Nike is one of the most innovative running shoe brands out there. While they do stick to some popular models for years (ie the more than 30 years history of the Nike Pegasus), they constantly introduce new technologies and with them, new names and classification.
This article will help you make sense of all those model names, technical jargon and finally understand which of Nike’s running shoes is meant for which runner.
Nike Running Shoes Categories: Neutral, Stability, Racing, Barefoot-like and Trail
2017 and 2018 so far has seen many changes in the Nike lineup of running shoes.
Up to last year, Nike classified their shoes based on the cushioning technology. Air Zoom shoes fit into a “Run Fast” category thanks to the responsive feel of that tech; shoes with the soft Lunarlon foam were in the “Run Easy” category and the Nike Free soles belonged to the “Run Natural” category.
Since last year’s Breaking2 effort, the Oregon-based brand has come up with so many new technologies that this classification does not work anymore and they seem to have returned to a more traditional way of segmenting their line up.
In the “Neutral Ride” category we find three shoes for daily training for runners with no particular support needs.
The most recent introduction in the lineup, the Nike Epic React Flyknit is one of our favorite running shoes of this year. The big innovation is the use of the React foam material for the sole: an extremely lightweight but durable foam that proved to be a great sweet-spot between the cushy bounciness of the Vomero and the responsiveness of the Pegasus. The dialed-in Flyknit upper completes this shoe. An absolute must try ($$$)
The Zoom Vomero 13 uses Lunarlon in the midsole to deliver Nike's softest cushioning. Zoom Air units are both in the heel and the forefoot. It is possibly Nike's most cushioned running shoe. Ideal for logging long miles. We believe it's priced very competitively for a top-class neutral trainer. ($$)
The Pegasus 34 is the bread and butter of the Nike running shoe range. It is one of the shoes we recommend the most especially to beginners because of how balanced it is. Soft cushlon midsole with Zoom units (heel and forefoot) it's a perfect everyday workhorse. It feels more responsive - therefore faster - than the Vomero. ($)
This is the category for runners who not necessarily over-pronate, but that need a shoe with a little more support than a purely neutral one. The category in general seems to be losing relevance in the market – and there does not seem to be a lot of innovation from Nike in here either.
Our guess is that after the introduction of the new technologies and the amazing response from the running community, Nike will soon apply the new techs to new shoes in this area.
The Zoom Structure is very similar to the Pegasus, but with added stability and support for over-pronation thanks to the triple density midsole. The Structure is one of my all time favorite running shoes: responsive and comfortable with a substantial amount of support. ($$)
The Nike LunarGlide 9 is aimed for those runners looking for a lightweight shoe that offers a reliable combination of stability and cushioning to assist with overpronation. A newly engineered mesh upper combined with the exceptional Lunarlon midsole foam introduced in the previous models, the LunarGlide 9 offers a secure, personalized fit all while delivering a smooth and responsive transition throughout a runner’s gait. ($$)
Nike has definitely upped their game in the racing department since last year’s Breaking2 attempt. Two shoes in particular enter the market and got sold out pratically immediately.
Priced at a staggering $250 and almost impossible to find anywhere, the Vaporfly 4% is Nike's absolute top long distance racing shoe. It's the consumer version of the prototype that was used to try and break the 2 hour marathon time. It features the ZoomX foam material and a carbon plate in the midsole that returns energy with every step. Does it sound like marketing speech? Absolutely, but this time it's actually true. Our reviewer Tom described it as the best racing shoe ever made. And he tested MANY ($$$)
If you can't find - or can't afford - the Vaporfly 4%, the Zoom Fly is your best option. It's not as extreme as the Vaporfly but that comes also with the advantages of being more durable and the possibility of doubling up as a training shoe for your faster training. ($$)
Barefoot-Like Running Shoes
Before minimalism was a thing and before barefoot runners started burning their shoes, Nike quietly introduced the Free range with a simple idea: a shoe to add to your training rotation, to stimulate your own foot muscles and balance. So while your daily training and racing shoes might protect you, once in a while you should introduce some extremely flexible shoe so that your feet can train naturally.
Free RN replaces the Nike FREE 5.0 in the Natural line of Nike running shoes. Still utilizing the auxetic construction for the sole unit, the upper is Egineered Mesh with Flywire cables. Compared to the Free 5.0 - the midsole material used in the Free RN is softer. ($)
Nike Trail running shoes
Last, the selection of Trail shoes. To keep it simple, there are only two:
An overview of Nike running shoe upper technologies
Understanding the meaning and design principles behind the tech names will help you navigate through the catalog faster. Here’s an overview.
Flyknit is a special woven fabric that makes the upper of a shoe feel like a sock, by placing yarns and knits strategically around the structure in order to support the foot of the runner when needed and leave it free everywhere else.
Flyknit running shoes are lightweight: a light yarn replaces multiple stitched or glued panels. Flyknit also allows for extremely precise upper fit, being able to seamlessly integrate tight-knit areas where support is needed and wide-knit areas to allow for flexibility.
