The company that would become one of the biggest names in sports all began with a University of Oregon runner selling imported shoes from the back of his car. Phil Knight started Blue Ribbon Sports in 1962 to sell Onitsuka (later known as Asics) shoes in the U.S., and by 1964 his former coach Bill Bowerman had joined him. The pair began experimenting with new running shoe designs, and that itch to push the envelope has been a Nike hallmark ever since. Now a global behemoth, Nike maintains its strong commitment to creating shoes that help runners go faster and farther.
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. Another notable Nike invention of this era was the Air Sole design, which featured an air-filled bag in the midsole to absorb shock. It debuted on the Air Tailwind shoe in 1978, but Nike continued to refine the design and released Zoom Air cushioning in 1995. This technology continues in the Air Zoom shoes of today.
Nike’s Advanced Upper Constructions
Many Nike shoes utilize a Flyknit upper construction, where a lightweight yarn is woven tightly in some areas of the shoe and loosely in others. The loose weave allows the shoe to flex with your foot for greater comfort, and the tight weave provides support in key areas where you need it. More recently, Nike debuted the Atomknit material on the Alphafly Next%. It’s made by stretching and steaming Flyknit fabric, resulting in an even lighter upper. There’s also Vaporweave (found on the Zoom Fly 3 and Vaporfly Next%), a blend of TPU and nylon that’s lighter than Flyknit and also doesn’t absorb moisture, so rain and sweat won’t weigh it down.
Taking a Side in the Foam Wars
Nike does its chemistry in-house, and its foams are the products 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. Nike honed this formula in its newer React foam to maximize cushioning, energy return, and durability while maintaining a low weight. ZoomX, made from blown Pebax, is Nike’s most energetic foam and used in shoes like the Pegasus Turbo 2, Vaporfly, and Alphafly. Currently the fastest shoe in Nike’s lineup, the Alphafly can deliver as much as 85 percent energy return; Eliud Kipchoge wore a prototype of the shoe for his historic sub-two hour marathon in October 2019.
How We Chose These Shoes
We’ve tested many of the shoes below, and the others we’re in the process of testing. That means getting feedback from our Runner’s World staff and team of over 350 wear testers, as well as analyzing the shoes in our lab. We’ve performed a battery of mechanical tests to assess the energy return of Nike’s carbon-fiber plates, the softness of ZoomX midsoles, and the breathability of Flyknit versus Vaporweave upper materials. The options below incorporate Nike’s newest top-shelf innovations, and include both flagship models and picks that suit the needs of trail runners and overpronators. Where possible, we’ve linked to full reviews for a more in-depth look at an individual shoe’s performance.
—BEST DAILY TRAINER—
Air Zoom Pegasus 37
Nearly everything above the outsole on the latest version of the beloved Pegasus is new. The Cushlon foam used in previous iterations has been replaced with React foam (which is lighter, more durable, and more responsive), and a new, extra-large forefoot Zoom Air unit delivers even more energy return at toe-off. Nike made other tweaks, too: The Zoom Air unit is tuned to a lower pressure in the women’s model, which makes it less stiff and slightly softer, and both the men’s and women’s uppers now use an interior midfoot band for a more secure fit. Take the 37th Peg off road too, with the recently released Trail 2 and Trail 2 GTX versions, or brave wintery slush and black ice in the weatherized Shield 37.
—BEST FOR SPEEDWORK—
Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2
A souped-up, speed-oriented version of the Pegasus, the Peg Turbo keeps the winning combo of ZoomX and React foams found in the first generation. Together they deliver exceptional shock absorption and energy return, so the shoe feels comfortable and fast. Unfortunately, the new thin mesh upper has issues. Its minimal heel support means you have to cinch the laces down for a secure fit, but the tongue isn’t thick or long enough to prevent the laces from causing irritation. If you can handle a looser fit, though, you might avoid the discomfort.
—BEST FOR ROAD RACING—
ZoomX Vaporfly Next%
The latest iteration of the Vaporfly 4%, the Next% features more light and springy ZoomX foam in the forefoot, a lower drop (8mm compared to the 4%’s 11mm), and a thicker rubber outsole with deeper grooves for channeling water. The result? Better performance at milder paces, more bounce thanks to the added foam, and improved traction in wet conditions. Nike also used a new upper that’s lighter than Flyknit and Flymesh (the material from the original Vaporfly 4%). Dubbed “Vaporweave,” the new construction is a woven blend of thermoplastic polymers and nylon that doesn’t absorb water like Flyknit did, and the shoe’s laces are now offset to the lateral side, which takes pressure off the blood vessels on the top of your foot.
