This review is long overdue, but it’s one that I have long felt compelled to write. When Nike first announced the release of the newest member of it’s Free line of more minimalist running shoes, the Nike Free Run+, I was highly critical of their marketing approach. Some took this as me attacking a shoe that I had never worn, but that was not my intent. Rather, I was critical of the fact that Nike was marketing the Free Run+ as a shoe that simulates barefoot running, which I didn’t believe (and still don’t) was possible. In fairness, I felt that I should at least give the shoe a try so that I could write an informed review (one better than the piece put together by Wired Magazine that initially didn’t even have the correct shoe pictured). This post is my attempt at providing a fair review of Nike Free Run+.
Let’s start with the obvious – no shoe can completely simulate the feeling of running barefoot – barefoot running by definition means running unshod. I am by no means a regular barefoot runner, but I have run barefoot a few times, including several runs of over a mile on asphalt, and I can assure you that running barefoot is a very different experience than running in shoes of any kind. Sure, there are shoes that come close to simulating the experience (e.g., Vibram Fivefingers), but all shoes dampen the sensory response from your feet to varying degrees, and this fundamentally alter how your foot interacts with the ground while running. My problem with the Nike Free Run+ and how it has been marketed is that it has a thickly cushioned sole and an approximately 7mm heel lift based on my measurement technique (I measure it at 26mm heel, 19mm forefoot, though the latter is a rough estimate since there are no slots on the sides of the tongue in the Free Run+ to slide my clamp through). I should point out that the heel appears to be slightly higher than it actually is in the images below since the outsole curls up around where the heel actually sits. Given this extensive cushioning and heel lift, this is not a shoe that on its own is going to do a whole lot to encourage the midfoot/forefoot strike pattern so characteristic of the barefoot running gait. Yes it is highly flexible, yes it is lightweight, but there is very little else that is truly barefoot-like about this shoe. I have heard rumors that Nike may have a zero-drop Free 1.0 in the works, but these are unconfirmed and I eagerly await more information (if you have any, please post in the comments!).
The above being said, my overall feelings about this shoe are actually quite positive when it is placed in its proper context. I have long been a fan of the Nike Free line, and the original Free 3.0 was actually the shoe that started me on my journey toward more minimalist running shoes. Part of my frustration when the Free Run+ was released was that it seemed like the Free 3.0 had been discontinued, which it apparently was not since it can still be purchased at various places (like Running Warehouse) – whether or not the Free 3.0 was resurrected with the emergence of the minimalist movement, or whether it never actually went away is a question for which I’d love an answer. Anyway, given that the Free 3.0 is still around, the Free Run+ has a definite place as a transitional minimalist shoe – I’d classify it as a gateway shoe to minimalism in the same vein as I defined the category in my review of the Saucony Kinvara. The Kinvara and the Free Run+ are both very popular shoes right now, and for many, one of these will likely be the shoe that encourages them to move toward more and more minimal options (much as the Free 3.0 served this purpose for me). Given this, the remainder of my review below will be largely written in light of my view of the role that this shoe fills – a transitional shoe for those heading toward more minimalist designs, or even an end of the line shoe for those wanting a bit less shoe who might not want to go too extreme in that direction.
Appearance: As always, Nike pays careful attention to the appearance of their shoes, and the Free Run+ is no different in this regard. It’s a great looking shoe, and comes in just about any color you can imagine – this fact alone seems to be a testament to Nike’s confidence that the shoe would be a big seller. Ads for the Free Run+ are colorful and highlight the shoe’s flexibility, and it’s one of the few more minimalist shoes that you will see on the walls of shopping mall shoe stores like Foot Locker and Finish Line.
One oddity about this shoe is that it has a curved last and an offset lacing system, which makes it look like the shoe bends medially when viewed from above (see photo to the left). My sense is that this is more a function of the lacing system altering appearance than anything structural, but it makes for a bit of an odd look from above.
Although not an appearance element, it’s worth noting for those who might be interested that these shoes do accommodate a Nike+ sensor under the insole. I have long since abandoned the Nike+ system due to it’s inaccuracy, so I have not used the sensor in these shoes.
Fit: This is where the Free Run+ really shines – it’s one of the most comfortable shoes that I own and I often wear it out and about simply for this reason. In my opinion, the uppers on the Free shoes are among my favorite on any shoe – the sockliner is very soft, and I really like the bootie design on the Free Run+. Although the shoe is supposed to be capable of being run in sockless, my attempt at doing so resulted in hot spots that could easily have become blisters had I continued, so I would not recommend them as a sockless shoe (I have run sockless in the Free 3.0 and Saucony Kinvara without issue).
As for sizing, the shoe runs true to size for me, and the fit is nearly perfect. The forefoot is plenty roomy for my medium width foot, and the heel through arch fit is nice and snug. There is a bit of arch support, which will likely turn off those more interested in truly minimalist shoes, though it is slightly less pronounced if you remove the insoles.
Function: Here’s where things get a bit tricky. Whether or not you like the Nike Free Run+ out on the road is going to depend largely on what you want out of the shoe and what you plan to use it for. As I mentioned at the outset, the Free Run+ is thickly cushioned (though a tad firmer than the Saucony Kinvara) and has a moderate heel lift (about 7mm). Thus, ground feel is not great, and the heel will not be one that helps get you immediately onto your midfoot/forefoot. On the plus side, they are extremely flexible (due to the extensive siping/grooves on the sole – see picture below) and very light, so if you are coming from a heavier, more traditional shoe with a 12mm heel lift, you will definitely notice a difference going into the Free Run+. It is for this reason that I view the shoe as a good choice for someone looking to transition slowly into more minimalist shoes (some minimalist runners oppose this transitional approach, but it worked just fine for me).
If you are already a minimalist runner and prefer shoes with minimal cushioning and as little heel as possible, the Free Run+ is probably not a great choice. However, I find it to be a good shoe for recovery runs and long runs, and nearly chose it as my shoe for my BQ marathon attempt a few weeks back (I opted for the Kinvara). I’ve run long runs in them with little issue, and did a half marathon simulation in 1:35 during my last training cycle and they felt great. For an all-out, marathon length race I like a shoe to have a bit more cushion and don’t mind a slight heel lift, so the Free Run+ fits the bill better than most shoes out there.
A few last thoughts on running midfoot or forefoot in the Free Run+. It took a lot of work for me to transition to a midfoot striking running stride, and I still lapse from time to time, but I can run midfoot fairly easily in the Nike Free Run+ now that I have become comfortable with the gait (see video below). That being said, as I have mentioned above, I would not choose this shoe as the ideal one to get someone off of their heels. It will help you get a feel for what it is like to run in less shoe, and will help in the process of acclimating to a lower heel lift, but my feeling is that if you really want to work on a midfoot/forefoot running stride, you need a shoe with as little heel as possible.
Conclusion: In summary, the Nike Free Run+ is a great looking, very comfortable shoe that is an excellent choice for someone who runs in traditional trainers and wants to transition to less shoe. For someone who has already made the switch, it can serve a role as a recovery and distance shoe, and my feeling is that the Free Run+ would hold up well as a marathon shoe for more minimalist runners as it provides some protection from late-race form-breakdown (though I would probably recommend the Saucony Kinvara over the Free Run+ as a marathon shoe since it is a bit lighter and has a bit less heel). The Free Run+ will likely see continued use in my rotation, and although it is far from barefoot-like, it fits nicely in the transitional minimalist category.