Monday, April 18, 2011

Gear Review: Nike Free

I've recently rediscovered a pair of shoes that had made their way to the back of my closet to be ignored and forgotten (and there are quite a few shoes for them to be buried beneath). That would be the Nike Free, more specifically, the Nike Free 5.0 V3. The 5.0 has since been replaced by the Nike Free Run+, and more recently, the Nike Free Run+ 2. A couple changes have been made to the flex grooves to make the Run marginally more flexible, and the upper is actually pretty attractive now, but for all intents and purposes, the 5.0 and the Run are the same shoe.

The Nike Free was first introduced in 2004 in response to a discussion with famed coach Vin Lananna about barefoot running. Now, before everyone starts using this as proof that we are all meant to run barefoot, please keep in mind that Lananna is now the coach at Oregon, and Oregon stud Jordan Hasay has been quoted as saying she trains in Nike Equalons, and while she did once finish a 5000 with one shoe, she ended up with a bruised heel, but I digress. The Free, which is meant to simulate barefoot running and strengthen the intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of the feet, was originally marketed as a training tool, meant for drills and the occasional short run, rather than a true high-mileage running shoe. Nike placed instructions on their website informing wearers how to slowly incorporate the Free into their training, warning runners against just jumping into wearing the shoe. Nike soon followed up their original shoe (which became the Free 5.0) with two more shoes, one with even more flexibility and touted as being even closer to barefoot (Free 3.0), and one with a little more cushion and support (Free 7.0). The numbers were used as a measure of how much shoe there was, with 10.0 being a traditional trainer and 1.0 being barefoot, and runners were encouraged to start with the 7.0 and work their way down as appropriate. A version number was added after the scale number to indicate what version of the shoe it was (for example, I own the Free 3.0 V1 and Free 5.0 V3). Unfortunately, the numbering system caused confusion among some customers, so after the Free 5.0 V4, Nike renamed the Free 5.0 the Free Run+ (the plus indicating that it can be used with the Nike+ speed and distance system) to try to mitigate confusion. The Free 3.0 remains named the same way, and the Free 7.0 appears to have been discontinued. Additionally, Nike also had non-running versions of the Free out (e.g. Free Everyday and Free Walk), though I'm not sure whether or not these are still available.

Nike Free 5.0 Forefoot Flexibility
Nike Free 5.0 Lateral Flexibility
Nike Free 3.0 Forefoot Flexibility
Nike Free 3.0 Lateral Flexibility
The first thing I noticed about the Free is its flexibility. The Free is, by far, the most flexible running shoe I own. The deep flex grooves make for tons of forefoot and midfoot flexibility, as well as plenty of lateral flexibility. This was the original shoe that started the whole "roll your shoe up into a ball and take a picture of it" thing that's so popular on minimalist shoe review websites, since, in the beginning, that's the way Nike marketed it. I could probably roll the Free up lengthwise's that flexible. This makes it unsuitable as a trainer for most overpronators, since it will offer very little in the way of stability (though it would be fine for overpronators to use for drills, but they could also probably save their money and do their drills barefoot). The Free is going to let your foot flatten out as much as it wants, doing nothing to stabilize that motion. The 3.0 is even more flexible than the 5.0 and Run, since there are additional flex grooves built into the shoe, and the sole is also thinner. One other thing to note is that the flex grooves on both shoes are rock traps, and you will almost certainly get rocks stuck in the siping. However, chances are you won't notice until you're done running, since rocks in the flex grooves won't effect the function of the shoe.

Nike Free 3.0 (left) and 5.0 (right) Heel Counters (or lack thereof)
Neither the Free 3.0 or 5.0 offer much in the way of a heel counter, so your rearfoot can really do whatever it wants without the shoe offering additional heel support. Compare all of the above pictures to the equivalent shots of the Brooks T7 Racer racing flat, and you can see exactly how flexible and unsupportive this shoe is, especially considering I described the T7 as being a fairly flexible shoe. There's really nothing to get in the way of your natural foot motion with the Free, something that can be good or bad, depending on what you're looking for. While hardcore minimalist shoe fans complain that there's too much of a heel for the Free to be considered truly "minimalist," the Free will still force the little intrinsic and extrinsic muscles of your feet to work to keep you stabilized, which is the entire reason Nike brought this shoe to the market (of course, making these muscles work too hard can quickly lead to overuse injuries, which is why Nike suggests a conservative approach to wearing these shoes...and those little intrinsic and extrinsic muscles get worked in every shoe, which is a little secret the minimalist shoe companies don't want you to know about but is pretty well known among most medical professionals and biomechanists, but that's a topic for another post). Honestly, the biggest difference between running in the Free and running barefoot is that your cutaneous innervation isn't working as hard (i.e. your skin nerve receptors don't have to provide constant feedback to you), and personally, I'm perfectly okay with that. If you midfoot strike in a zero-drop shoe, a couple millimeters of rubber won't make a difference, and if you heel-strike in the Free, that's probably because that's the most efficient way for you to run. Additionally, neither shoe offers much in the way of arch support, and with the 3.0, nearly all of the arch support comes from the flimsy (removable) insole.