Flyknit is environmentally friendly as it produces 60% less waste than traditionally constructed running shoe uppers.
This technology is Nike’s latest, so expect to pay a premium for Flyknit shoes.
Most notable examples of Flyknit shoes are the Flyknit Racer (as the name implies, a fast and light shoe for racing distances all the way to the marathon) and the Nike Free Flyknit (an extremely flexible and lightweight running shoe to strengthen and train the muscles in your feet).
Engineered Mesh or Flymesh
Engineered Mesh (sometimes called “Flymesh” by Nike) is a lightweight mesh construction that is – compared to traditional mesh fabrics – more breathable and is at the same time both more durable and flexible.
Engineered Mesh features more prominent perforations than traditional mesh. It is a completely different construction than the previously mentioned Flyknit and shoes with Engineered Mesh usually have a lower price-point.
An overview of Nike running shoe midsole technologies
Midsoles of running shoes are made of foam. Each company has their own trademark foam mix that tries to achieve the following: be as lightweight as possible, be soft in order to absorb the impact with the ground, be elastic (in order to compress on impact and release propelling you forward), be durable (foam does deteriorate with use, so all foam materials need to be engineered to maintain its characteristics for a decent amount of time).
Nike Lunar Foam
In 2009, Nike introduced Lunarfoam, sometimes referred to as Lunarlon. Lunarlon is Nike’s softest, most cushioned and lightest foam compound.
Lunarlon is usually encapsuled in a container of harder Phylon foam in order to give structure and support to the foot where needed.
In short: choose Lunarfoam if you are looking for a soft, plush, cushioned ride.
Phylon is Nike’s basic foam material. It is made of EVA Foam Pellets that are compressed then heat expanded & then finally cooled into a mold. It is easy to identify by the fine wrinkles the foam shows after usage.
Cushlon is a mix of Phylon and rubber additives that makes it lightweight and responsive.
Everybody knows Nike Air. That’s how Nike got big in the 80s in the first place. But do you exactly know what Nike Air is ?
Nike running shoes in the “Air” category often use Cushlon foam in their soles. Soft and resilient, this foam has 2 limitations: it is quite heavy (as most foam is) and it is not as “bouncy” as many runners expect their shoes to be.
The solution? Cutting off areas of the Cushlon-foam-made midsole and filling them up with plastic bags filled with “Air” (Nike’s secret gas compound). What this achieves is to reduce weight (by replacing the heavy foam with a very lightweight “airbag”) and to increase cushioning (being these airbags softer and springier than the Cushlon foam).
Depending on the shoe, you can have Nike Air bags in the heel, the toe, or both.
Air bags come in 3 formats: Air, Air Max and Zoom Air.
- Nike Air -> the most common, medium sized air bags that fit well especially under the heel.
- Air Max -> very thick and highly cushioned bags of air. In our opinion too unstable for proper running, mostly used on lifestyle shoes.
- Zoom Air -> the thinnest units, ideal to fit in low-profile shoes. They were initially developed for soccer shoes, where normal Air bags would not fit inside the ultra-thin sole
Nike Free is a concept. Started around 2005, the idea was to create a shoe that is so flexible that leaves the foot completely free to move in the most natural way.
Some people object that the Frees are still very cushioned shoes, therefore preventing the runner to have a true feeling for the ground below them.
While this might be true, the extreme flexibility of the Free sole unit, combined with very open-mesh and unconstrained upper make for a treat.
What do the numbers next to a Free shoe mean?
Nike abandoned the use of numbers in the Nike Free line in 2016, when they completely revamped the category.
Originally Nike Frees came in different versions, depending on how flexible they were. Their flexibility was ranked on a scale that goes from 1.0 to 10.0, where 1.0 means “bare feet” and 10.0 is a traditional running shoe.
In 2016, with the coming of the new auxetic construction, the Nike Free range is completely new and the numbers are gone. We’ll go through the line and the models in a minute. Keep reading!
The new principle behind the Nike FREE line of running shoes is called “auxetic design”.
When your foot hits the ground, it expands both in length and width. Picture bouncing a ball on the floor: it squeezes and deforms because of the impact, then the opposite happens while it bounces back.
Nike engineers were looking for a way to design a midsole so that it would expand in both directions during the foot strike. The issue is that most materials, when stretched in one direction, become smaller in the perpendicular direction. Again think of an elastic band. If you pull it to stretch it long, it will most likely become narrower in the middle.
The auxetic design, characterized by the triangular cuts you see in the picture, allows the sole to do that. A stretch in one direction will equate to a stretch in the other.
Did you find this overview useful? Then don’t forget to share it on your favorite social network. Took me FOREVER to write it and I would love it if as many people as possible could read it.
Don’t forget to have a look at the other brand guides we wrote this year:
- Asics Running Shoes: the Definitive Guide
- Brooks Running Shoes: the Definitive Guide
- New Balance Running Shoes: the Definitive Guide
- Saucony Running Shoes: Definitive Guide
- Mizuno Running Shoes: Definitive Guide
Don’t forget to check out our selection of the best running shoes, constantly updated.