In the world of athletic footwear, there have been few models in recent years as iconic as the Nike Free. The first mainstream running shoe built around the idea of allowing the foot to move freely, the Nike Free was a precursor to the “minimalist” movement (it’s development got a shout out in Born to Run). The Free line also has been influential in the design of many footwear offerings today, while remaining a staple training tool for countless athletes.
What Makes the Nike Free Different?
A cornerstone of the Nike Free running shoe concept is the deep cuts (known as “sipes”) covering a grid-like pattern throughout the sole of the shoe. These sipes allow for flexible movement in almost any direction, while the platform still provides some underfoot protection. To encourage a mid- to forefoot strike, the Nike Free platforms have lower heel-to-toe offsets compared to traditional running shoes.
In the upper, the focus is on keeping structure to a minimum. A Nike Free shoe fits closer to the foot compared to a traditional running shoe, but still allows the foot to flex naturally throughout the gait cycle. Lightweight construction keeps runners from feeling weighted down.
Nike’s design intent with the Free collection is to encourage greater activation of the muscles of the foot. This in turn, according to Nike’s research, should result in a stronger and healthier foot.
What Do the Numbers Mean?
Nike Free models are delineated by numbers following the name. Somewhat confusingly, the numbers can mean one of two things – the version number of the shoe or the shoe’s position in the Free family. Bear with us a second here and all will become clear.
Any number with a decimal (x.0) in the shoe’s name is a rating of the shoe’s structure and flexibility. A 10.0 would be a traditional running shoe, and on the other end of the spectrum, 0.0 is completely barefoot. A model’s rating is stamped on the lateral rear of the platform for easy reference. A number without a decimal or with a “v” in front of it is the version number of the shoe. Here are some examples:
- The Free 3.0 v4 is as near barefoot as the Free running collection gets, since there are no Free shoes with a 1.0 or 2.0 rating. The v4 indicates that there were three prior versions of this shoe.
- The Free Run 3 is the third version of the Free Run model. It’s not stated in the name, but this shoe is rated as a 5.0, making it more like a traditional running shoe than the Free 3.0.
Another Naming Wrinkle
Just when you thought you were starting to figure it out, Nike wants to throw you for one more loop. The shoe currently called the Free Run was previously known as the Free 5.0. It went through four versions before the name change. The latest version of the Free Run, the Free Run 3, is being updated in April 2013. So it will be the Free Run 4, right?
Nope. Nike has decided to return to the Free 5.0 name for this shoe. And as we said, there were four prior versions of the Free 5.0. So, you’re thinking, that would make this upcoming model the Free 5.0 v5. Nice try, but wrong again. To avoid the confusion of having two fives in the name, Nike is simply calling this new model the Free 5.0, with no version number.
Here’s where we stand right now with the Nike Free running collection:
- The Free Run 3 (Men’s Free Run 3 / Women’s Free Run 3) is the most traditional of the Free line. It has an 8mm heel-to-toe offset, along with a higher stack height and more structured upper compared to either of the other Free running models.
- The Free 4.0 v2 (Men’s Free 4.0 v2 / Women’s Free 4.0 v2) is the middle child of the Free family, offering a 6mm heel-to-toe offset.
- The Free 3.0 v4 (Men’s Free 3.0 v4 / Women’s Free 3.0 v4) is the most minimal of the shoes in the Free collection. It offers a 4mm heel-to-toe differential and a light, snug-fitting upper.
Which Nike Free Is Best for Me?
This depends on the type of footwear you are accustomed to and the type of running experience you want. For runners currently in a conventional shoe, the Nike Free Run 3 offers the easiest transition into the Free lineup. For runners with more experience in lower profile shoes, the Free 4.0 v2 offers a nice balance of protection and ground feel. Those seeking the lightest weight, lowest to the ground experience of the Free collection will appreciate the Free 3.0 v4, with its sock-like fit and extreme flexibility.