It’s hard to believe it’s been almost ten years since the first Nike Free hit the market. The shoe that brought the concept of barefoot running to the mainstream has remained a best seller for the swoosh, equally accepted by athletes and fashionistas alike.
Originally engineered by Tobie Hatfield and Eric Avar, the Free was first inspired by Stanford athletes that were training barefoot on the university’s golf course. Taking this study back to the Nike campus, in 2002 a group of men and women examined wearing pressure-measuring insoles taped to their feet and captured their data with high speed cameras to study the foot in motion. The result of an eight year extensive study yielded the understanding of a “natural” landing stride, demanding a new running shoe from the brand with minimal heel to toe offset, unconventional shape, and a super Phylon flexible outsole.
Perhaps considered a redemption shoe for many runners of past generations, the Nike Free is a landmark shoe for the brand that sustained many running myths over the past few decades including a raised heel or excessive cushioning and overlays. The original Free from 2004 transitioned from the brand’s approach to barefoot running to eventually accommodate training to become everyone’s favorite coffee shop runner today, here is The Complete Performance History of the Nike Free.
Calvy Click is the Editor-in-Chief of Sneaker Report. When she isn't writing about performance footwear and apparel, you can find her running around Manhattan to Rick Ross anthems.
No. 1 – The Original Free
Sneaker: Nike Free 5.0 V1
Released with numbering system from 0 (barefoot) to 10 (“normal” running shoe) from Free 3.0 to Free 7.0, there was talk of Nike wanting to do a scale of 0 – 12, but years later we've only seen a 3.0, 4.0. 5.0, and 7.0. (The reason for a ".0" continues to stump wearers as there isn't a ".5" sole, but then again the Nike Free has never stuck to the a simple titling or numeral system like most brands. ) This original Free featured a skeleton print on the insole for a literal interpretation of a “barefoot” ride, an upper that leaves room for improvement for breathability, and a traditional lacing system.
This cartoon straight from the "Nike Kitchen" sums up Tobie Hatfield's journey to the making of the original free:
No. 2 – No More Wimpy Feet
Sneaker: Nike Free 5.0 V2
Thanks to “Natural Motion Engineering” technology, Nike took the challenge of then-new barefoot running trend to the masses by encouraging athletes to build a stronger feet. The V2 featured a snug medial fit, a tripled-stitched heel, and a little more forefoot cushioning then the original.
No. 3 - The Mesh Era Begins
Sneaker: Free 5.0 V3
Sold as "ideal if you're a runner who wants the strengthening and natural gait management benefits associated with barefoot training, but also needs the cushioning, traction and underfoot protection of a shoe. A BRS 1000 carbon rubber outsole and a Phylite midsole provided the durability and flexibility in version 3 of the trainer.
No. 4 - The 3.0 Ditches the Overlay
Sneaker: Nike Free 3.0
Containing a sturdy BRS 1000 outsole for extra durability and what looks now like a completely archaic upper, the mesh upper was a material upgrade from the previous version which featured heavier fabric overlays. The two panel mesh upper created a snug, compression fit, while the EVA midsole and strengthening BRS1000 carbon continued to supply durability. Weighing in at 5.6 ounces, the 3.0 was a super lightweight runner.
No. 5 – The Free Turns 4
Sneaker: Nike Free 5.0 V4
The Nike Free hit the fourth year of production with the V4, at a time where barefoot running had hit its peak with the publication of Chris MacDonald’s book and countless articles on the subject. Following Nike’s system of 1.0 being a barefoot shoe and 10.0 being a traditional runner, the 5.0 was advertised as the perfect transitional shoe. The all-mesh upper featured minimal supportive bands, leaving room for improvement in future models.
No. 6 – Sparqs Fly
Sneaker: Nike Free Sparq
The Nike Free concept spreads to crosstraining with the Sparq with less cushioning than a traditional shoe. Said to perform well on lateral moves, this cross-trainer featured more overlays than the current offerings.
No. 7 – Seamless Mesh
Sneaker: Nike Free 3.0 V2
Ventilation upgrades made the V2 an out of the box pleaser, with a one-piece mesh upper for lightweight comfort, breathability, and flexibility. The no-sew overlays furthered the barefoot-like fit and feel, while the heel shape was updated to better fit the foot and the forefoot was expanded for a roomier toe-box.
No. 8 – Free TR
Sneaker: Nike Free TR
Weighing in at 11 oz, the training shoe featured a two-way stretch upper for improved movement and a firmer midsole for greater lateral support. The beefed-up trainer may have packing extra weight, but this was the Free's first foray into cross training categories that would later serve as a major part of the Nike Free brand.
No. 9 – A Free for Everyday
Sneaker: Nike Free Everyday+ 2
The second generation of the ‘Everyday’ running shoe served as a transitional shoe for people that were interested in the benefits of the barefoot running trend without wanting to jump in headfirst via a pair of Vibram FiveFingers. The Everyday was the only Free shoe that featured a Nike Zoom until in the heel, a cushioning material for extra support and durability.
