Nike Zoom Air – What Is It?

Forefoot Zoom Air Unit

Air is to Nike what DNA is to Brooks, Gel is to Asics, Grid is to Saucony, and the Wave Plate is to Mizuno. When it was released in the 1979 (in the Tailwind), Air technology made Nike a powerhouse in running footwear. Since then, the company has introduced several updates to Air, with the goal of providing lightweight, long-lasting cushioning. The version currently used in many Nike running shoes is called Zoom Air.

So What Exactly Is Zoom Air?

Released in the late 90’s, Zoom Air went by a few names at first and some are still used as nicknames. One of these names is Tensile Air. All you engineers out there are probably scratching your collective heads over that one – how can a gas have a property associated with solids? We answered that riddle by chiseling out a Zoom Air unit from the midsole of a Nike Pegasus 29.

Cross Section of Heel Zoom Air Unit

What We Found

On the surface, a Zoom Air unit looks a lot like any other Air unit released by Nike over the years, except maybe a bit cloudier. That cloudy look actually is from a fabric piece glued inside the unit. These units are relatively lightweight for the volume they take up in the midsole. The Zoom Air unit is certainly not as pretty as its Air Max brother, which is probably one of the main reasons why Nike hides it away deep in the recesses of the midsole.

Attaching one side of the Zoom Air unit to the other is an army of thin fabric strings held in tension from the pressure inside. Like the cables on a suspension bridge, the strings appear to reinforce the exterior shell of the Air Unit. This allows the Air Unit to be pressurized to ideal levels without the worry of shape deformation over time.

The tension that holds the unit together permits the low profile that makes it possible to hide within a shoe but still offer seemingly endless cushioning. By lashing two ends of what is in essence a balloon, Nike has made Air tensile and a way to provide long lasting cushioning while remaining light. It’s actually a pretty accomplished piece of engineering.

Talk to Us: What shoe should we hack at next to see the technology inside?

  • Steven

    I would love to see the gel units within an Asics Kayano. In particular, I’ve been wondering how large the forefoot gel unit is and how it works with differently positioned 1st metatarsal joints.

  • http://-none- lee

    Regarding the topic ‘What shoe should we hack at next to see the technology inside?’ , I would like to suggest hack the technology inside for Nike Lunarlon running shoe as well as New Balance N2 technology running shoes. Although it doesn’t seems to be very significant like nike Air family, Brooks DNA or Asics Gel cushioning, but, however, i hope it would surprise the NB fans.

  • Shahar

    I’m so unlucky!
    My heel Zoom Air unit got popped by a nail that I stepped on in my right Vomero 7 shoe… Now it feels so bad… I loved those shoes, they are great, but you have to be carefull with them. Not going to buy anymore shoes with that kind of midsole.
    Glad I got the LunarGlide 3/4 and Kinvara 3.

  • Matt

    Thanks for the feedback, Lee! We’ll put shoes with Lunarlon and N2 on the chopping block.

  • Matt

    Ask and ye shall receive, Steven. We’ll definitely post about Asics Gel technology soon…so stay tuned!

  • Sky

    Zoom Air and Tensile Air were actually two separate things at one point. The Zoom Air units were supposed to enhance performance and responsiveness by being (a) lower profile and (b) placed at the bottom of the midsole or even in the outsole as in the Zoom Air Alpha and Zoom Air Spiridon. Tensile Air was introduced shortly thereafter in a shoe with side windows (can’t recall the model anymore). Tensile Air was very short lived before it simply became a component of Zoom Air. The Zoom Air units just as quickly started being placed at the top of the midsole like the old traditional Air units.

  • Matt

    Awesome…thanks for the additional history on the Zoom Air story!

  • Brad

    I would love to see a wave prophecy hacked!

  • Steven

    You’d need a chainsaw for that, Brad! ;-)

  • Damon

    Why? Lunar is just foam. Theres nothing to see. Its the same on on the inside as the out.@lee