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With an incredible back story, Nike were born out of a love for running. Still a core pillar of their business, they remain at the forefront of running shoe technology. Some models remain central to their range like the Structure and the Pegasus, they're like an old friend to many, while other models are just brilliantly crazy. We have reviewed what works and what doesn't. Here are the best Nike shoes of 2020.
There is very little not to like about this Air Zoom Pegasus 36. It has got everything that anyone really needs from great cushioning to fantastic durability. For the price, it is constantly hard to find a better packaged shoe delivering all the essentials for day to day running
Check out our full review of the Nike Zoom Pegasus 36
The best racing shoe last year is the best this year and for many, it’s the best running shoe ever. Thanks to the exploits of Eluid Kipchoge and the much-hyped benefits of the shoe helping to make the wearer ‘4% more efficient’ or more (and most take that as faster) the shoe has gained a massive following and sells out as soon as it becomes available. If you can afford them, get a pair, you won't be disappointed.
Check out our full review of the Nike ZoomX Vapourfly Next%
With so many shoes in the Nike line, the it can be distracting when looking for a great running shoe. The Vomero 14 offers you some laser focus for a superb high end running shoe that is best in class for a combination of cushioning vs performance! The balance is quite superb!
Check out our full review of the Air Zoom Vomero 14
Check out our full review of the Air Zoom Structure 22
You've got to read our full review on this one. It reads like we hate it. We LOVE the Pegasus Turbo 2 - it is a quality bit of engineering, beautiful on foot and it feel lovely to run in, but...
Read our full review of the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2
Nike is a brand with running at its heart.
It all began with Phil Knight, a Stanford graduate and ex 1500m runner at the University of Oregon, had a burning desire to import running shoes in to the USA. Phil completed his MBA at Stanford University and wrote his thesis on marketing running shoes. He was pondering on the fact that the Japanese electrical goods had taken over the electrical world market during the 1950’s and 60’s, and he was making a case for them taking over the running shoe market.
At the time, Adidas were the big player in running but Japanese brand, Onitsuka Tiger (now ASICS!), were making the best shoes in Phil’s opinion. After finishing his MBA, Phil went to travel the world and while in the far east, made a pitch to Onitsuka Tiger. He wanted them to give him a license to sell running shoes in the USA. They granted the wish but only to sell shoes on the West Coast only. They asked him what his company was called – he made up the name, Blue Ribbon Sports on the spot.
He had built up Onitsuka Tiger’s sales in the USA; opening a Blue Ribbon store, selling them on the road at events etc, but in 1971, Tiger wanted to expand at a faster rate and were considering moving away from Blue Ribbon Sports. Phil got wind of this and moved quickly to cover his bases. He was going to make his own shoes; the name of his company – Nike.
He had already partnered with his old track coach, Bill Bowerman, a wily character with a passion for bettering the footwear of runners. He was a brilliant coach and he used the athletes on the University of Oregon’s track team as guinea pigs for his latest designs. He would take standard shoes and shave bits of here, adding bits there, trying to better what was on offer from the shoe brands. In 1971, Bill had been playing around with an old waffle iron, trying to create an outsole that would give runners grip without cutting up the track. After many attempts, the waffle outsole was born!
Nike had launched the Cortez in 1972. Still sold today (in fashion stores!), the Cortez started to make waves in the running market. It was lighter than most shoes and offered a full-length EVA midsole with a herringbone pattered outsole. They offered runners more protection than the very low Tiger shoes of the day.
Bowerman’s waffle outsole was being used but only for his own elite athletes. In 1972, he had stitched the outsoles to a lightweight fabric upper and called the shoes the Nike Waffle Racing Flat. Only 12 pairs were ever made. Affectionately known as the Moon Shoe, they now hold the Guinness World Record for the most expensive shoes of all time. A pair was sold at Southerby’s in 2019 for $437,500.
However, it was the release of the Waffle Trainer in 1974 that really set the course for Nike running shoes. Using Bowerman’s waffle design, the Waffle Trainer. Shaped like the Cortez and offering a good level of cushioning, the shoe featured the now iconic outsole designed to give runners grip on and off-road.
Nike were building quite the reputation amongst runners in the USA, but their world changed in 1977 when Marion Franklin Rudy, an aerospace engineer, walked in the Phil Knight’s office. Rudy had developed the air bag, designed to be placed within the midsole of shoes. He had pitched this idea to 23 other shoe companies – oh how they must kick themselves now… But it would take Nike’s design skill and future marketing inventiveness to turn it in to the Nike Air we know it as today. Phil ran in a prototype around the Nike campus and came back intrigued. A deal was struck and the first Nike Air shoes, the Tailwind, was born.
The Nike Tailwind had twin air bags in the ‘Air Sole’ as it was called, and they carried a hefty price tag of $50. Despite early problems where a batch was recalled, the shoe was a massive success.
Nike and running boom!
