper features a tighter weave around the arch to keep your foot secure and a looser weave over the forefoot for better breathability. But opinions varied about the fit, so make sure you give these a test run before purchasing.
Price - £89.95
Best Nike shoe for - A fast split and a full wallet.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better speed shoe for less than the Legend React. Similar to the Epic React above, the Legend features a full length layer of React Foam in the midsole for superb cushion and bounce. Nike also tapered this shoe's midsole in key areas to save weight. The shoe also scored well for stability, and although the minimalist outsole features just two areas of rubber, wear testers reported good durability and grip on the road, even in wet conditions.
Air Zoom Vomero
Price - £119.95
Best Nike shoe for - Long uptempo runs.
The Vomero strikes a balance between shock absorption and firmness, which makes it a good pick for longer distances where you want enough bounce to feel fast. Zoom Air units in the midsole provide the cushion, and a roomier toe box in the latest iteration was a standout feature during RW wear tests. Testers reported it contributes to a good overall fit in this shoe. Flywire cables in the upper secure your midfoot over the center, and a strong fiber in the upper means the knit can be looser for better breathability and less weight.
Air Zoom Wildhorse 4
Price - £104.95
Best Nike shoe for - Hitting the trail with plenty of protection.
You can take Nike’s Air Zoom tech out on the trail, too: The Wildhorse uses foam cushioning and a Zoom Air unit in the heel to absorb shocks and bumps, while a rock plate in the forefoot adds even more protection from debris you might encounter. A multilayer mesh and textile upper stands up to wear and tear and features Flywire cables to keep your foot centered in the shoe. On the bottom, the high abrasion rubber outsole’s waffle-patterned lugs offer plenty of bite for digging into rough ground.
A version of this article appeared on Runnersworld.com