4 Design Ideas for a Nike Next% Killer

Some thoughts and sketches from an article I wrote-

Full article with lots more links included-

As a marathon runner (@rkuchinsky on IG) and footwear designer with almost 20 years experience, it’s certainly an exciting time to be in the industry. Innovation is charging ahead and questions are emerging: how will the future of footwear change the sport? What limits, if any, should be put on running shoe design?

Even if you are not a runner, you’ve probably heard about how Eliud Kipchoge, wearing the latest pair of Nike’s prototype shoes- the “AlphaFly”- ran 26.2mi/42.2km in 1:59:40.2. Faster than any other human, ever.

While perhaps the greatest record to fall recently (along with Brigid Kosgei’s official 2:14:04 marathon in Chicago) Kipchoge’s achievement is only one in a huge list of world beating performances that all have one thing in common - Nike’s super fast, extra bouncy, carbon fiber plated shoes, that some say are too good.

Despite the fact that some athletes have complained about and questioned how these shoes affect the fair playing field, it’s no secret that running shoe companies are taking an “if you can’t beat them, join them” approach. Last week at the industry trade show The Running Event in Austin, Texas there was no shortage of running shoes featuring next generation foams with increased midsole thickness and carbon fiber plates. Saucony has one (or more), as do Asics, Brooks, Sketchers, New Balance, etc. “But here’s the thing - These shoes are already out of date, and playing catch up.”

Designing, developing and producing shoes is not easy. It takes time. I’ve brought to market over 100 shoes from sketch to shelf. From Design to Development, testing, commercialization, production and shipping the process can take easily 18-24 months. And that’s usually for a pretty straightforward style with not much new tech. I finished tech packs on new upper designs for Spring 2021 for a major running footwear brand this past August. Had these shoes been on a new outsole, even with existing technology, the designs would likely be done a minimum 6-9 months earlier to account for additional time to make the 3D CAD, injection and compression outsole molds, material engineering, weartesting, and commercialization.

If you are creating something truly new, it takes even more time. Nike announced their first “super-shoe”, the $250US Vapor Fly 4% (so-called because it allowed you to run 4% faster), in December 2016 with a sold-out mass release in May 2017. An “Elite” version was used later that year in the Breaking2 Project where Kipchoge ran 2:00:25.

Adidas announced a similar Sub2 Project in 2017 (that never happened) followed by the release of their $132US Adizero sub2 shoe that went straight to the discount racks.

The closest competitor to the 4%, HOKA’s Carbon X, came on the market May 2019.

As it turns out, it’s not as simple as sticking a piece of carbon fiber into some foam. In fact, contrary to popular opinion, the carbon fiber plate is not a “spring” and is likely there to provide a stabilizer function, increasing stability and controlling the loading and unloading of force provided by the midsole material (possibly providing some feel of forward propulsion). The midsole foam itself is key, decreasing overall weight, and increasing rebound. For a full scientific analysis of how this may work, I highly suggest this Real Science of Sport podcast- “The Shoe That Broke Running”.

So what’s next?

The latest Nike AlphaFly apparently uses 3 Carbon Fiber plates with an additional Zoom air bag to augment the special React and ZoomX midsole foam materials with an additional 10mm of midsole over the already stacked the current Nike Next% released just a few months ago.

Increasing stack height (midsole thickness), adding additional cushioning technology like air bags and adding even more carbon fiber plates seems like an obvious evolution of what Nike has already created.

But there’s only so much midsole thickness that can be added and only so much you can control with carbon fiber plates before you have an unwieldy mess. And forget the terrible idea of trying to put actual springs on your feet. Or springs made out of plastic.

To beat the Nike at their own game, is impossible. Playing catch-up and following the same formula, but 2 years later, is a losing proposition.

To truly design and develop the next generation of performance running shoes will take a “Big Idea”. So here’s some Big Ideas…

  1. Think outside the box. Literally. A shoe is traditionally defined by upper, midsole, and outsole parts and is typically designed and shaped around a last that mimics a runner’s foot. To design a shoe with added performance, maybe the definition of these parts needs to change. Midsoles can only get so thick, but what if they get longer? Or wider? We’ve seen how a para athlete’s carbon fiber blade can provide dramatic performance. Maybe the secret to the next generation of performance running shoe is going beyond the confines of the traditional shoe silhouette?

  2. Be more than a shoe. A runner’s shoe is perhaps the most important part of the runner’s equipment, but it is by no means the only part of the equation. Athletes like Kipchoge would be faster than 99.9% of runners even if they ran barefoot. While a good shoe is designed to manage the force a runner puts down on the pavement through the foot, there’s so much more to running that happens above the ankle. What if the next generation of running shoes helped harness all the power in a runner’s calves, quads and hamstrings? Runner’s often wear compression calf sleeves to help manage blood flow and circulation, and aid in recovery (with debatable scientific performance benefits). What if the next generation running shoe is more like a pair of tights or socks with dynamic elements that react in tension or compression to return energy. Think of a futuristic ballet pointe shoe combined with a running shoe.

  3. Get Smart. As advanced as shoes are, they are pretty dumb. Some mesh, some foam, some rubber. A few other bits. Not fundamentally that different from running shoes 50 or even 100 years ago. While there have been some interesting attempts at building “smart” footwear, most of it leans to the gadgety side of things, without much real benefit. Self Lacing, GPS enabled, tracking shoes may measure your gait and stats, but don’t actually do anything while you are running.

Adidas tried to make a shoe that somehow adjusts to your gait, but trust me. It didn’t work. Most runners these days use a watch to keep them on pace and manage splits. Some runners track heart rate and power output. What if your shoes actually responded to you, as a runner in real time?

  1. Look the part. The Nike Next% looks different because it is different. The next generation AlphaFly, even more so. If you look at the start line of any major marathon, all you see is bright pink and green Next% and even color aside, it’s hard not to notice the high stack height and pointy heel design. Any next generation shoe hoping to make a dent against the Nike dominance will need to do more than perform. It will need to stand out visually, look different, and make people ask “what are those?” More than a colorway, more than a logo, a true competitor will have to own a look and make the shoe instantly recognizable in the sea of sameness that is a traditional retail running shoe wall.

As every designer knows, ideas are one thing, but execution and concept is another. If you are looking for your own Big Idea or want to execute on these, contact me. > :slight_smile:


great article, Richard!

Thanks Michael!