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Almost a decade ago Nike designers Kevin Hoffer and Eric Avar put their heads together to confront a challenge. Marathon runners typically take around 40,000 steps from start to finish – they needed a shoe to withstand the relentless impact and to put a spring in their stride. Meanwhile, elite basketball players needed a shoe to cushion their high-impact jumping and provide quick push-off for explosive changes of direction.
Hoffer and Avar had a mission: to create a cushioning technology that would give distance runners and basketball players alike soft cushioning and bouncy responsiveness.
“We knew if we could blend the best of both attributes, we would create a very unique, ultra-lightweight, responsive cushioning experience that did not exist,” says Hoffer. “We thought we could literally enlighten people and invent a whole new system.”
Hoffer and Avar began the search for the right material, an ultra-lightweight foam that was both pillowy-soft and rubber-ball bouncy. They drew inspiration from images of astronauts walking on the moon. The astronauts’ weightless, soft and springy movements were exactly what the designers were trying to provide for athletes.
The pair assembled a team of chemical engineers, designers and technicians to help. They realized the task facing them would be challenging, riddled with trial and error, and might require them to look in some unexpected places – including materials previously ruled out.
After failing with countless materials, there came a breakthrough. Found way in the back of the Nike Advanced Material Interest Group’s closet, the team unearthed a space-age foam. In science terms, it was the fusion of lightweight Ethylene Vinyl Acetate (EVA) with the bouncy ball-like spring of Nitrile Rubber (NBR).
At that moment, “we knew we had something special,” says Hoffer. Here was the perfect mix of foam and air. They called it Lunarlon.
At this stage though, Lunarlon was nowhere near race or game day ready. “It was very hard to work with,” says Hoffer. “It was as sticky as melted marshmallows.” The foam offered the pillow-soft landing but still needed work to deliver the coveted springy response.
The expert team experimented with many techniques to transform the sticky substance into something functional, which proved to be easier said than done. At one point, the freezers of the Nike Innovation Kitchen were filled with Lunarlon molds that looked like hundreds of “ice cream bars.”
The team’s experiments helped it take another leap forward in 2005, when it created a prototype of a Lunarlon-cushioned running shoe sole. The team squeezed a soft-but-stable Lunarlon center into a firmer and supportive Phylon foam shell.
Then they presented the prototype to colleagues.
“We had an immediate ‘wow!’ reaction,” says Hoffer. “It was a real breakthrough to have such great cushioning – a running-on-pillows feel – in such a lightweight shoe.”
Lunarlon technology debuted in two new shoes in time for the summer of 2008 in Beijing, the Nike Lunaracer for the marathon and Nike Hyperdunk for basketball. Hoffer, Avar and their team had struck gold. Athletes of all levels loved the way Lunarlon minimized impact while providing both spring and support.
Lunarlon presented new opportunities to design shoes for all types of runners. In 2008 the Nike LunarGlide debuted with Dynamic Support, a two-part midsole system developed to provide stability and cushioning. Lunarlon was the perfect soft density foam to cushion runners’ heel impact, while a firmer density foam wedge helped stabilize pronation as the foot flexed down.
Hoffer and Avar’s team created more than just a new tool in the design toolbox – they transformed perception. The old rule that a lot of cushioning always required a lot of shoe was overturned.
Hoffer and Avar’s team accomplished their mission. With Lunarlon, runners, basketball players and athletes from a variety of sports can choose to have both soft cushioning and bouncy responsiveness.