Ah the Nike Free; the venerable “minimalist shoe” that was introduced by the iconic company way back in 2004 and has only just been pulled into relevance by the recent barefoot trend. It’s a great shoe. However, plenty of people are put off by the idea of minimizing the amount of cushion between their foot and the pavement. It’s not a journey to be taken on lightly. I mean, aren’t we supposed to have cushion? Isn’t that what running shoes are for in the first place? Why then, would I want a shoe (the Free or otherwise) that is purposely taking that precious padding away from me?
Well, let’s try and clear a few things up. This is by no means meant to be an exhaustive report into the biomechanics of a stride and how force affects and is applied to a runner in motion, but I do want to give you, the little people, an idea of what’s going on when you slip that shoe on and head out the door.
So, the general awesomeness of the Free has to do with this idea of a mid-foot strike. If you’ve followed the minimalist craze at all in the past three years than you know this is the buzzword that roused a thousand aspiring barefoot runners to toss out their shoes and declare them obsolete. Not true. A typical running shoe gives you padding. Padding is good for most people who just want to grab their shoes and head out the door for some endorphins and some stress release or weight management. And that’s fantastic. Those are all perfect reasons to run and nothing or no one should tell you different.
However, if you’re in that other club, the one that shows up to races in split shorts and a singlet, than chances are you’re worried about form. What the Free does, because of its extremely flexible design, is allow the foot to move and flex in a way that allows a more natural (read: barefoot) type of strike; one that encourages a mid-foot strike, which is supposed to be much more efficient.
For the go-fast folks, the Free will allow you to have a more sentient idea of where you are planting your foot and how to improve your form; we call that proprioception. Improved form leads to better efficiency. Better efficiency leads to an increase in speed. It will also make you sore. But if you’ve ever done repeats at a track (and I know you have, Mr. PR shorty-shorts) than you know what to expect as far as the fatigue it creates. Just don’t do too much too soon. Start off slow and always give yourself plenty of rest.
Now, back to that first camp, the ones that just want to throw something on and go and never really worry about racing and all that nonsense. This doesn’t mean that the Free isn’t for you. It will strengthen your foot because it is allowing your foot to move more. Increasing this movement means you increase the effort and the muscles involved to keep yourself balanced and moving forward while you run. You’ll be a better runner for this. But you’ll also be sore for a while, just like you were way back when you first started running. Your body is adapting to the stress you’re applying to it; getting stronger, creating new muscle, and that’s pretty cool.
The great thing about the Free is that it’s not quite the leap that say, a Vibram Five Finger is from a traditional shoe. The Vibram is doing essentially the same thing as the Free by giving you the ability to run mid-foot and engage more of the muscles in your foot and leg. But the Vibram is doing all this in a much more substantial way (substantial is a funny word to use in talking about a minimalist shoe); The Vibram really has no type of padding under any part of your foot save a small amount of their famous rubber soul. The Free has enough padding that it allows you still have some protection from the aches and pains that can be associated with running in a minimalist shoe, but at the same time it is allowing your foot the flexibility and feel for the road that will help improve your efficiency and achieve that barefoot type stride. I like the Free because it’s a good compromise between going totally barefoot, and still running in a traditional shoe. So, do I still run some miles in a traditional shoe? Absolutely. Am I telling you to buy the Free over anything else out there? Most definitely not. I’ve been able to transition into using my Frees as my primary shoe and it’s definitely improved my running. But I still have a traditional running shoe that I’ll use alongside the Free for when I’m feeling like I need something a bit more padded.