Gear Review: Nike Free 3.0

While this is not a ‘new’ product as such, I thought it worthwhile to put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard to give you my two cents worth on these shoes, given that a lot of our shoe reviews have been on some of the newer models that have come out recently. In short, I would regard myself as very ‘acquainted’ with these shoes, having worn them for pretty much every single trail race/run I’ve done over the last couple of years, and racking up the best part of 5,000kms in them give or take a few. I know Marcus, is also a big fan so I’m sure he’ll have some comments to make also.

Fully sic golden Nike's bro'

I distinctly remember trying these on in Rebel sports in Glebe about six months before I actually bought them thinking, “No way am I buying these, they’re utter garbage. Where’s the bloody support? The fit is so tight!” The thing was, I tried on my actual size at the time, not knowing that I really should have gone up half a size and all would have been good. Fast forward six months, and I went back to Rebel for my usual Asics ‘toe-nail destroyer’ Kayano 14’s when I thought… hmmmm… maybe I should just try a half a size up and see what they’re like again?

And there it was… Love at second sight (for the most part anyway).

The Topline

The thing I love most about this shoe is the spongy sole. For me, the Nike Free 3.0 was probably one of the first ‘barefoot’ shoes you could buy, or rather that hit the mainstream. I remember taking them out for their first spin around the Bay Run in Rozelle thinking “Whoah! I can really feel the ground with these things. My calves felt quite sore afterwards because of the shift of the running style onto more of the forefoot, but little did I know that 18 months later I’d be completing my first 100 miler in them.

For me, the Nike Free 3.0 is like a glove, and I mean a true glove fit as it moulds completely around my feet. For me, it is pretty much the perfect shoe bar one flaw which means I have to shell out time and time again for additional pairs – they’re extremely flimsy and tear pretty easily from around the sole where the upper attaches. Surely this could be rectified with a little bit of additional rubber attachments glued around this area if that makes any kind of sense.

The Detail

Grooves so deep, your feet just won't stop movin'

As I kicked off mentioning the sole of the shoe, this seems like a great place to start. The real beauty of this shoe is that it delivers a very good barefoot experience, but doesn’t sacrifice on cushioning underneath with its very spongy sole. The sole features deep cuts, which according to the blurb allows theΒ  shoe to flex and move in motion with your feet, allowing for the barefoot running feel so to speak. I’m sold on this big time and love the fact that you can manipulate this shoe in any way you wish. It’s very much like the Inov8 Talon 190 in that respect and when I’m looking for a running shoe, it’s pretty much the first thing I’ll look for. The shoe, in my mind has to move and flex with the foot, not the other way round. It’s no coincidence that since shifting to the Nike Free and the Talon that I haven’t lost a toenail in two years. Previous shoes that I’ve worn that are ‘clumpy’ and non-flexible don’t mould to your feet and I personally feel that’s where a lot of issues can come into play. Others may disagree with me on this, so shoot me down and call me Willy if you feel strongly about this.

I have a lot of confidence using this shoe on trail for the most part. The only issues arise if you’re on some very technical, gnarly steep uphill or downhill. There’s very little traction or confidence to be had here. If you’ve ever ascended or descended Mount Solitary in these things, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. Traction again on wet and slippery rocks is not great either, these are very much a dry weather, fast flat firetrail type of shoe – think 6ft track and you’d be pretty happy running in these.

The upper mesh is again another reason why the shoe is so flexible, but it’s also something that brings to the fore a little bug bear of mine. For some reason, I always seem to get tears along the edge of the shoe where the upper mesh meets the rubber attachments of the sole. I’m not sure if it was confined to a specific version of the shoe, as I went through a spate of 3-4 pairs where this happened, but it seems to have stopped now with version 3 of the shoe. But it is something to look out for.

