At the request of some readers, and friends in some forums, I decided to dust off my Nike Free 3.0 shoes and give them some testing. The point here is to answer questions about transition shoes. I personally am a big believer in a healthy transition from conventional shoes to barefoot/minimal running. The foot needs time to adapt and build itself up before you can really get out there and run completely bare without any great risks. Enter the 3.0’s. So is the Nike Free a good minimalist shoe? Is it just like running barefoot? Is it some devilish attempt by the big bad shoe companies to trick us? I’ve got all those answers for you, but you’re going to have to keep reading.
I am no stranger to the Nike Free, as I wore it for a few years as my main choice of footwear. I enjoyed the idea of the shoe and the fact that the shoe bends and flexes a lot, which is great for getting the foot some freedom. I even ran the Goofy Challenge at Disney World in this pair of Frees so I’m used to them, but I have not worn them for quite some time. I gave them up because even in this flexible shoe my knee was in a lot of pain throughout the day and the only thing that helped was completely ditching the shoes. So the first thing I did was wear them to work a couple of times just to let my foot get used to being in a shoe again as well as to try and determine whether or not running in these again would cause me any problems. I made it through the trial periods ok so I did decide to give them a good run, and that one run was all I needed.
The shoe is very well constructed and employs some great science. The first of which is the deep cuts in the sole from front to back and side to side. They allow the shoe to flex in just about any direction, which will help activate the musculature of the foot. The laces run at an angle towards the outside of the foot. This is done to keep tightness off of the top of the foot, which can be a hindrance to foot flexion as well as circulation. The toe box is not wide, but the mesh of the upper is stretchy enough that it feels that way.
The first thing I noticed about these shoes is the insole is way too built up for me. The arch support built into the insole felt like a big rock just pressing on the underside of my foot. It also has extra padding in the forefoot and under the heel so the shoe is very soft and squishy. At first this feels good like you’re on marshmallows or something, but it soon became such an annoyance for me that, coupled with the painful arch buildup, the insoles had to go. With the insoles out, the shoe feels much flatter and also stiffer, which is great for a barefooter like me. One of the biggest benefits of barefoot running is being able to feel the ground, and a soft squishy shoe just does not let that happen. Rolling back and forth in the shoes had an interesting feel. I could feel the deep cuts in the sole allowing my foot to move and flex, but it was not in a natural way. I’ll take this opportunity to point out that the feel is not bad. It’s just not what I’ve grown used to since ditching shoes. Standing around and just walking in this shoe with no insoles is fairly comfortable. When walking, the natural movement is to heel strike so the built up heel did its job nicely by keeping me from feeling any pain in my heels. The problem is the heel measures at 17mm and the forefoot only 10mm. That 7mm drop is pretty obvious with each step, and though it was not a real problem for my feet just walking around, I found that my knees were not big fans of the elevation. Still, as a walking shoe this passed. It is a great option for transition because of this. If you have stiff or weak feet this shoe can go a long way to helping you correct those issues without putting too much stress and strain on your lower limbs.
I set out for a two hour run wearing these shoes, and I did not make it – partly because of the shoe and partly the heat. It’s getting pretty hot here in Texas, and these shoes did a great job of keeping my feet from knowing how hot the pavement under me was, but that’s what all shoes do. Within the first hundred meters I could feel one big glaring issue with the shoe, and that was the heel. It is very easy to get a forefoot landing in these shoes, and that was nice. The flexible sole came in very handy for letting my feet land the way I wanted them to and not be forced into a heel strike landing. Still, the thickness of the heel became an issue. I could come down on my forefoot with smoothness, and it all felt very natural until the heel came down. The thickness of the sole kept my foot from really doing anything. Just after my forefoot hit the ground, my heel hit the shoe, and that was the end of my footfall. My arch was not allowed much of a flex so I was forced into using my hips and glutes quite a bit to compensate for what my foot usually does. I am not one to disagree with an opportunity to hit muscles in new ways, and this was not creating any pains that caused concern so I considered this an interesting training twist even though it meant that my feet were not getting much work on this run.
I ran three miles out and held a fairly good pace. One of the things I noticed was that I was putting my foot down with more force than usual, and I can only attribute that to the thicker sole of the shoe. Studies have shown that the thicker the sole the more force we put our feet down with in an effort to get feedback. It was not a big issue because the shoe protected me, and I was able to maintain a good form for those three miles. The problem was that my legs were getting worn out trying to compensate for the lack of spring that normally came from my feet. It was hot, and I was wearing out pretty fast so I decided to turn around and head for home. I also started to develop blisters on my toes during the three miles out. I was wearing Injinji toe socks and was still getting a lot of friction. The toe box felt wide enough just walking around but proved to be a little too tight on this run. My two-hour run would now become a “whatever time it is when I get home is fine with me” run. I was able to knock out another mile before I was forced to walk. I decided to implement the Galloway method of run/walk intervals to get me home, and every time I began running after a walk I could instantly feel the lack of foot flexion and feel my glutes start firing with a nice burning sensation. I wore out pretty fast after that and did a lot more walking than I am used to. For the last mile I took off the shoes and was able to run in fairly easily and at a fast pace, which led me to believe there was some merit to my idea that the heel was creating an issue.
So what do I think? Is this a minimal shoe? Does it feel just like being barefoot as Nike said? The answer to those two questions is no. It feels nothing like being barefoot, and given the thickness of the sole as well as the heel to toe drop, it’s not minimal. I do not think it can be placed in the minimalist shoe category at all.
The shoe does have merit, and is not a bad shoe. The sole is the most flexible sole of any conventional shoe out there. If you are a person who is wearing stiff, supportive, stability and motion controlled shoes then the Nike Free is a great option for you. It will help you loosen and strengthen your feet with no question. The movement and flexion is great for a beginner because the shoe is flexible but still protective enough to keep you from over doing it and risking injury. I have used it with a lot of clients over the years with very good results. It’s like sending your feet to the gym but not overdoing it. If you’ve only been in regular shoes then the first day you wear these you will feel soreness in your feet and possibly your calves, and that is what you are looking for; an awakening.
Final thoughts are that if you are already a good barefoot/minimalist runner, I would not recommend this for you at all. It just doesn’t work for that purpose. If you are a beginner and want to ease your way into it then this is the perfect shoe to get you started. Not bad Nike, just not great.
Note: There are multiple versions of the Nike Free running shoe. The 3.0 is the most flexible. The 5.0, 7.0, and Run+ all have a thicker heel, as well as less flexibility in the sole from fused sections and shallower grooves, depending on the model. I’ve tried them all and feel that if you are going to invest in a pair of Frees you should bypass the other models and head straight for the 3.0.