From the day in 1970 that legendary University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman poured rubber onto his wife's waffle iron to create a new running shoe sole, Nike has been a company dedicated to pushing the technological envelope in search of shoes that cushion, support and protect athlete's feet.
Which is why its emphasis on running barefoot is so unexpected.
The Sporting Geek
Of course, Nike is still a shoe company, so it isn't suggesting literally running barefoot. Instead, it's marketing a line of running shoes and trainers called Nike Free. The footwear is designed to emulate the motion of running au naturel.
The shoes had their genesis in a design brief submitted to Nike's "Innovation Kitchen" by the company's product people, who were asking for a new, lightweight training shoe for serious runners. The cooks in the Kitchen, Nike's incubator for new projects, took that limited description and started asking around to see what sort of shoe people might be looking for.
During the course of their conversations with athletes and coaches, some Nike designers ended up talking to Vin Lananna, who was then the track coach at Stanford University. While discussing the Stanford program and his success there (Lananna's 2002 men's track and field team won the school's first NCAA outdoor title since 1934), Lananna mentioned the unusual training he did with his athletes: He had them run on grass without shoes.
"He said that it kept his athletes stronger and healthier, and prevented injuries," recalls Tobie Hatfield, senior engineer for advanced products at the Nike Innovation Kitchen. "And since they were injured less, they could train more. He was sure this training was giving them an edge."
There was just one problem.
"We said, 'That's great, coach, you're taking our shoes off to get better,'" says Hatfield.
Tossing aside the shoes wouldn't work for Nike's business. But Lananna's observations stuck with Hatfield and his team, and eventually spurred an extensive biomechanical research project to see exactly what happens when we run barefoot.
Nike researchers brought in 10 men and 10 women to run barefoot on grass to see exactly how the body reacts without shoes on. They were videotaped with high-speed cameras to capture their movements, they had reflective markers attached to their joints to allow easy calculation of joint angles during their stride, and they even had wafer-thin pressure sensors attached to the bottoms of their feet to measure their impact with the earth.
At the end of the experiment, Nike had the most comprehensive picture of the biomechanics of barefoot running ever developed.
The challenge was to translate that barefoot experience, which promotes good biomechanics for runners, to a shoe. After all, that's not what most running shoes are designed for.
"Our existing shoes are designed to protect your feet -- from stepping on things, to cushion the blow from running, to provide stability," says Hatfield. "When you add all of that up, you take away a lot of motion."
The company's solution was elegant: Nike cut deep grooves into the sole of the shoe, allowing an outrageous amount of flexibility compared to normal running shoes.
As a result, the sensation of running in Nike Frees is noticeably different than the feeling you get wearing other trainers, with much more motion of the foot through the stride. The shoe is padded to protect against poor landings, but it does seem to promote a softer stride.
"We didn't want to release something at first that would be potentially injurious to people," says Hatfield. "We went in between completely barefoot and our highest-stability shoe."
That's why the current model is dubbed the Nike Free 5.0 -- it's halfway between barefoot (a 1 on Nike's scale) and traditional shoes (which rate a 10). The company plans to release models that more closely emulate the barefoot biomechanics; in fact, a new 4.0 model is now available in selected outlets.
Even in a company as committed to technological innovation as Nike has been over the years, the Free project -- which so radically re-conceptualized the shoe's purpose -- met some resistance at first.
"I wrote a quote from the Tao Te Ching on my whiteboard," says Pisciotta. "It said, 'Forget what you know.' I started to realize that this was a unique concept, and that you don't really always know what's going on."
"We definitely had to prove ourselves," adds Hatfield. "There was some skepticism here. That's why this is probably the most-tested concept that Nike has ever released."
The shoes aren't meant to be a runner's only trainers, but to be used in tandem with other shoes (Nikes, one presumes). The goal is to strengthen the feet in the Free shoes, and then take that strength to more traditional designs.
"These are kind of a weight room for your feet," says Hatfield.