The release of the Tailwind coincided with other factors in running’s history. Running in the 1970’s was a sport for runners. Sounds weird? Well, runners tended to be members of clubs, wore geeky-looking kit such as high cut shorts, women couldn’t compete in men’s races and you were mocked in the street for running – I’ve lost count of the times people shouted, ‘get those knees up’ in my direction… The jogging boom was happening in the USA, helped in part by Bill Bowerman who in 1967 had written a book entitled Jogging, but it was not until the late 1970’s that the jogging boom started to take off. Races such as the New York Marathon had encouraged other world cities, including London, to start their own mass-participation marathon races. The marriage of Nike, Air and the jogging boom was one made in heaven. Nike launched in other countries, became a worldwide brand, re-invented running advertising and sales boomed.
The growth of Nike Tech
It was their skill and ambition which cemented the brand. In the early 1980’s, the product went from strength to strength, athletes wanted to wear the shoes and they were making some of the best shoes available. Air soles continued to develop; some were encapsulated, others like the Air Max were designed to showcase the air bag. In 1995, the first Zoom Air running shoe was released, the Zoom Citizen. Part of the Alpha Project of shoes and as the head of running for Nike UK at the time, it was my job to launch the shoe in the UK. The shoe was OK, but the advert was pure genius - watch it here
Leaping forward, Nike continue to push the boundaries of foam design and offer the widest range of cushioning variations. The original Air shoes were all about being big and soft whilst the Zoom Air delivered a much more responsive, snappier feeling ride. A lot of technology in running is launched around the time of an Olympiad and the same must be said for Nike. In 2008, the brand launches Lunarlon in time for the Beijing Olympic Games.
Lunarlon offered a softer ride and was more responsive than traditional EVA foam, however, like many foams in the running world, they are unstable on their own. The Lunarlon material had to be surrounded by a protective, stiffer foam that had to remain in contact to the ground. While the main material was light, responsive and soft, the addition treatment altered the ride experience. Nike’s next major midsole development did not happen until 2017 when Nike React was launched.
React jettisons the use of EVA as a base for the foam using thermoplastic elastomers (TPE) instead. TPE uses a completely different chemical formula and allows the React foam to be used as a one-piece midsole, eliminating the need to glue foams together making manufacturing easier. It ensures that the sole is also lighter. The molecular structure of the midsole improves cushioning and energy return.
The other huge advantage is that the shoes maintain their energy return over time. All foams degrade over time but React foam delivers durability. Check out our video on React Foam here.
Zoom Air still features in the Nike line-up. The shoes just deliver a different experience for the runner, typically a lower profile snappier ride. The air bags never lose their responsiveness so, as a rule, Zoom Air shoes are excellent if running at pace.
In Nike-world, nothing stands still and their next direction in midsole design is their ZoomX foam / internal carbon plate combination found in sub 2-hour marathon racing shoe, and as I write, their latest is the Zoom X Plate Next % shoe. Found on the feet of so many sub 3-hour marathon runners, this is a shoe that sells out as fast as it runs.
The ZoomX / carbon plate midsole is slowly coming down the food-chain to us mere mortals and appears in the Nike Pegasus Turbo 2, an expensive but brilliant training shoe. The midsole transmits 85% energy return, and this is felt by an exceptional ‘spring’ at toe-off. We've looked at these and other carbon plated shoes - check out our video on all things 'carbon plate' here.
What the future holds is for Nike cushioning is hard to predict, but one thing we do know, good or bad, it’ll never be boring…
But it is not all about the midsole. Technologies run right throughout the shoes. Nike might be synonyms with outsole tech, the truth is, grip hasn’t moved on much from the Nike waffle days. Sure, shapes and configurations have been tweaked but the best gripping shoes on the market are deep lugs like the original waffle iron lugs… The real tech is all about how the outsole works in conjunction with the midsole. Elements like de-coupling the heel help cushion impact and slow down the rate of pronation, but these are used by most brands. Over the years, Nike’s outsoles have been tweaked and like most shoes, Nike typically use a blend of blown rubber for comfort and a carbon mix for durability. My favourite outsole was on a shoe called the Goatek. It was inspired by a Goat’s split hoof – have you seen how goats can grip on ridiculously steep mountain cliffs! The pattern reflected the hoof and was made from a sticky rubber. I was in charge of promoting the shoe in the UK at the time and wanted to tether a herd of goats outside JD Sports in London’s Oxford Street. I was shot down by the big boss. Oh well…
Every element of the shoe has been looked at over the years and more recently, uppers have benefited greatly from technical advances. These have largely been driven by modern manufacturing methods and materials.
Uppers were a nylon weave back in the early Nike days, then came a nylon / woven mesh as used in the Nike Internationalist in the early 1980’s, then a more open mesh in the 90’s to aid breathability. Small steps really but more recently, the fabrics have truly become hi-tech and modern manufacturing has given Nike license to utilise this combination to the max.
Today, the range features a number of different upper materials. This is down to function but also price. Some materials are expensive and/or more expensive to manufacture.
Many Nike’s have a flyknit upper. Here, nike have woven the entire upper on what can only be described as a big knitting machine. The upper is woven using different knits within the same upper. They will feature tighter knits in areas that need to be stronger, say around the toe of the shoe and around the saddle (midfoot area) to help support the foot, and looser and more open weaves in areas that might require an element of breathability or areas that need to be flexible. Using high quality fabrics, Flyknit can feel beautiful on the foot and the shoes can feel like socks.
