Exclusive: Breaking Down the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% with Nike Innovators
When legendary marathon runner Eliud Kipchoge broke the two-hour barrier in Vienna in 2019, most onlookers probably had their eyes glued to the time clock. For us, however, the attention was undoubtedly fixed on Kipchoge’s feet – what was that intriguing Nike prototype he was pounding the pavement in? After months of speculation, that shoe was finally unveiled to the world: the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, the latest addition to Nike’s ever-evolving performance running lineup.
The record-breaking runner builds on the success of the revolutionary Vaporfly, incorporating Zoom Air Pods in the forefoot, an extra dose of ZoomX Foam in the heel, and a lighter Atomknit upper construction. Simply put, it’s a recipe for never-before-seen speed – trust us, we’ve already given them a test run!
Informed by cutting-edge sports science, the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT% is the by-product of years of development from the Nike Sport Research Lab. To find out more, we caught up with two of the masterminds behind the release: Tony Bignell, Nike VP Footwear Innovation; and Kathy Gomez, Nike VP Cushioning Innovation.
What we discovered was truly NEXT level.
After putting on the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, they really make you want you to run!
Tony Bignell: They’re pushing you forward. Yeah, it’s a really funny sensation, a good sensation, but we put it on our athletes and they get it. You get it instantly. You understand the cushioning, and the responsiveness. You can feel it pushing you forward.
You’re not wrong about that. In regards to the added Air Zoom in the forefoot, what were the considerations there?
Tony: In many ways, this shoe is a bit like a racing bike. If you ride slow on a racing bike, it’s quite hard because there’s no momentum. But as soon as you start moving, it flows with you. Everything moves better with you. So, it’s not designed for standing still. On a regular shoe, when you land on foam, you put energy in and you generally get about 60-70 per cent of that back into your next stride. The rest of it is lost in heat, compression or movement. We worked on this foam called ZoomX, which is super lightweight, but also super resilient. It gives you about 80 per cent back compared to regular foams. You can really feel it, but that’s just half of it.
We combined ZoomX with a carbon-fibre plate, which you can see in the curved appearance. It’s like a rocking chair, actually. It sandwiches between the foams, and that’s what gives you the feeling of tipping forward, and puts you in a position to push off.
It helps in two important areas: when you land, you want to absorb a lot of that energy. Additionally, you want to get through that phase as efficiently as possible, without having to work your body through it, and then you want to get to this point where you can start to push off.
This is where the Zoom Air comes into play. Zoom Air is an amazing technology, because it’s Air held in tension. So, when you land on this, if you measured the tension back to you, you get about 90 per cent of the energy return. And it doesn’t change from the first mile to the thousandth mile, because it encapsulates. We put those right where you need them the most - under your forefoot. This lends itself to the whole system. You’ve got this nice compression, you roll through the midfoot, and then you’re pushing off into the forefoot.
There’s definitely a few key things about Zoom Air we love: one, it has a great longevity like we talked about, but it also enables you to grade it for different sizes and pressures. This is a really big deal, especially when you’re trying to find a shoe for different sizes. Air is also super sustainable as a concept, which is super important to Nike. We make millions of pairs of these Air soles.
Finally, there’s the upgraded Flyknit upper, which has a couple of benefits. The first benefit is it’s like a sock. You’ve only got one surface, so you don’t have a lot of things rubbing up on you. We added new forms to the knit, new yarns, that take it to the next level. It’s also incredibly sustainable. You’re not adding the waste of cutting out all those pieces.
Does the Flyknit Atomknit upper affect breathability?
Tony: Firstly, we’re continually developing our yarns. We’re continually making them better, adding more recycled content into them. We’re constantly turning that needle, making it better and better.
Breathabiltiy-wise, I think it depends. Eliud found some of the early prototypes very breathable and open. And he asked us to close them up because we were getting too much dust in them, especially on those trials, in through his feet, in through his socks. If it rains, you’ve got to have that optimal balance between breathability and not being wet.
Eliud seems very receptive and gives great feedback.
Tony: He’s amazing. He’s very detailed in his feedback, and very thoughtful. He sends us pages of sketches and notes. I mean, he’s a dream athlete to work with.
Kathy, we're big fans of Air at Sneaker Freaker, so can you tell us more about how it’s used in the Alphafly Next%?
Kathy Gomez: One of the beauties of Air is that we can change the pressure and change the height. In this shoe’s technology, specifically, we tuned it by size, so that it functions essentially the same way for each size. You get the same performance benefits out of a size, whether it’s a women’s US4, or a men’s US15.
What about the comfort? That’s a really big deal for everyone. What are some of the considerations made?
Kathy: Comfort is a big word, right? Comfort’s important to everybody. We don’t want to sacrifice comfort or performance. So, we think about comfort and we engineer for comfort in the product, along with cushioning. We look at them as partners.
