Footloose in the Nike Free

feetYou’d think after 30 years of running (I started in 1979 and ran my first marathon in 1980) I’d have some sort of clue about running shoes. But feet, bodies and training styles do change over the years. And, unfortunately, so do shoe models.

For many of those 30 years I’ve been able to trust the Nike Pegasus models (even pre “Air”). But I’ve also had success with a number of other shoes. I won the Pueblo River Trail Marathon in 1984 in a pair of Brooks Chariots. And I won several World Championship Pack-Burro races in Montrail’s Vitesse. I had a sponsorship from that company for a few years, but the Vitesse became difficult to get, even for sponsored athletes (it now appears Montrail may have discontinued the model — I can’t find it on the website), and so I had to change shoes.

In recent years I had gone back to the Pegasus and, aside from some minor pain on the top of my right foot, everything had been pretty good until Nike decided to change the model this year. I bought a new pair a few weeks ago and my feet and ankles hurt after just a couple of runs. I decided to return the shoes.

The only running shoes in my closet that didn’t look like they’d been through a meat grinder were an old pair of Nike Free. These shoes were designed allow the feet to act as if they are barefoot, and I’d run in them periodically. Recently I’ve been editing Dr. Phil Maffetone’s 5th edition of “In Fitness and In Health” and he’s a big advocate of barefoot running. I thought, “what the heck,” and started running in the Frees daily. They are very flexible, low to the ground and have basically no support or cushioning whatsoever — sort of like wearing slippers.

Most modern running shoes force you to land on your heels, which is natural for walking but not for running. Try running barefoot on some grass or sand and you will find it virtually impossible to land on your heels. The natural way to land is mid-foot. In the Frees I found my footstrike to be very natural.

There was some adjustment as my feet, ankles and all associated tendons and muscles had to remember to do their actual jobs. But after about three weeks I felt comfortable using the Frees as my daily training shoes. I’ve been getting in 35-45 miles per week, and I’m not running on pavement, but rather on gravel roads, rocky trails, through snowbanks and mud, and on generally hilly terrain, often leading or driving a pack-burro.

Because of this mountain environment, I still felt like I might need more shoe. So after perusing the catalogs I settled on returning the aforementioned Pegasus (there was a 60-day return policy) and trading them for a pair of Nike Air Zoom Skylon +2, which looked a little like the Free on steroids. The shoes arrived this week and after just three runs I was practically crippled with pain in both forefeet.

A closer inspection of my feet revealed that their shape had actually changed over the past three weeks in the Frees. They now were shaped like, uh, feet. Not shoes.

I went back to the Frees today and felt immediately better on a 7-mile run. I’m sending the Skylons back.

3 thoughts on “Footloose in the Nike Free

  1. Hal,

    What an insightful article. I have returned to running in January after about twenty years of not running regularly with the goal of running a marathon this year, I am 44 years old. When I ran in my late teens and early twenties my favorite shoes were the Nike Pegasus as well. I have run since January in New balance 530s and they work well for me, but my feet do not look like yours do now after running in the Free Shoes. I looked at the photo of your foot and said wow his foot looks relaxed and healthy not all beat up like mine. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience.

  2. I have feet shaped more like boxes than shoes – my daughter and I say we have Hobbit feet – and am notoriously hard to fit. Right now my daily shoes are a pair of Everest Ironwood hikers, and the last Nikes I had cramped my toes pretty badly on long walks in the P-Dubs. So, these Nike Frees – do they still make them?

    1. Stan, Everybody has such individual feet . . . One thing I like about these Frees is that they have lots of toebox space (for me), and seem to allow my forefeet and toes to adjust to each step. So, for example, when I step on a pebble out on the dirt road, rather than holding my foot firmly in place so that the rock stabs me, the foot can adjust inside the shoe to avoid the impact. They seem to be available online, and the new Nike Free Everyday might warrant consideration. You might check Sports Authority or Footlocker to see if they carry them and how they fit your feet.

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