Flyknit is lightweight. The benefit of knitting an upper is that you can do away with traditional overlays and the stitching and gluing that is required fix them to the upper. Weaving the upper not only makes the upper lighter but it is more environmentally friendly. Nike claim Flyknit produces 60% less waste during the production process.
Flymesh is another fabric used in some nike shoes. It is a another breathable mesh that has been ‘engineered’, woven to be flexible but also durable. Many brands use an engineered mesh. It is easy to produce and again, environmentally friendly. You will find flymesh uppers on many shoes in the nike range.
Recently nike launched a new knit – the AtomKnit. This is the fabric used on the very latest (as I write) Alphafly Next% racing shoe that we at shoeguide love so much. AtomKnit is Flyknit that has been steamed and stretched. The result is a stiffer version of Nike’s Flyknit that nike say supports the foot better. It is incredibly light, delivers a contoured fit, does not absorb water easily but is breathable.
Many of the upper features work in conjunction with others. On the latest Alphafly Next% shoe, the AtomKnit is used with what looks like a very high tech nylon mesh nike call VaporWeave. Reported to be incredibly strong and light, it is placed in areas that need additional strength and it is water-resistant – well you don’t need your shoes to soak up the water you’re pouring over your head at a marathon water station, do you?!
Nike often deliver the wow factor with their products. That’s not to say all their shoes are great, but you don’t make great shoes without taking a few chances and push the boundaries of innovation. We truly hope nike continue to keep pushing, keep making the odd mistake and keep delivering shoes with the wow-factor.
Why not check out our Best Shoes of 2020 Guide to see which Nike shoes made the cut.
The Nike story is an incredible one. If you are interested in shoes and the sportswear business, we would recommend Phil Knight’s book, Shoe Dog. It is a brilliant, warts and all read and it gives you an insight in to the stresses of growing a business and the challenges Blue Ribbon and Nike were up against for years.
What are the most comfortable Nike running shoes?
If you want a training shoe that is really comfortable, lightweight and has great cushioning, look no further than the Nike Vomero 14, Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2, or the Nike Pegasus 36. If you are after a comfortable shoe but need support, look towards the Nike Zoom Structure 22.
Do nike have a shoe like Adidas Boost?
Nike’s React foam is the closest to Adidas Boost. One of the best models is the Nike React Infinity Run Flyknit. Both shoes are extremely responsive and great to run in.
Which is better for running Nike or Adidas?
Nike have been instrumental in recently in introducing some of the best lightweight and responsive shoes on the market. This has definitely been the direction for them and as a result, they have not released shoes that in the past might have been considered the real workhorses of the range and they only have one motion control shoe in the line, the Zoom Structure. Adidas have a more rounded range but perhaps lack the cutting-edge excitement in their lighter products.
What is the most popular Nike running shoe?
The Nike Zoom Pegasus is the most popular shoe and has been for many years. It is still the world’s best-selling running shoe. The Pegasus is intended to be the everyday ‘go-to’ shoe and forms part of the Nike Zoom series.
What is the best nike shoe for the marathon?
The Zoom Alphafly Next % is an amazing shoe and the successor to the Sub 2 hour marathon breaking achievement. It is worn by the front of the field in so many marathons now. We did a shoe count at the last Dublin Marathon. 246 of the top 250 runners were wearing the predecessor, the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite.
For the masses, however, you would be better running is a still light but more forgiving, Nike Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2
Is Asics better than Nike?
Asics have been at the forefront of serious running for decades now but they have certainly tailed off in terms of popularity. This is down to the technology not moving on, other brands bringing something new and better to market and also the price. However, recently they have added some very exciting products to their line. They make some of the best everyday trainers on the market, those workhorse shoes that will look after you for miles. However, they certainly fall behind nike in terms of lightweight cushioning technology.
How do Nike fit?
Nike usually fit true to size but always remember that you will need to factor in a finger’s width of space at the front of your shoe when buying running shoes to allow for expansion. This might well mean going up a size. Nike tend to fit the average foot and we might well recommend them for the narrower foot. Other brands like Asics would generally come up slightly wider.
Is Nike Free any good?
Nike Free was developed to give you the sense of barefoot running whilst offering a level of protection. They are very flexible and designed not inhibit the natural movement of the foot. They take a short while to get use to as you will find that your feet will work harder and get tired more quickly.
What are Nike Free Runs good for?
We would recommend them as an addition to your shoe collection. Do one or two sessions a week in them and they will strengthen your feet and lower leg muscles. Also use them as an introduction to barefoot running if you aim to go that way. They are also good just as a walking shoe as they will strengthen your feet while just walking.
Do nike make a light cheaper racing shoe?
The Air Zoom Streak 7 is a brilliant racing shoe and often forgotten. It is a fantastic shoe to race a 5k or a 10k in.
How long do Nike Zoom Alphafly Next % last?
The shoe will last in the region of 300km. You might be tempted to do some fast training in them but at the price, you might be wiser to keep them for race day.