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How Science Is Used to Design the Perfect Shoe

Nike's research lab has sensors under the running track, a gym in a freezer, and elite lab rats.

How Science Is Used to Design the Perfect Shoe

The Innovation Kitchen shares the Mia Hamm Building with the Nike Sports Research Lab, a place where biomechanics experts test people and products to better understand what athletes need to enhance performance and prevent injuries. This is also where elite athletes come to be studied for their specialty shoes. What the experts learn here trickles down to the rest of us. The lab was run, until recently, by Mario Lafortune. As a Penn State grad student, he helped conduct the first big biomechanical study of running in the 1970s. Both Mark Parker and his future wife, Kathy, also a champion runner, were test subjects — an experience that led Parker to help establish Nike's first sports research lab in 1980.

For senior reseacher Jeff Pisciotta, the lab is a biomechanist's playground with a running track and basketball courts. "Hollywood borrowed our technology," he says of the elaborate motion-analysis systems that capture an athlete's movements 240 times a second, 10 times faster than the human eye. "The capture part is easy. No one cares if a computer-generated character like Gollum turns his ankle. The analysis is the hard part." The perimeter of the lab is a track with sensors that measure ground reaction forces. A 16-camera system and ceiling grid allows for full-body studies, and a high-speed video system captures motion to be turned into super-slo-mo videos for the design team and data for the scientists. A walk-in freezer with a gym where shoes and apparel are tested completes the lab.

When Pisciotta heard that designers Eric Avar and Toby Hatfield (Tinker's brother) had seen the Stanford University track team work out barefoot, he wanted to find out why no shoes were preferable to free ones. "Their coach told me, 'I can't prove it, but I think that the athletes who run barefoot have fewer injuries and perform better,' " Pisciotta says. He wired up 20 runners and set them loose on the company's Ronaldo soccer field. "I was able to pick out five pressure and four motion variables — a very significant difference on grass." One year and 12 prototypes later, those insights helped Hatfield design a very light shoe with flex grooves cut throughout the midsole, allowing the shoe to bend freely in all the ways a foot would if it were touching nothing but grass. It was the birth of the Free, a shoe line that mimics the benefits of barefoot training.

The lab occasionally creates shoes for a different kind of consumer. "Sometimes Phil [Knight] or Mark would ask us to work with amputees, or kids with really strange syndromes and giant feet or something," says Pisciotta. "We call a couple of people from the Kitchen over and look into it." Technically, all insights are valuable to a scientist. But Pisciotta recognizes the unique value of a fan base of one. "I still have a picture on my desk of a 13-year-old girl who couldn't wear shoes," he says. "Well, she's got Nikes now, just like the cool kids."

A version of this article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.