—BEST FOR MARATHONS—
Air Zoom Alphafly Next%
The latest in Nike’s quest to build the fastest shoes on earth, the Alphafly is the production version of what Eliud Kipchoge wore when he broke the two-hour marathon record in Vienna in 2019. With this shoe, Nike threw in everything but the kitchen sink: two Zoom Air units in the forefoot, even more ZoomX foam in the heel, a full-length carbon-fiber plate that varies in thickness depending on shoe size, and a new ultralight upper material called AtomKnit. What does all that tech do? For Kipchoge, at least, it enables record-breaking speed.
—BEST FOR TEMPO RUNS—
Air Zoom Tempo Next%
The Tempo Next% replaces Nike’s Zoom Pegasus Turbo 2 and serves as the training counterpart to the Alphafly Next%. It uses similar tech, like bouncy ZoomX foam and Air Zoom units in the forefoot, for a speedy feel, but it’s tuned for the rigors of daily training runs instead of racing. In place of the stiff, snappy carbon-fiber plate found in the Alphafly, the Tempo uses a more forgiving composite plate for increased comfort and stability underfoot. Other tweaks—like a wedge of React foam in the heel and more rubber on the outsole—increase the Tempo’s durability, so you can rack up high mileage without tearing the shoe apart.
Air Zoom Winflo 7
The new Winflo 7 gets even more dependable cushioning compared to previous versions, but it maintains the same affordable price tag, sleek aesthetic, and grippy rubber outsole. The upper now uses more breathable mesh through the forefoot and tightly woven yarns that add support alongside an all-new heel counter. The shoe still sports the Peg-like pointed heel, but the similarities between the shoes are more than skin deep: Like the Pegasus, the Winflo features soft Cushlon foam and responsive Zoom Air units in the midsole, although the Winflo’s Zoom Air units are split into separate forefoot and heel sections.
—BEST FOR LONG RUNS—
Air Zoom Vomero 14
Nike’s max-cushioned offering has been totally revamped in the Vomero 14. It keeps the cush, but packages it in a responsive shoe that feels lively underfoot, thanks to a redesigned midsole. The shoe now uses React foam to deliver more energy return than Lunarlon, and rather than burying separate forefoot and heel Zoom Air units beneath a layer of foam (as Nike did in the Vomero 13), the company layered a single, full-length air unit just beneath the footbed. Relative to older Vomeros, this actually provides a slightly firmer feeling underfoot. While it hasn’t launched yet in the States, the long-awaited 15 brings even bigger changes to the shoe—like adding ZoomX foam in the heel.
—BEST FOR DRY TECHNICAL TRAILS—
Air Zoom Terra Kiger 6
The Terra Kiger is Nike’s top-of-the-line trail shoe, and it’s a great pick for tearing up the singletrack and shorter runs on dry, rocky terrain. The latest version keeps the main highlights of the previous iteration—including a rock plate, a padded tongue, snug midfoot lacing for a comfortable fit—and a combo of React foam and a Zoom Air unit in the heel for good responsiveness. Cushioning-wise, it’s both lighter and leaner than the Wildhorse below, which gives the Kiger an edge for uptempo efforts and racing.
—CUSHIONED DAILY TRAIL TRAINER—
The Wildhorse has proven itself a capable performer through all kinds of off-road conditions. In version 6, Nike swapped in React foam for a more responsive ride, added a softer ring of cushioning beneath the heel, and totally redesigned the outsole. The forefoot and heel now feature abrasion-resistant rubber for good durability, while the midfoot is covered in sticky rubber for a solid grip in wet trails and mud. Beyond that, a mesh panel at the forefoot helps these shoes breathe well, and a new ankle collar keeps trail debris from bothering your feet. Overall, the plusher cushioning and thicker midsole make the Wildhorse a reliable, comfy option for running long and easy.
React Infinity Run Flyknit 2
The new trend in stability shoes is less interference, and the Infinity Run adheres to that principle by providing comfort, support, and a smooth ride without impeding your natural movement. Its generous React midsole has a soft step-in feel but firm response, and the rocker-shaped sole promotes a smooth stride. Guide rails along the heel and new Flywire cables at the eyelets combine for a secure, stable feel. Most testers loved it, and according to Nike, the Infinity Run 2 reduced the occurrence of injuries (compared to the its longtime stability offering, the Structure 22).
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