No. 10 – Free Run+
Sneaker: Nike Free Run+
The successor to the discontinued Nike Free 5.0 V4, the Run+ featured a sensor to work with the Run+ running monitoring iPod system. Breathability received vast improvements in this model, as the Run+ was designed with a two part upper to provide more structure than the previous model. This shoe was a trailblazer in the looks department for the Free, with the early signs of sleek mesh and sporty overlays.
No. 11 - Eco Free
Sneaker: Nike Free N7 5.0 V4
The N7 Collection is Nike's eco-conscious effort to build high performance with a low environmental impact. With an asymmetrical lacing system to reduce pressure over the top of the foot and a molded sockliner made to mimic the curvature of the foot, the Phylite midsole solidifies a resilient ride.
No. 12 – The Free Walks
Sneaker: Nike Free Walk+
Breaking in a brand new upper construction, the Nike Free Walk+ included a combination of mesh and perforated synthetic leather overlay, a Phylite midsole and rubber inserts for extra durability in those high-wear zones. The “Walk” was never super popular, but did make an important stride to bringing extra durability to the former running model.
No. 13 - The Free Run 2
Sneaker: Nike Free Run 2
With an improved fit thanks to an enlarged toe box and slightly assymetrical lacing system, the Free Run 2 didn't just look good, it felt better than the previous running models. The version responsible for the massive lifestyle following the shoe now carries, the Run 2 featured sleek synthetic leather overlays for a completely new look than what you'd expect of a running shoe. The sole's segments were adjusted as well for more consistent flex grooves to inspire a smooth ride.
No. 14 - The Gym Favorite
Sneaker: Women’s Free TR Fit 2
Designed for comfort and support, the TR was built for any workout, from kick-boxing to Pilates. This low profile shoe relied on an internal structural support system for multidirectional movement. The combination synthetic leather and mesh upper that supports the no-sew, one piece upper supplied breathability while the internal heel counter was coupled with an overlay at the heel for a better fit, even in the most demanding situations.
No. 15 - A Second Skin for Yoga
Sneaker: Nike Free Gym+
Who remembers the Nike Free Mary Jane SI? Well the Free Gym+ could be seen as the performance-enabled conclusion to the slipper-like Free, marketed as a "second skin" for yogis and gym goers alike. Created as a dynamic foot protector, this Free brought back barefoot's first love, toe separation, for a slipper to keep athletes safe with a herringbone traction outsole and multidirectional flex grooves.
No. 16 - The Run +3
Sneaker: Nike Free Run +3
Weighing in at 9.3 ounces for a men's 9, this Free was the lightest 3.0 model yet, boasting an abrasion-resistant carbon rubber for a higher durability rate and reflective details on the upper. Nike Free Run+ designer Mark Miner demonstrates how the shoes move in this clip:
No. 17 - Free Advantage
Sneaker: Nike Free Advantage
Nike Women’s Training introduced the Free Advantage, adapted for multidirectional movement to offer the feeling of bareboot thought the sharpest of transitions.
No. 18 - The Haven
Sneaker: Nike Free Haven
Nike Free Haven 3.0 released April 16th, 2012, designed for multi-directional training for a variety of terrain including field turf, track, concrete, or hardwood with a flexible, multidirectional grip.
No. 19 - Tiger Breaks Free
Sneaker: Nike Tiger Woods ‘13
Nike Tiger Woods 2013 released June 8, 2012, bringing the flexible concept to pro golf on a global platform.
No. 20 -Shield Up
Sneaker: Nike Free Shield
September 25, 2012 Unveiled Nike Shield Footwear Collection for Rain, Cold and Dark featuring the Nike LunarGlide+ 4 Shield, the Free Run+ 3, and the Air Pegasus+ 29.
No. 21 - Free, Meet Flywire
Sneaker: Nike Free 5.0
Free technology meets Flywire in the latest Free Run model, working as a apart of the lacing system to supply a fit that moves naturally with the body as it needs. Not only can you customize the colors on the edition of the Free, but the upper can house a 3.0 or 5.0 sole for a truly customized feel.
No. 22 - Polyurethane Support
Sneaker: Nike Free Trainer 3.0
Minimalism fused with stability and comfort for no distractions, lightweight, breathable, and working with the natural motion of the bodyl mesh upper of enforced polyurethane support, in the form of strand-like lines that increase and decrease with sice over the shoe for a supportive looking pattern.
No. 23 - TR Fit 3
Sneaker: Nike Free TR Fit 3
Increased flexibility, new comfort tongue that lays flat on the top of the foot and uses a mesh layer sandwich to reduce lace pressure. The aim here was less distraction to keep women light on their feet with a freedom of motion. 02/15/13
No. 24 - Woven Performance
Sneaker: Nike Free Trainer 5.0
Nike Introduces the Free Trainer 5.0, taking inspiration from a Chinese finger trap to bring the same flexible concept to the upper of the shoe from the outsole.