However I guess the reality is that it is not really designed for trail running given how light and flimsy it is, and I use the shoe for a lot of trail running. This means that if it gets muddy and wet, the shoe is not really designed to take these types of conditions, but I will allow a little bit of slack to Nike in regards to this. To use an analogy, you wouldn’t take a Mazda RX-8 down a firetrail dirt track and expect it to come out shining on the other side. If you want to go off-roading, you’d take a Land Rover Defender. The same applies for the Nike Free shoe too. It will last for a while, but sooner or later, it’s going to breakdown. In saying that however, I’ve had pairs of Nike Free’s which have done 60% of their time on trails and lasted well over 1,000kms per pair. Much of it will come down to how well you look after it.

As I mentioned the fit is fairly tight with the Nike Free, so I’d certainly recommend going up half a size to account for this. If you’ve not done a lot of ‘barefoot running’, I’d also suggest that you start with the Nike Free Run+, which was previously the Nike Free 5.0. The 3.0 version can be a bit of a shock to the feet if you put them on for the first time and you try to do a 40km trail run in them. It certainly takes time to adjust to a different running style, which will see you calves coming into play much more than if you’ve typically wore shoes that have bucket loads of support.

The Bottom Line

Overall, I’ll give the Nike Free 3.0 4.5 stars out of five. For the most part a great and very versatile shoe, but with that one slight flaw of being just that little too flimsy for proper rough and ready trail – enter the Inov8 range at this juncture. So not quite the Summit of 5 stars, but a very close effort nonetheless. Nike, whatever you do, please do not discontinue this range at any stage in the future as I know major shoe manufacturers tend to have a habit of doing. This is a great shoe, one of the best – just keep it that way πŸ™‚

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Dan on Twitter
I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

20 thoughts on “Gear Review: Nike Free 3.0

  1. Dan, this shoe just seems to go and go, I recently returned to it after a 4 month hiatus while I explored the limits of my Inov8 X-190 Talons and to be honest, I still love the Nike Free. I have run all my 100km ultras in it and it is perfect for a long day out! Only time it lost out to the Talons was on the really steep descents and when it was seriously muddy. Haven’t had the issues of the show ripping or wearing too quickly as of yet, but I do know that they can delaminate across the toe box (it doesn’t really have one) at the thin strip of protection at the front. My feet have been taking a bit of a pounding of late as I increase my mileage for GNW100 and I was relieved to go back to the Nikes for some light relief when pounding the harder packed trail (the area of weakness for the Talons) We must not forget that whilst we gravitate to the sexy new trail brands like Inov8, Nike have been making shoes longer than we have been alive and they were the first to introduce the minimal shoe to the masses (not withstanding the gimmicky VFive Finger) so they do know a thing or two about the human foot ! I would give this shoe 4/5 which is the same as the Talons in my book. The search for the perfect all round trail shoe goes on, but it is getting close !

  2. Spoke too soon Dan, after 20kms of gnarly trail spiced up with serious wet weather and gloomy mud, my right 3.0 let go down the whole of the outside. Another 45kms with my little toes scraping every rock and getting attacked by leeches was not fun ! That is the second time in 3 years these shoes have blown out. If I factor in how many k’s they do before they break I am still ahead, just don’t like it happening though ! It is a design flaw that doesn’t look like ever being addressed by Nike. Not sure they ever thought we would give them the sort of pounding though πŸ˜‰

  3. Talons were the weapon of choice last weekend. Clarke was ripping it up on the descent down to Watagan Creek.

    A trail verrsion of the Nike Free’s – that would really be good.

  4. Too true boys… but like I said, Nike Free 3.0 were not built for serious technical trail and the mud of a wet Central Coast, so I can give Nike some slack here. Lord knows why a tougher trail version hasn’t been built. Keep the sole the same, just toughen up the upper mesh – I would happily go over to the US and help Nike develop these πŸ™‚

    On another note, Inov8 195 featherlites should be arriving this week… this could be the shoe…

  5. All my trail running is done in Frees (the Free Run+ as personally the 3.0 is too narrow) and previously when they existed the 4.0 (which ended up doing around 2,000 Miles !).
    Except for the really tough, gnarly trails they are perfect, i know originally in the beginning there were trail versions but they were soon discontinued so i never got my hands on a pair, not sure of the reasoning as the flimsiness of the upper is their only fault.