Comfort can come from a lot of different things, but right under the foot is really important. The choice of materials, and even the geometry of what’s right onto your foot, is essential in providing comfort. Some of the technologies that mould to the bottom of your foot are extraordinarily comfortable for most people. We obsess over that. We don’t want anybody to be uncomfortable.
What innovations have you seen come through that have only gotten better?
Kathy: Innovation is all about getting better and making progress. I think that’s what gets us out of bed every single day. That, and keeping the athlete at the centre of everything that we do. Thinking about how cushioning can make them more comfortable, or more impact deflection, more resilience, those are all things that I think we obsess over every single day.
It’s not just about the cushioning, it’s also about how the cushioning is integrated into the product. Because we can make components all day long, but we have to integrate these things together in a beautiful way, ultimately giving those benefits to the athlete. That’s essential – we work together as an integrated team to look at the shoe holistically and design it in that way.
Just to speak to some of the innovations, I think there are several innovations at Nike that have transformed footwear. Air is certainly one of those. Air is one that has transformed footwear because it’s so iconic, it’s so expressive, and we love it because it works. It’s the most protective, it’s also the most resilient and the most durable, and it’s actually the most sustainable platform at scale.
Sustainability is a very important part of what we do, and how we think at Nike. Because Air is in 50 per cent of our shoes, it’s sustainability at scale. It’s very meaningful in that way as well. Right now, 90 per cent of the scrap from our Air soles gets ground up and put right back into the stream. Our Air soles are between 50 per cent and 80 per cent recycled content. On top of this, our Air manufacturing facilities run on 100 per cent renewable energy. All of our facilities will run on renewable energy by 2025, and the Air manufacturing fleet leads the way there.
In your mind, why is sustainability more important than ever?
Kathy: I’ve been at Nike for 25 years, and sustainability has been a part of what we think about and talk about the entire time. In fact, one of the principles of sustainability is to use less, or only use what you need, and for one of our founders – Bill Bowerman – that was one of his principles. Only give the athlete what they need.
So, it’s built into our DNA. It’s been part of how we’ve thought about the system of footwear since I’ve been at Nike, and I’ve seen the consumer’s perception or perspective on sustainability change. In the last couple of years, the conversation has become a push instead of a pull. Consumers are asking for it. They’re talking about it. They’re changing their own behaviour. It’s important to them, therefore, it’s important to us.
That said, we haven’t solved it. We need to continue to innovate here and invent and look at new ways of improving our sustainable practices and reducing our carbon footprint.
How is your team doing that?
Kathy: Using less is number one, and then using recycled and making recyclables. Air is a really important platform that kind of leads Nike in sustainable innovation. We then consider how we can make this even better, and how we can take some of these ideas and potentially translate them into other parts of the shoe. It’s actually incredible what we’re hearing and feeling. It’s amazing. We’ve also been able to partner with others, share what we know, and learn from others as well. That’s critical. An innovative mindset comes from a diverse set of perspectives. We try to do that within our innovation team: put diverse brains and people with diverse backgrounds together to solve problems in different ways.
We also think that exploring sustainability can unlock performance. When you put innovators in a box, they’re going to come up with something new. That’s inspiring because our Air soles are more sustainable because we changed the way we make them to change the gas that we use inside here to be more sustainable.
You spoke about bringing in diverse people – what kinds of untapped skills have they brought in?
Kathy: Because of my background, I think it’s essential to have a sense for the business and the marketplace, and certainly athletes’ voices. So, I get the team out of the office as much as I can. I think it’s critical to pick our heads up and just get a sense of what’s happening in the world.
Design engineering evolves really quickly. So more CAD skills and computational design. We have the finite element analysis team. The simulation team actually works with them pushing innovation. They test things in a 3D environment. They’re incredibly smart. That team is on the cutting edge of designing in a 3D environment. So that informs everybody. And then, of course, talking about sustainability, engineers are now trained in sustainable thinking, and sustainable practices. That’s really useful for our team.
Having a female perspective is obviously something that Nike have been focusing on. What changes have you seen?
Kathy: We’re thinking about women inside and outside of Nike. It’s a very important part of what we’re doing with our business: being inspired by female athletes and growing our women’s business. But I really think of it as inviting more women to sport, and being inspired by more women. We’re going to see an acceleration of women’s performance happen around the world.
On my team specifically, I am the sponsor of the Women of STEM at Nike. So, I’m plugged into the engineering world, even though I’m not an engineer. It’s really inspiring for me. We will look to continue to bring in female talent from the STEM world onto our team, which is amazing. And I have some incredible STEM female leaders on the team, and female engineers.
Lucky Nike members have already landed pairs of the Air Zoom Alphafly NEXT%, but you can still secure your own pair on July 2, when they release globally. Stay tuned to our Releases section for updates.