Nike Free – can a shoe improve technique?

Nike claim the Free delivers benefits similar to barefoot running (better biomechanics and strengthening of muscles in and around the foot) while wearing shoes that still offer protection from everyday hazards such as stones, prickles and broken glass.

So what’s the big deal about Nike Frees?  It’s tempting to write off the Nike Free as a brilliant piece of marketing to which Nike excels, but there are practical benefits that are easy enough to understand without needing a biomechanics degree.  First and foremost there is no stiffness built into the Free range of shoes, by this I mean if you flex the shoe from front to back you’ll meet no resistance – try this with your everyday trainers and even some road racing flats and you’ll find the task a lot harder.  The sole of the shoe is also designed with deep grooves that run front to back and side to side with the goal being to allow the foot to move as naturally as possible.

The flexibility of the shoe drives potential strength gains in the foot and deep compartment of the lower calf.  In traditional trainers, there is usually a high degree of stiffness that takes over and does some of the work of the plantaflexors in the foot and lower calf.  The result, these muscles get lazy and weak, compromising your ability to transfer forces generated by the bigger buttock and hamstring muscles.  The ability to stiffen your foot is the role of the plantaflexors – small muscles that contribute to this role reside in the foot, but there are also three bigger muscles of which the tibialis posterior is the most well known, that sit beneath the soleus (lower calf) and gastrocnemius (upper calf). The tibialis posterior, flexor digitorum longus and flexor hallucis longus form the deep posterior compartment of the lower leg.

So what has that got to do with strengthening the feet?  Actually a lot, the tendons attached to these muscles wrap underneath the arch of the foot and under the toes – therefore when these muscles are strong enough they help the foot to stiffen and provide a stable springy platform from which to run.  It’s not until you build some strength through your feet and lower calves that you begin to understand the true nature of running well.  So am I a believer in the Free as a useful tool for improving your running?  Absolutely, but you need to be cautious; running in Frees is not for everyone.

I started running in Frees after I’d decided to improve my technique, so I’d already moved away a little from my hard impact heel striking technique that involved landing with my knee virtually straight, and foot well ahead of my body.  If I were still running that way I wouldn’t wear the Nike Free unless I was being extremely cautious and consciously trying to correct those technical errors.  If this is you, consider using the Frees in the gym or for walking as a transition step.  Melbourne sports Podiatrist and former elite runner Jason Agosta has a conservative approach to integrating Nike Frees – if in doubt take this cautious path.

The sole and the cushioning material of the Nike Free is one and the same, a reasonably firm plastic type material that offers much less cushioning than traditional shoes, however after you break them in they feel quite springy. The shoe itself feels like it molds into your foot, a little strange at first, but after wearing them for a while you don’t notice this.  I think that firmer less cushy shoes are better for runners trying to improve their technique – if the shoe is too spongy you can’t feel the running surface, so I really found the Frees helpful as a different stimulus for improving my technique.

It’s a bit like barefoot running though, there’s not magical cure for better running form, but the Free can help improve the way you are moving.  The shoe won’t instantly transform you into a star runner, but it does give you an excellent feel for how your feet are hitting the ground and encourages you to use your body’s innate shock absorbing capabilities rather than relying on cushioning technology.

In practice I’ve found wearing the Frees on a range or surfaces, dirt trails, grass, concrete and asphalt to be ok, although they do tend to collect rocks and occasionally a sharp one might poke up through the grooves and cause some discomfort. Overall I wear my Frees a couple of times a week and have taken them out on outings as long as 20km; after getting used to the shoes.  Aside from the rock problem I find I prefer them on rougher trails to my regular shoes because of the better feel for the ground and their ability to mold around uneven surfaces.  The Nike Free 3.0 are probably my favorite shoes to run in at the moment, but too much of a good thing can cause problems and I live in a rocky environment, so I’m  wearing them about two runs out of five.

I started with the Free 5.0 and now also wear the 3.0 without any problems; this shoe offers enough heel raise and overall cushioning/support for runners with reasonable mechanics to at least use it for some of their training.  The 3.0 is a similar profile to the Adidas Adizero Adios Marathon racing shoe so it does have some support.  If you haven’t tried the Free it’s definitely worth considering.

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