Material Matters: Nike Shox
The world of sneaker tech is fast-paced and fickle. Some technology stays at the top for a while, some transition from athletic to casual – then there are Shox. Without the strange pillars of foam blazing the trail for energy return midsole systems, the sneaker market would be a distinctly different place. Still, it might be a bit too soon for a full-fledged retro revival.
Nike’s Shox were designed to do more than absorb impact. The idea that spawned the springy support goes back to 1984, when Nike designers witnessed Harvard’s ‘tuned’ indoor running track in action – watching as its surface absorbed the impact energy from a runner and threw it back into their stride. The bouncy surface was improving the performance of the runners that bolted along its six lanes by as much as three percent, as well as helping to reduce the amount of injuries they experienced. The track had been built a few years earlier from wood topped with polyurethane, after extensive research into the optimal energy return properties for running. Too much cushion and the track would eat up energy, too little and the muscles in the leg wouldn’t have time to do their thing. The track wasn’t winning any races though, seeing as each one of the runners would reap the benefits.
Nike took a look at this and immediately knew they needed a shoe that could do the same, and offer a springy track you could take with you. If a shoe could provide an advantage like that, then everyone would want to slip into the Swoosh. Nike experimented with steel springs for more than six years, but were unable to balance the bounce and support in just the right way. The developers moved on from the coils and started experimenting with foam pillars on an injection-moulded platform – eventually they hit a winning combination with a TPU heel counter that supported four hollow columns of polyurethane.
16 years after the idea was born, Nike released Shox. The shoe changed the game with its debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where Vince Carter leapt over Frederic Weis, propelled by a pair of pillared ball boots. Up until this point athletic shoes had focussed on support and cushioning, whereas Shox offered the first energy return system – something that we see across the board these days with sole technology like Boost and Lunarlon.
It didn’t take long before Nike was sticking Shox on everything. Shoes like the Shox NZ were hugely popular, while the technology took over the ball court with the Shox Elevate and Shox Explosive. The layout and number of pillars was gradually adjusted, the track inspired tubes even crept onto the forefoot of shoes, as in the TL line. With the technology as the focal point for many of the designs, a lot of the earlier models dated pretty quickly. Shox XT and their chunky tech bretheren have been left in the dust of minimalist runners, as the slimmer look of fused panelling and knitted uppers came to dominate aesthetically.
In 2006 adidas had a crack at something they called A3 cushioning, Nike saw in A3 a stark resemblance to Shox. The Swoosh took the Stripes to court, claiming that they’d infringed on 19 patents. The case was dismissed in 2007 and adidas were free to peddle their wares. A3 never quite had the same impact as Shox though – perhaps overshadowed by the case, perhaps they were just a bit late to the party.
With Nike iD recently adding Shox NZ and Turbo VI to the menu, it looks like the seminal spring is sticking around, holding its position as the granddaddy of today’s most popular running styles. It might be easy to dismiss it as awkward looking, out dated tech – the real reason we keep seeing it on the shelves, season after season, is that it changed the way the world thought about what a running shoe could do.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section, where we take a peek behind the mesh curtain and break down the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Nike Flyknit, Cotton Canvas and adidas Boost Technology.