Since April of 2009, I have managed to run over 2,600 miles across paved road, trails and treadmills. Over that time, I have put many shoe brands and models through the test. I once ran exclusively in Adidas but their shoes let me down one too many times. They ran too narrow, had too much cushioning and did not breath well at all. While my love of Adidas faded, my love for the Nike Free running shoe series has grown. The Nike Free series is a system of minimalist shoes that offer a range of cushioning and forefoot flexion that you can’t find in almost any other line. What I love most about them is that they offer 3 different levels of cushioning that allow you to transition year over year to a more minimalist shoe. The shoe soles come in a 5 mm, 4mm and 3 mm heel drop. Each pair becomes more and more aggressive and advanced as you progress through the line.
In fact, the main reason I am writing this review is because I have somewhat outgrown this line. I started with the 5.0 in the first year, 4.0 in the second and worked my way down to the 3.0 which I have had two years in a row now. I am going to be testing out the New Balance Minimus line over the winter, in the hopes of finding an even more minimal shoe. I would transition to Nike’s ultra minimalist line but the $175+ shoe is really price. I will give feedback on how the New Balance shoes work out after a few months of running in them. For now, however, I can say that outside of my New Balance MT 110 Trail shoes, my favorite shoes on the market are the Nike Free running shoes. Almost all the others can go in the pile below. That’s just my opinion, and no two bodies are the same, so you have to find what works for you.
I am fortunate to have grown up playing soccer. I say that because soccer shoes are essentially minimalist in nature. Soccer cleats don’t really offer arch support, extensive cushioning, stride correction or any features runners look for in shoes today. Therefore, making the transition to a minimalist style shoe felt more natural to me than most of the shoes you would find at your local running store. I tried the traditional running shoes and something always felt wrong. I likened the feeling to being on a pair of stilts or ice skates because the cushioning was so thick. When I started wearing minimalist shoes it all started to feel normal again. That doesn’t mean there was no learning curve, it just felt more familiar than the gimmicky shoes like the Newtons on the market.
In fact, the learning curve is substantial. I had to scale back to just 2.5 to 3 mile runs for almost 6 months while my foot strength built up and my running form improved. Moreover, it is this very long learning period that I think every runner needs to go through. Too many people get into running by going out and buying an overly padded pair of shoes and just haphazardly pounding pavement with no thought to form, stride, recovery, nutrition or technique. The past five plus years have taught me that running is a skill and that needs to be mastered and not something you just jump into. In the time I have used Nike Free Running shoes I have seen my endurance go up, injuries and pain down, and over all top end speed increase.
The shoes are built around flexibility and forefoot striking. The flexibility in the sole allows the novice to practice striking more and more with their front most part of their feet without the sole causing them stiffening pain. Over time the forefoot strike will seem natural and more comfortable. The shoes feature a wide heel area to try and promote a more neutral strike and thus correct some stride issues with most people. The upper is made of a low profile, sock-like mesh of weaved fabrics that make for a snug yet breathable fit. In fact, I recommend going a half-size bigger for some people, as the shoes run tight. Even then, the shoes do stretch out over time, so a snug pair will feel better with time. After about 50 miles or a month they will feel just right despite some initial discomfort.
Additionally, the 5.0 and 4.0 Nike Free shoes support the Nike/Garmin stride sensors. You simply lift up the sole in either shoe and place the sensor in the open spot and then pair it with your sport watch or smartphone. The slot allows you to keep the stride sensor out-of-the-way and track your workouts on the treadmill or add some stride data to your GPS tracked runs. Not a must have feature but a nice bonus that many other comparable shoes just don’t offer. I kept my Garmin Stride Sensor on the outside of my left foot and didn’t experience any issues. I also ran my shoes through the washing machine on a gentle cycle 3 times and saw no warping or damage.
The shoe line is not very road durable. By that, I mean the shoe tread really shows it’s age after about 300 miles. I got almost 500 miles out of my last pair and that was me taking them to the brink. I honestly believe that a lot of the durability issues could be resolved if Nike switched to a stronger material in the sole, like Vibram soles, but that could mean sacrifices to the weight. Although, they are already implementing better options with their FlyKnit models and trail shoes. Also, the traction pattern could be better. The shoe drives you to a fore foot strike but they seem to have not placed the traction pattern accurately. I wouldn’t even bother with adding any traction to the rear heel section if I were them.
The shoes are not good for runs or races longer than 13 miles. The shoes are minimalist and that means short distances unless you are Dean Karnazes. The lack of cushioning will just grind your legs to dust unless they are made of Iron. I would say that the sweet spot for these shoes are the 10K-15K race distances. After that you will need to have trained a lot in them to maintain pace and form at longer distances. I ran one marathon in one of my first two pairs of Nike Free’s and thought I would die. I did, however, run over 3 half marathons in this year’s pair and set a new PR in 2 of those races. So, when used at an ideal distance, and built up to properly, they are a fast pair of shoes.
Though they lack the durability of some other brands, the Nike Free series is an overall fantastic buy for most runners. If the shoe doesn’t feel cushioned enough for you, try running in a pair of Experia lightly padded socks for a little more comfort. Despite the fact that I am testing out the New Balance Minimalist now, something tells me the Free’s will still be in contention to be my main running shoes next season. Also, Nike could do a better job with the naming convention of the shoe. People often ask me which ones to get since there are so many special edition versions of the shoes; like the Nike Free 3+ v4 LiveStrong. Kind of a stupid name if you ask me. As for purchasing, I recommend waiting till late April, beginning of May each year to buy a pair. Nike generally releases the newest updates to the Free series around that time. I often get mine from Road Runner Sports because they offer a 10% discount to VIP members and sometimes thrown in an additional $10 trade in offer on your old pair of shoes. For more information on minimalist/barefoot running check out the book, Born to Run. This book helped bring back my love for running and get me into minimalist style shoes.