Nike Free 3.0 Review

A little while ago I reviewed the Adidas Adizero Adios and named them my favorite running shoe, well as fickle as this may sound, I’ve changed my mind.

While I still prefer the Adios for road racing and tempo runs, for all around comfort on easy to longish runs and for working on improving running technique, then the Nike Free 3.0 is now the shoe I reach for first out of an ever burgeoning and untidy pile of running footwear.

I’ve been no stranger to the Free 3.0 over a period of more than 12 months, from tentative exploratory and cautious 20 minute jogs, my use of this shoe (and I’m now on a second pair) has grown considerably in volume and variation.

What sort of running can you do in the Nike Free 3.0?

At the top end I’ve run for 90 minutes or close to 20km, I even took them onto the track for a middling 5000m performance (I don’t blame the shoe). At the moment I’ve taken to wearing them for speed work (off the track), in fact I’m wearing them almost all the time!

The only environment where they have struggled was in a 16km long cross country race on uneven grass, I developed a callousister that day – no that’s not your callous sister, it’s a blister that forms under a callous. Keep up with your foot maintenance regime to avoid this happening to you!

As I wrote about recently, the NB MT101 trail shoe has given me a good alternative to protect my feet against stone bruising on very rocky surfaces. However, the Free 3.0 also performs pretty well on rough ground, if you avoid the sharp stuff. There’s no glossing over the fact that they do collect a handful of gravel to throw into your landscaping after each run. I wonder if a future version of the Free could be developed with slightly shallower grooves to help avoid the intrusion and collection of my local government’s road surface?

The Nike Free 3.0 as a tool for working on proper running form

Nike persistently under-market and under-explain the usefulness of the Free as much more than the training tool it’s so often described. It’s a legitimate choice as an everyday running shoe or trainer as well as a superior shoe for getting the feel for improved running technique.

I’ve been recently wearing the Free 3.0 much more over the past few weeks as I’ve continued to fine tuning my foot-strike and maintain my patient journey towards forefoot oriented running. As I’ve written previously in my book and on this blog many runners can be successful maintaining a light heel-toe contact pattern, so this is in no way a call to arms to every runner to get up on your toes.

The reason the Free 3.0 is so useful as a shoe to wear when making improvements to  running form – especially if you’re heading towards a forefoot first contact pattern, is it gives you fantastic feel for the loading cycle that occurs as the forefoot contacts and then flattens under pressure from the glutes and hamstrings. The Achilles and calf stretch to complete this loading and absorb landing shock. If you get it right.

It’s by no means something that you just decide to do, getting it wrong is very easy and can lead to injury inducing mistakes. But having the right shoe to practice with does make things easier, and the Nike Free 3.0 does a good job of this by allowing you to get a better feel for the cycle of load and release.

Pretty much any time I run in more traditional shoes – even something as light as the Adizero Ace or indeed an old pair of Nike Free 5.0 I find I lose the feel for this stretch and load process, the result is usually holding the foot and calf too stiff on contact leading to tight calves. A more flexible and flatter shoe seems to help allow this loading phase to occur more easily.

General strengthening benefit of flexible shoes

I’ve written previously about the benefits of the Free and other flexible running shoes as being good for strengthening the feet as you need to stiffen them as the foot is pushed back and springs off the ground. Traditional shoes, even racing flats, have a degree of stiffness that provides an artificial plantaflexion (toes pushing down) benefit – good for racing when you’re wanting every last piece of assistance, but perhaps not so great for easy running and training where building strength is the main game.

Do you need to be a forefoot striker to wear the Free 3.0?

I don’t think so. I took this footage late 2010 and was doing quite a bit of running in the Free 3.0 at the time despite going heel first. The key is not so much whether you’re a forefoot striker or not, but whether you are a quadriceps driven over-strider. If you over-stride, land dead with no hamstring and glute activation, then don’t wear these shoes for running.

If you activate your hamstrings and glutes early enough, you’ll probably be able to run in these shoes, even if you’re a lightish heel-striker. Just be careful to ease into wearing the Free 3.0 for a few weeks of 10-20 minute jogs before you conclude your body is going to like running in them for long runs or harder training sessions. Monitor how your body reacts and be aware of any unusual tightness or pain.

Is there any need to go barefoot when shoes are this good?

The mid-sole, cushioning and sole is all one and the same for the Nike Free range of shoes and this is part of the reason they work so well. It isn’t cushioning per se but it does provide some protection if you don’t smash into the ground too hard. The benefits of the less is more approach is that you get a very good feel for when your foot first strikes the ground and how it behaves once it’s on terra firma. There’s definitely plenty of benefit available for runners wearing the Free who want the barefoot feel without the risks and discomfort.

How long does the Nike Free 3.0 last?

In terms of longevity my Free 3.0s have been amazingly durable, the first thing that goes is the firmness in the mid-sole, but if you’re running roads or non rocky dirt tracks this isn’t really an issue – you didn’t buy these shoe for cushioning right? They do get a bit spongy after about 400 kilometers, but I kinda like the familiar, comforting feel of a well worn in pair of frees.

I have run upwards of 800km in this old pair and have already put a couple of hundred kilometers onto the most recent incarnation of the Free 3.0 (Version 3).

A well loved pair of Free 3.0

Is there going to be a Free 0.0 or 1.0?

I believe Nike will release a Free 0.0 or 1.0 in the near future to cover off on the requirements of zero drop runners. It’s debatable whether a flatter free is needed, but with the Free range being expanded to include the Free Run 5.0, a new intermediate model; the Free 4.0, the existing Free 3.0, a Free 1.0 or 0.0 will complete an excellent minimalist transition shoe pathway. Whichever way Nike go, a slightly flatter Free does seem to be inevitable and needed to complete the range.

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If you want to read more about the benefits of transitioning to minimal shoe running, and how to do it safely, then this series of articles is worth a look:


4 Responses to Nike Free 3.0 Review

  1. Paul Joyce November 20, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Brian, I know there has been some debate about the heel-toe drop on the Nike Free range. Pete Larson over at Runblogger has done some measurements of various shoes including the Nike Free 3.0 which he measured at 4mm (my measurement also found it to be 4mm). Link to Pete’s article here:

    Another shoe I can recommend while we wait for Nike to release a zero drop version of the Free is the Altra Instinct. It’s not as flexible as the Free but is zero drop and cushioned. It is my go to shoe for runs longer than 20kms.

    Cheers, Paul

    • Brian November 20, 2011 at 6:47 pm #

      G’day Paul, thanks again for the insights. I think Pete has some calipers which I reckon are probably the way to get some level of accuracy. I guess the variances in mid-sole shape and cushioning can change the ‘feel’ of how much drop is in the shoe. I will check out the Altra Instinct. Brian

  2. Paul Joyce November 20, 2011 at 11:35 am #

    Brian, good review. While I do almost all of my running in zero drop shoes I am a big fan of the Nike Free range, in particular the 3.0. They were my first minimalist shoe and I still like them a lot. In relation to the potential for Nike to release a Free Zero I think it’s the next logical step for them. The 3.0 has a 4mm drop so adding a zero drop option makes a lot of sense. Cheers, Paul

    • Brian November 20, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

      Hi Paul, Thanks for the feedback. Yes I think with a small modification Nike would have a great zero drop shoe on their hands. It’s interesting that the drop heights vary so much depending on where the information is sourced, I’ve seen the Free 3.0 listed as high as 7mm drop, but I reckon it’s closer to your number of 4mm. Cheers Brian