Nike Free 5.0 Sock-like Upper Construction

The 5.0 (and Run) has a very nice bootie-like upper that hugs the foot like a glove. Really, really comfortable feels like a bedroom slipper. The 5.0 pretty much begs to be worn without socks, though you can still wear socks if you really want. There are still laces across the top to limit the stretch and keep your foot in place, but it's a very different construction than what most people are used to. The 3.0 is a little more traditional in that there's a thin tongue and a regular lacing system. However, the upper on the 3.0 isn't quite as nice, in that it lacks that sock-like feeling. The 3.0 V2 has a bit more of a padded heel collar (and is slightly heavier) than the V1 that I own, but it retains the tongue construction of its predecessor. If you really like the construction of the sock-like upper but want the sole of the 3.0, you can put the 3.0's sole on the Run+ 2 using NIKEiD, but expect to pay a premium ($115) for this feature. Both the Free 3.0 and 5.0 have an unsubstantial upper without any overlays for stability. This, too, is intended to allow your foot to move as it would without shoes. Additionally, both Frees are built on a fairly curved last.

Curved Last of the Nike 5.0 (left) and Nike 3.0 (right). The flex grooves the Run are slightly different than the 5.0 to add even more lateral flexibility

Neither Free has much in the way of cushioning, though the 5.0 and Run have slightly more than the 3.0. Due to their lack of cushioning, the Free is probably not the best choice for the supinator (particularly the 3.0) or for the bulk of your mileage, unless you're extremely efficient. The lack of cushioning is enough that I won't use these as a daily high-mileage trainer, though I've found the 5.0 works fine as a shoe for short doubles or as a performance trainer. The 3.0 is harder for me to place in my training, since its responsiveness is similar to that of some of my racing flats, but they lack that tiny bit of stiffness that flats usually have (and, in my opinion, is a good thing in a flat). That, and my current flats, the Brooks T7, have more cushioning.

Durability on the Free is incredible. I'm not sure if this is because there's not much in the way of soft midsole rubber to break down or what, but these shoes last a long time. At least the 5.0 does, since I don't have enough mileage on the 3.0 to say it won't break down quickly, but the construction seems to be similar, so I would predict that they will also have above average durability.

Nike Free 3.0 (left) and 5.0 (right)

So, with all of the so-called minimalist shoes on the market today, how does the Free stack up? Good question, and I can't give a good comparison, since I haven't worn most of the minimalist shoes on the market today. I have tried the Saucony Kinvara, which is more comparable to the 5.0 than the 3.0. However, the Kinvara is slightly more cushioned and less flexible than the 5.0 and Run (and therefore the 3.0), and its heel is also a little bit lower. The upper on the Kinvara is also less sock-like. The Kinvara is slightly lighter than the 5.0 and Run, with a weight more comparable to the 3.0, though the weight difference isn't all that perceivable. The Kinvara and Free Run will get the same things accomplished, and it really comes down to which shoe fits your foot better. I've also heard these shoes compared to the Brooks Launch, though for the life of me, I can't understand why, because they're not at all comparable shoes. The Launch is a traditional performance trainer. It has lots of cushioning, way more stability, and is far less flexible than the Free. Also, while the weights on the Free Run and Launch are similar, the Free tends to have a lighter feel to it (hard to describe, but try them on and you'll probably understand what I'm talking about). While both can work as a performance trainer, they really have very little in common, and which shoe to choose out of those two depends on what you're looking for in a performance trainer. The final "minimalist" type shoes I've worn are various flats, but I've worn way too many flats to try to compare them all. In general, the Free is more flexible, slightly heavier, and has a more sock-like upper than the flats I've worn. The responsiveness of the shoe and curved shape of the last is similar, though, of course, all of these parameters depend on the specific flat, and all of these comparisons are made for the majority, but not all, flats. Additionally, many, but not all, of my flats are lower to the ground than the Frees.

The Nike Free Run+ 2 comes in at 9.3oz for a men's size 9 and 7.4oz for a women's size 8. It has a stack height of 25mm heel and 18mm forefoot, for a 7mm heel-toe differential. The Nike Free 3.0 V2 weighs 7.1oz for a men's size 9 and 6.1oz for a women's size 8. It has a stack height of 21mm heel and 14mm forefoot, for a 7mm heel-toe differential. I wear a 6.0 in the men's version of these shoes (I have no idea why I have the men's?), which is half a size smaller than my T7's, 1.5 sizes smaller than I take in most women's trainers, and it is the same size as many of my other flats, so size accordingly. The Run+ 2 retails for $90 and the 3.0 retails for $85, and both can be found at various running stores, as well as online stores such as the NikeStore or Running Warehouse.

Full disclosure: I bought these shoes from Fleet Feet Sports Boulder at cost when I was running on their team. The views expressed in this review are mine and based on my experience, do not reflect the opinions of Fleet Feet or Nike.


  1. This article is very good, I like it very much,and I also like Nike Zoom sports series, hope we can share the fun of Nike Outlet Stores. thank you.

  2. I agree, Nike has some good stuff in their Zoom line! I'll go out on a limb and say they have some of the best spikes in the business, for both track and XC. I wore the Kennedy and W in college, and the Victory, Mamba, Matumbo, and Forever are all considered industry leaders. A lot of people really love their road flats too, though their flats aren't my personal top pick.

  3. Excellent post! I am including a link to this post on my blog ( because I am writing about heel counters this week and your picture above does a great job of showing the lack of heel counter in the NIKE Free line.

  4. Thanks for reading, and thanks for the link!

  5. i kept looking for an article like this, so the difference in height heel to toe is identical on each shoe? I was hoping the 3.0 was closer to "zero drop" i wish such a nicely cushioned shoe existed.

    1. On the new Free that's set to release on April 3, the heel-toe drop on the 5.0 is 8mm, the 4.0 is 6mm, and the 3.0 is 4mm. Be warned though, that reports are coming in about the 3.0 being extremely narrow.


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