Nike Free 3.0 Review – Nike’s Answer to Simulating Barefoot Running

I broke the following running commandment today: Thou shalt not wear new shoes on a 20-mile run. As generally happens when a commandment is broken, the wrath of the running gods was showered down upon me.

Nike Free 3.0 ImageEmboldened by my experience this weekend running 4 and then 7 miles in Maine in my new Nike Free 3.0′s, I decided that these might be the shoes I wear during my marathon next week. They felt light as a feather, were exceedingly comfortable, and I felt none of the pain or soreness reported by others who have tried these shoes out. If you’re not familiar with the Nike Free line, they’re minimalist shoes meant to simulate barefoot running. In the Nike Free family, the 3.0′s are the most minimal of all (less than 6.0 oz each), and the closest thing in the line to running barefoot (they rate the Free’s on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being barefoot). Needless to say, I’ve fallen in love with these shoes, and despite today’s experience, I plan to be spending a lot of time on the run with them in the future.

So where did I go wrong today? Well, by simulating barefoot running, the Free’s work your feet and legs in ways that more traditional running shoes do not. Thus, it’s recommended that you ease your way into using them so that you don’t overwork muscles that have been long dormant when wrapped up in bulky trainers. The fact that I ran a fast 7-miler in them 2 days ago suggested that I might not have this problem, so I decided to take them out on my 20-mile run this afternoon (big mistake!). The first ten or so miles were fantastic – I felt great, and they really do make you think about your stride and form. While they are well-cushioned and a long ways from true “barefoot running” (you need something like the Vibram Fivefingers for that), they definitely feel a lot different than any other shoe I’ve run in. After about mile 10, I started to notice some soreness beginning to creep into my legs in unusual places, and I began to form a blister on my right big toe (I think this was a sock issue and not shoe issue though). By mile 12, my legs were quite fatigued, and I began to question whether I would make it for the full 20. I decided to persevere, and didn’t worry about pacing or walk breaks from that point on (and there were many walk breaks).

One of the things that helped me get through was that I was listening to the book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall on the Ipod. I plan to review this book in detail soon (my review of Born to Run is now on-line), but in short, it’s one of the best running books I’ve read – if you’re a runner or want to become one, you absolutely have to read it. One of the things I’ve taken from this book is that ultrarunners don’t worry much about walking up hills (more likely mountains) – they regain any lost time by flying down the other side. I kept telling myself that today was just a training run, I was a bonehead wearing new shoes, and there was no need to push too hard. This strategy worked, and I managed to finish the full 20 in the Nike Free’s.

When I finally arrived home, my legs were absolutely screaming at me. It wasn’t pain like shin splints or joint pain, but rather the type of pain you feel after going to the gym and lifting weights for the first time in a year. My leg muscles were done, and they were letting me know it. I’m now a firm believer that these shoes work you out in a novel way, as the pain was localized in areas that I haven’t felt soreness before. I had to jump in a hot bathtub to soothe the pain, and this seemed to do the trick almost instantly. After some food and a nap at bedtime with my daughter, I’m actually feeling pretty good right now. The legs are sore, and tomorrow will be interesting, but I’m glad I pushed through today. In a way, I’m also glad that I wore these shoes on this run – it gives me confidence that they do what they are supposed to be doing – working your legs out and strengthening them in a new and different way.

Any issues I had today I don’t blame so much on the shoes, but rather on my approach to using them. If you plan to try out the Free 3.0′s, respect the advice to ease your way into training with them. I figure I can go up to 10 miles or so in them without trouble, but I need to slowly work my way up to distances further than that. I won’t be using them for this coming marathon in Vermont (I’ll probably wear my Saucony Fastwitch 2′s), but I wouldn’t discount their use in a marathon at some point down the road as I strengthen the foot and leg muscles that they target. The Free 3.0′s are remarkably comfortable just to wear around the house, and they’re worth a try for anyone wanting to work their way into the minimalist running approach. Mine are guaranteed a spot in my rotation, and who knows, they might just take their spot exclusively.

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Update 3/09/2010: You can check out this post for details on the 2010 Nike Free models. You can still find the Free at fairly reasonable prices on Amazon.com – Search for Nike Free Shoes on Amazon.com


Update 12/5/09: I recently shot some slow motion video of myself running in the Nike Free 3.0′s. You can view it below.

Nike Free 3.0 from Pete Larson on Vimeo.
Slow motion video of treadmill running in Nike Free 3.0 – mild heel strike. Video shot at 300 frames-per-second with a Casio Exilim EX-F1 camera. More videos like this available at: http://www.runblogger.com/2009/12/relationship-between-running-footstrike.html.

Update 8/28/09: I’ve now put in nearly 200 miles in the Free 3.0′s, including a 10-mile race and long runs of 15, 17, and 20 miles, and they’re still going strong!

Update 7/8/09: I’m happy to report that the Nike Free 3.0 has become my favorite running shoe. I’ve used it regularly since the marathon in late May, and have noticed that I now seem to be midfoot striking in the Free, and my footfals are virtually silent (unlike the slapping sound I hear with my more traditional trainers). They are definitely the lightest and most flexible shoe I have owned.

Update 5/31/10: I’ve out up a new post about the Nike Free 3.0 as a transitional minimalist shoe, and have added a few thoughts on the second generation Nike Free 3.0 (which I now own).

For more info on the engineering of the Nike Free line, take a look at the videos below:

Here are a couple of cool Nike Free commercials:

Happy Running!

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

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