Today, the VFFs have entered mainstream, even if it’s only a small percentage of the running population are in them, it’s hip to be running unshod and a gaggle of gear companies like Innov8, Vivo, Altra are producing solely minimalist footwear. Established companies – I won’t mention names here – try to copy, shamelessly I might add, the VFF, right down to the independent toe construction. Others revamp their thinking and product lines to include minimalist shoes and models that are constructed around less technology. NB’s Minimus, Brooks Pure and Saucony’s recent announcement to reduce their core line of shoes from 12mm to 8mm drops.
In all these developments, where were Nike, you ask? Observing, I guess. They’ve not been entirely absent for sure. If Nike wanted to, they could easily snap their fingers and summon up a designer to put together a cracking (and beautiful) zero-drop shoe. And a line of colour coordinated running apparels to go with the shoes for good measure. Just that the company’s direction lies with the belief that runners shouldn’t remove the protection element away from the need to strengthen the feet and legs. Nike’s fulfillment in this less-is-more segment therefore remained solely in the Nike Free range (whoa, didn’t realise the chockful of puns in this sentence!). The first Nike Free was launched in 2004 and in Malaysia, we’ve had Free Everyday (2 versions), Free 7.0, Free 5.0, Free Run+ (which replaces the Everyday and the 5.0), Free 3.0. They were at least what I remember seeing in the stores, as hard to find as they were. The Frees were Nike’s only representation in the fastest growing segment in shoe sales (check out this interesting Dec 2011 report as referenced by Pete Larson). The Free Run+ were wildly popular in the U.S. and having worn both the original and 2nd version I can vouch for their comfort as daily walkabout shoes. They had none of the narrow forefoot fit of many of their shoes, they’re light and super flexible. As a serious training shoe, I prefer the original Free Run+ [my review and photos here] over the 2nd version [review and photos]. I used the Free Run+ to ease myself into performance trainers that I only wear today. No longer am I wearing any shoes over 9oz and I’m all the happier for it . For close to 2 years, Nike continued to market the Free Run+, its midsole thick enough to accommodate the Nike+ sensor which the company was aggressively selling as well. To reduce more midsole height and to shave off more of the drop ratio, it will be at the expense of alienating the Nike+ sensor. With that, the Free 3.0 was dropped from range and that upset many fans of the barer shoe.
Well, 2012 is the year when Nike are going to make many of their Free fans happy because they’re not only refreshing the Free Run+ but also introduce a new model and bring back the 3.0. Officially called the Free Run+ 3, Free 4.0 and Free 3.0 v4, it’s a sure sign that the company is here to compete and to provide the large runner base who want to trim down what they wear without crossing over completely to going barefoot. And as with any shoes that offer an 8mm drop and below, I’m terribly excited. Doubly so, because I have the Free Run+ 3 and Free 3.0 to try out!
I’d preface this first post by saying that the runs put in these shoes are rather short ones. Let’s start with Free Run+ 3. At 8mm drop, they aren’t exactly what hardcore minimalists would call, ummm, minimalism. It’s still Nike+ ready but the upper is where the most changes took place. In the case of the Run+ 3, it’s really an example of give and take. The exo-skeletal of the 2nd version has been removed (see comparative photo below) but the Dynamic Fit sleeve (like that of the Lunar Eclipse) is introduced.
The heel counter is now softer and so is the insole. The range of the new eye-popping colourways compared to the more sedate predecessor guarantees visibility a mile away! The swoosh is made reflective, always a good decision. To accommodate the Dynamic Fit sleeve, the one piece tongue of the original and second version is now a traditional version. I’d very much preferred the integrated tongue – which allowed me to pull the shoes on and lace up. A very thin layer called the nanoply is used to hold the upper together. The cross-configuration of the nanoply is so that it conforms to the movement of the feet.
Elsewhere, lacing loops replaces the eyelets of the previous version. The ultra flexible traits of the Free Run+ are all there and I like the presence of the more prominent midfoot sipes too. As mentioned, the Free Run+ 3 is ranked 5,0 in the scale where 0 represents barefoot and 10.0 the maximally constructed shoe. In other words, it’s smack right in the middle of the scale.
How does it feel on the run? I put it through a few short runs not exceeding 10K each to have a feel. The first time I laced it up, there was a noticeable pinching at the instep of the forefoot flex point. It needed a little of loosening up of the laces at the first eyelet to reduce the sensation. The Nike EKIN confirmed this similar feedback. In the first short run around the block, I thought the forefoot was a little softer but the followup run proved that I was wrong. It was the same as the Free Run+ 2
As I’m not one to run sockless, it wasn’t something I’d try even for a “safe” shoe as the Free. Nevertheless I still feel that I should point out that I encountered to chafing issue encountered on both occassions when I wore thin socks. The shoe is true to size, in my case a US9.5, and there was a bit more room at the front allowing for some toe wiggling.
As mentioned, I’ve done only a handful of runs in the shoe. Since version 3 isn’t too far off its predecessor, I’ve no reservations in taking it for up to 15K. The ride is pretty quiet and I was able to keep my footstrike midfoot and even further forefoot. Make no mistake, the 8mm differential means that you’ll still heelstrike when you tire out.
If you’re a wearer of traditional shoes who is seeking out a transitional shoe towards minimalism, the Free Run+ 3 is an obvious and easy choice. I see many Free Run+ on the feet of runners in my runarounds at the park, a testament to both its appeal and suitability. Most beginning runners should be able to substitute their traditional shoes with the Free once a week, building up to twice or thrice, for their shorter runs. Or for casual walkabouts.
The new Nike Free series is already in-stores, so you could check them out yourselves too. Be warned though, they’re really bright!