  6. The new version of the Free 3.0’s looks to fit like a glove. Only time will tell if they have attended to the known weak spots to make these shoes suitable for a 100 mile trail ultra without the need for a spare pair in every second drop bag.

  7. Hi Dan, A couple of questions about your benchmark shoe from a newbie. Any advise or cautions on moving to Nike Free? I am training for my first 100k Ultra having done several road marathons all in Asics 1160 or 2160s. My current pair have developed a hole in the mesh above the toe which is a regular issue for me. I wondered if this would be even more of an issue in Nike Free’s given the sock like feel. Over the last few months I have progressed to a mid/fore foot strike style and gotten past the painfull calves. Do you think the Nike Free’s would manage my 100kg load? Looking to the Nike as a road trainer and something more specific for the trails.

    1. Hey Scott, thanks for posting. It’s a tough one to say if a hole would develop in the same place. Its funny you should mention the hole above the toe, because I used to get exactly the same issue with Asics. I’ll be honest, shoes will only last a certain number of kms, so if you’re getting a good 500-1000kms out of a pair, I’d say that was standard. I got around 1,200kms out of my first pair of frees, however a regular issue for me is a hole appearing on the right shoe around the little toes and along there. I think the construction of V2 of the free wasn’t so great. V3 is going well so far.

      As far as managing your frame, I think you’ll be fine. I ran the Northburn 100 miler in Frees and was tipping 94kgs then. Despite what people think, I don’t think the Free is that much of a minimal shoe. What you’ve suggested about it being a road shoe is spot on. I still use it for most of my road running and wear Inov8s for the trails…

  8. I am trying to decide between the Free 3.0 and the Inov8 Flite 233. I currently run on a mix of asphalt/gravel/hard packed trail in my vibram KSOs and want a bit more “shoe”. I have read the Inov8s fit a bit narrow which is my only concern I guess (I’d have to buy them online where I live). The Frees seem great, but am I going to be stopping every 10 minutes getting stones out of the sole?
    Many thanks.

    1. Hey AG, if youre going to be venturing on trails then the Flite might be the one for you. I haven’t tried the 233, but unless you have exceptionally wide feet I think you’ll be fine. For me, the NIke Free is the best road shoe you can buy. I also wore it on trails extensively and although it does pick up bits of gravel here and there, I wasn’t stopping every 10 mins to clear them out, I just kept on running. I guess it’s a case of how much you let it bother you πŸ™‚

      What you also need to consider is the heel to toe drop too. If you’ve been running in Vibrams then I’m sure your achilles are well adjusted, but the transition back to 7mm (which is what the 3.0 is), might be a bit of a shock!

      1. Thanks djbleakman. The drop doesn’t worry me too much. I strained an achilles a while back and have actually been using 6mm heel lifts in my vibrams! (sssshhhh- don’t tell the barefooters – they’ll take back my membership card!) Leaning towards the Frees, although just noticed Inov8 have a newish light trail shoe, the Terrafly 303 which might suit me if I can afford to own more than one pair at a time…

  9. Hey Guys, thanks for the review and commentary. I have started down the path to minimalist shoes.. ok so I am jumped in head first. I am normally in Brooks trance and just got myself a pair of Saucony Hattori. So far I have done 12km on the treadmill and 6km on pavement – am in the Philippines for a couple of weeks.. no trails to be found. So far so good. I can feel the difference in my legs afterwards, but no lingering soreness. My guess at the moment is that I will save the Hattori for speed work and short runs, I guess up to 12km and look elsewhere for my longer runs.

    So now I am looking for something that I can train and race in. Most of my races will be on the trail, but the most of my running is on the road. From your reviews I will try out a pair of INOV8 for the trail ultra’s if I can get the right fit, but I was thinking about the free’s might be good for my road training sessions, sounds like they have a good amount of cushioning for running 40-50km training sessions on the road. What are your thoughts?

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