I'm running free." - Iron Maiden, "Running Free" (video after post)
*Admin note: It was virtually impossible for me to review a running shoe called the Free and NOT think of that classic Maiden song. If you're a hard rock fan of a certain age, you've already got the chorus stuck in your head just by reading it. For the rest of you, the video follows the post.
** Just about every runner has a Nike story. The company has been so ubiquitous in the development and expansion of the sport of running that you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has never worn Nike shoes. They are the 800-lb gorilla that every other shoe company must contend with, and they’re a force of nature within the running community.
Given their size, Nike also makes an easy target for criticism, some of which has become high-profile over the years. In the 1990s, the company was widely criticized for human rights concerns within its Asian workforce (an especially interesting point for me, in light of this recent post ), and for environmental negligence. While some of those concerns (especially the labor ones) have persisted into the 21st Century, Nike has done a respectable job of cleaning up its act when it comes to social responsibility.
For example, the environmental organization Clean Air-Cool Planet ranks Nike third among 56 companies for its climate-friendly business practices. Nike has also created innovative products such as the Trash Talk shoe, constructed from materials gathered from the factory floor during manufacturing. Perhaps their most successful initiative, from a community and environmental standpoint, is the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which recycles old running shoes whose materials are then used for basketball courts, running tracks, and playground surfaces.
So while the company may not be perfect, they’re certainly making strides in the right direction. And through all the controversy and reform efforts, their shoes have continued to sell like crazy, indicating the mighty influence Nike still wields among shoe consumers. Therefore, when Nike trends in any particular direction, the entire industry takes notice.
In many regards, that’s exactly what’s happened with the whole barefoot renaissance that’s taking place. I’ve already written about how the company who more or less invented the modern running shoe has also been at the forefront of the barefoot movement, but it bears emphasizing how large a role Nike played in the development of it all.
It was Nike who listened to feedback from its sponsored coaches (most notably Vin Lananna at Stanford) and athletes who found improved comfort and performance while running barefoot. It was Nike who spent millions on research to develop footwear that allows the foot and ankle to function naturally in the framework of a traditional running shoe. And it was Nike who promoted the benefits of barefoot running to mass consumer markets. It’s impossible to prove - but if a smaller, niche company had come out with a “barefoot running shoe” several years ago, chances are it would have been roundly ignored or ridiculed by the rest of the industry; since Nike did it, every other company was forced to respond.
Can your shoe do this?
Before we get to this specific shoe, I’ll try to clear up some confusion in regards to Nike terminology. The original Nike Free series that debuted in 2005 now has several versions on the market, classified by numbers like 3.0 and 5.0. The scale reflects “degrees of freedom”, or how closely the shoe mimics barefoot running. 10.0 would be a standard running shoe, and 0.0 would be running barefoot (or in purely minimal footwear like Vibram FiveFingers).
Since the transition to a more barefoot pattern can be problematic, some runners found it difficult to train in Nike Frees on a daily basis; that’s where the Free Everyday+ comes in. With this shoe, Nike attempts to combine the feeling of natural movement, but maintain the cushioning and support of an everyday trainer. It’s a neutral cushioned shoe that would sit somewhere in the upper half of Nike’s numeric scale. The Everyday+ 2 is the second generation of this particular series.
The Free series’ biggest departure from standard running shoes is in its flexibility. The midsole - and a good portion of the outsole - is made of Phylite material that is very lightweight and pliable, while the bottom of the shoe features deep flex grooves (both lateral and horizontal) to allow motion in all directions. The composite rubber outsole is highly durable and provides adequate traction for any kind of road running.
Given that the Free Everyday+ 2 is a transitional shoe as opposed to a true barefoot trainer, there are still several comfort features that Nike retains from its traditional running models. There is a soft midfoot saddle that wraps around the rearfoot for a secure fit, a molded sockliner matching the curvature of the foot for comfort and support, and a segmented crash pad in the midsole for shock absorption. There’s also a Nike Zoom unit in the heel for added cushioning; this is the only model in the Free series to feature air cushioning in the heel. These features don’t add significant bulk, however, as the entire shoe weighs in at a fairly lightweight 9.9 oz.
Upstairs, I was pleasantly surprised by both the form and function of the shoe’s upper. From a design standpoint, it’s got a serious old-school vibe to it, like a throwback to the days of the waffle trainer. It also has some smart features from a performance standpoint, such as a large forefoot area to allow natural foot movement, and an extremely breathable mesh for ventilation and comfort.
If you’re wondering what the “plus” means in the name Free Everyday+ 2, it indicates that the shoe is compatible with Nike’s sensor technology – another feature that is missing from the rest of the Free series. Nike+ allows runners to measure and monitor their progress in conjunction with separate equipment such as the Nike+ SportBand, Nike+ iPod sport kit, or Nike+ iPhone 3GS. It’s pretty cool gadgetry to play around with, if you’re into that sort of thing. Since I tend to gravitate towards low-tech applications (have I mentioned that I like running barefoot?), I didn’t spend a lot of time with this feature to test its accuracy or reliability.
I have, however, put a lot of miles on these shoes since I received them a couple of months ago. They’ve been a great accompaniment to the barefoot mileage I’m running; on days when my ankles were feeling a little sore, or my feet were still too raw from asphalt friction to go barefoot again, I’d put 8 to 10 miles at a time on these shoes very comfortably.
It seems like Nike hit pretty close to the intended target with the Free Everyday+ 2: it’s a comfortable, durable trainer that would be a good transition shoe towards barefoot running, or a good alternative for barefoot runners who want to maintain a higher weekly mileage while giving their feet time to recuperate between barefoot workouts.