Earlier today I wrote a blog post about Nike’s release of the new Nike Free Run+. As I was driving home, I got to thinking about why I was disappointed by this shoe (these are the things I think about, and yes, I do have a problem…), and this post began to crystallize in my mind.
So here it is – Nike, you dropped the ball on this one. The only thing I can say about the release of the Free Run+ (probably better named the Free 6.0) and the apparent disappearance of the Free 3.0 is that Nike is moving away from what the Free line was originally meant to be. Yes, they shoot off about the benefits of “barefoot running” in their post introducing the Free Run+, but really, there’s not much “barefoot-like” about the shoe other than the fact that it’s lightweight and flexible. As someone who was a huge fan of the Free 3.0, I’m more than a bit disappointed with what I see in this shoe.
For those of us who are fans of barefoot and/or minimalist running, the words “cushioning” and “stability” are immediate turn-offs, and both of these words are emphasized in Nike’s description of this shoe. The Nike Free Run+ appears to sport a bigger heel than on either the 3.0 or 5.0 – I could be wrong, but just look at the comparison picture to the left and see if you agree (Update: apparently I am wrong about the heel, see this post for more). I’m now convinced that the strengthening benefit I get from my runs in the Vibram Fivefingers is due to the lack of a built-up heel, which forces my stride/gait to adapt, and thus provides a much better workout to the soleus muscle in the lower calf and the muscles in my feet. All you have to do is look at the work of Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University and his barefoot running paper published in Nature this year to see that barefoot running is characterized by a more midfoot/forefoot gait – slapping a fat heel on the Free Run+ makes it even less likely that this shoe will allow this type of gait. As a result, it seems that the Free Run+ is even less of a “barefoot-like” shoe than it’s own predecessors in the Free line. All I see here from Nike is a marketing gimmick using the “barefoot” buzzword, without any attention paid to the very real and good science that has come out on barefoot running in recent months.
So why would Nike move in this direction rather than making a Free 2.0 or a Free 1.0 by minimizing the heel-toe drop and keeping the very minimal upper of the Free 3.0? The way I see it, the Free Run+ is a pretty shoe that’s designed to appeal to a mainstream market that may have read an article about barefoot running but doesn’t know much more about it than that. Nike is great at designing and marketing pretty shoes, and I don’t doubt that this one will sell well, but if they really wanted to make a statement and support the minimalist running movement, this shoe does nothing to further the cause from a technology standpoint. Granted, the Free Run+ is surely flexible and might be more minimalist than most shoes on the market, but this is not a barefoot running shoe with that heel – don’t believe the marketing.
Maybe Nike feared making a shoe that would appeal only to a niche market, but one need look no further than the Vibram Fivefingers (see picture above) to see that a niche shoe can garner a lot of attention and sales. Vibram had the balls to put out a shoe that is to many people a strange curiosity, and to others god-awful ugly. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the Fivefingers were first pitched – it’s a miracle that they were ever produced in the first place given their far-from-mainstream look. Granted, they weren’t originally designed as running shoes, but they filled a need, and now Vibram is coming out with a running specific model (the Bikila – see below) to better meet the needs of those of us who like the minimalist benefits that they provide. Maybe they’ll flame out and wind up being a passing fad, but if researchers like Daniel Lieberman keep publishing good science on barefoot and minimalist running (and I fully believe his data are sound regardless of his openly admitted funding ties to Vibram), I think this running style has a long life ahead of it.
Now that Nike has dropped a golden opportunity to help fill this minimalist niche, I’m still waiting for one of the major running shoe manufacturers to produce a truly minimalist shoe. Rumor has it that Brooks is working on one, and I’d urge them to get it done and put it out there on the market. Brooks has shown some balls themselves by releasing the Green Silence (see picture to the left), a shoe that is both the most environmentally friendly shoe on the market and one whose asymmetrical colors and odd appearance makes it look like it was designed by Ronald McDonald (and I love it!). It’s not a truly minmalist shoe in the spirit of the Vibrams, but it’s a step in the right direction for Brooks (lightweight, lowish heel-toe drop). Lets hope they follow this up and make me a proud BrooksID member by providing us with a truly minimalist shoe.
Being someone who has a documented running shoe problem, I respect companies who push the envelope with their shoe designs. Nike deserves a lot of credit for originally creating the Free line, and as I stated earlier the Free 3.0 is one of my all-time favorite shoes, but in my opinion they are moving in the wrong direction. Don’t believe the hype about the Free Run+ – if you want a truly barefoot-like shoe, save your money and wait for the Vibram Fivefingers Bikila (Update 7/17/10 – the Bikila is now available, and I have started posting my thoughts), which should be arriving in stores any day now (see picture below). Until somebody else steps to the plate, Vibrams remain the best we have when it comes to minimalist shod running.
Update 7/17/10: Check out my guide to minimalist running shoes for more information on these and other shoes.
Update 10/27/2010: I have now posted my own Nike Free Run+ review. Check it out here: http://www.runblogger.com/2010/10/nike-free-run-review-nice-transitional.html.