With Its New Flyknit, Nike Chases Barefoot Runners

The Nike Free Hyperfeel is the company’s most minimal shoe in recent history. It also encapsulates the challenge facing the quintessential athletic shoe designer.


It slips on like a sock, and it sort of looks like one too. Yet moments later, I’m in an impromptu sprint with the guy next to me. I win, but it’s unfair of me to gloat. The other guy is wearing a suit.


I’m at Nike’s worldwide headquarters, overlooking what appears to be a World Cup–worthy acre of perfectly flat green grass. I’ve just tested out the Nike Free Hyperfeel, one of the new products the company announced today. I love the feel of this shoe. It’s like wearing a second skin.

For a moment, I entertain the thought of jogging off with their only size-12 test pair. Would the PR team stop me? (Maybe, but the awkwardness might not be worth the trouble.) Could they even catch me? (Definitely. Everyone at Nike is in superb shape.)

But when I return to the benches to put back on my anachronistic pair of Chuck Taylors, not everyone is as enamored as I am. They prefer Nike’s other new shoe of the day, the Free Flyknit. It’s ostensibly the shoe Nike used to market to the barefoot running crowd, but next to the low-profile Hyperfeel, it looks like a winnebago.

The casual conversation amongst the group makes me realize just how complicated today’s running culture must be for Nike to cater to, let alone attempt to lead.


Barefoot Running

If you’ve never gotten into running, you may have missed one of the greatest controversies in the modern consumer products world. Whereas Nike has long-embraced padding technologies like EVA foam, modern criticism–driven largely by the book Born to Run–argues that this protective padding numbs the bottom of the foot like a soft pillow and induces running injuries as a result. Read a bit more, and you’ll quickly find yourself amidst a convincing conspiracy, which points specifically at Nike’s ad buys in Runner’s World as shaping myths that padding is a necessity in a running shoe.


Regardless of how you feel about any of it, though, this is the culture in which Nike lives today. They have beloved legacy IPs like AirMax bubbles, but to cater to many runners (and potentially make running a safer sport than it has been), they need to throw some of that away and discover how to innovate in the most minimal way possible. I asked Nike Brand President Trevor Edwards how the company is designing in response to running styles. Do they craft a shoe for cushioned heel strikers or barefoot ball strikers?

“We’re designing for both,” he responds. “People have different styles and different approaches for running. Our ultimate vision is that we can design for you specifically, and the product actually moderates itself based on your natural gait.”

The quest to recapture that natural gait is tied closely to a new design ethos: Nature Amplified. Its core idea is to start with what the body has built over the last couple million years of evolution, and, through lots of data, add the most streamlined improvements possible.

“What we’re trying to figure out is, how do we take away the things that don’t add to the performance of a product and only focus on and enhance the things that do?” Edwards says. “It isn’t just minimalism, it’s making sure we’re providing you simplicity without compromise.”


A Product For Everyone Or No One?

Which brings us back to the Hyperfeel. The top is an intricately woven, uber light fabric that fits and feels just like a sock (yet actually fits your foot at various levels of tensile strength). The bottom is a series of squares that work like pistons, gently grinding the ground into your feet. In the middle, there’s a very thin, flexible insole of Nike foam stuff. The shoe is quite flexible from the mid foot forward. And if you remove that foam insole? You can actually roll the whole shoe up like a burrito. It’s neat.


After five minutes of casual testing, I suspect the Hyperfeel could be fast approaching the Holy Grail of minimal shoes. You get an intimate ground feel. But you also get just a bit of padding during a ball strike (which Nike and others argue is necessary for running on concrete–a manmade substance harder than rock). This is the running shoe I’ve wanted for years that’s never existed.

However, I may be alone in that regard. In its attempt to appeal to both big running philosophies, the Hyperfeel could be a product for no one–too minimal for people who’ve become accustomed to a stereotypically springy running shoe, too padded for hardcore crunchy types. But it seems, for both Nike and running’s future, that’s a design balance the company will need to strike.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach