When you're an elite runner, something as small as ill-fitting sunglasses can distract you from the task at hand—covering leg-deadening distances as fast as humanly possible. Two common pain points, even for high-end shades, are the bridge of the nose and above the ears. For the 2016 Olympics, Nike teamed up with designers at VSP Global and optics gurus at Zeiss to create a pair of sunglasses that don’t work, or look, like the sunnies you wear.
Nike calls them the Wing, and they’re noteworthy for what they’re missing. The Wing eschews hinges, temples, and earpieces—all standard elements of sunglasses—in favor of a single lens that wraps, Giordi-like, past the temples. The unibody lens joins a silicone rubber strap that loops around the head. The result is a pair of shades that weighs just 26 grams and don’t so much sit on your head as hug it.
Hugging is crucial; the Wing makes several points of contact around the head, eliminating pressure from the bridge of the nose and behind the ears. “Those are places that create a lot of pressure and exhaustion,” says
Martha Moore, Nike’s main eyewear designer. The silicone strap, meanwhile, affords not just physical but mental comfort. “When you have that strap around your head you know it’s not going to fall off your face, no matter what,” says Leslie Muller, head of innovation at VSP. That assurance, she says, allows athletes to relax, freeing up energy that might otherwise be wasted worrying about their accessory’s micro-movements.
You’re thinking: A strap that loops around the back of the wearer’s head? Congratulations, Nike, you reinvented Croakies! (Or, you know, goggles.) But if these features sound like overkill, it’s because they are.
Or rather, they are for most people. But these sunglasses were not designed for most people—a fact made gobstoppingly clear by the $1,200 price. Nike created these for the world’s best athletes, people for whom a pair of sunglasses poses not insignificant tradeoffs. Going without shades causes athletes to squint, causing them to tense their shoulders and expend energy. But wearing sunglasses requires accounting for comfort, weight, and drag. Not a huge deal for most people, but when you’re clocking 5 minute miles or better for 26 miles, it makes a difference.
Most of the effort focused on reducing drag. The designers tested the shades in a wind tunnel at Sacramento State University and found problems around the strap and temple. Early iterations of the strap used too much material. “It was actually creating turbulence in the back of the head,” Moore says. A streamlined, more rigid strap better cradled the back of the head. Early tests also showed air flowing underneath the frame and get trapped at the temples. Making the lens hew closer to the head solved that.
A ventilated brow-bar minimizes fogging. A peak shaped like the hull of a boat helps air flow smoothly over the frame, reducing drag and channeling air around the runner’s head. “It’s about how do you break that front edge,” says Moore.
Ultimately, Nike hopes the Wing is so light and comfortable that athletes forget they’re wearing them. “We wanted zero distraction,” Moore says. “We wanted them to be impossibly light.”
And impossibly expensive. Ultimate comfort does cost.