A Barefoot Running Compromise: A Review of The Nike Free 5.0 Running Shoe

In response to the barefoot running trend, Nike has released the Free 5.0, a shoe that offers the benefits of free running with the protection of a rubber sole. We put it to the test to see if it performs as they claim.

A few weeks back in a 100 Days of Fitness post, I mentioned working out barefoot and created a firestorm in the comment section.  As someone who works out barefoot at home, I acknowledged the benefits of such training, but advised against most people working out barefoot in gyms or running outside in urban areas for safety reasons. This was met with some objection from a few readers who promoted barefoot running and training, so we decided to look into it.

In my search, I came across the Nike Free 5.0 shoe, one designed to allow all the benefits of running barefoot while still protecting the runner.  It sounded like a good compromise, so I snatched up a pair to get a look at them.

But before we get into the specifics of the shoe, we must understand:

What are the benefits of barefoot training?

Training without shoes forces the foot and leg muscle to work harder, which we’re counting as a good thing because that in turn strengthens the muscles in the foot and lower leg.  Working out barefoot, again by making the foot do more work and by increasing tactile response (your skin/nerves are now in direct contact with the ground rather than a shoe), also increases your ability to balance and offers a greater degree of flexibility.

Barefoot runners also talk about an improved or natural gait — that is the way your foot hits the ground while running.  The barefoot complaint about shoes is that they encourage the heel to hit the ground first, and heavily, while a natural gait (as seen in children and some poorer nations without access to sneakers) sees the midfoot strike first and softer.

Now, at the very least, we can agree that having stronger muscles, better balance, and increased agility is a good thing and, again at the very least, running with a “natural gait” is personal preference, or perhaps even better.  On the downside of barefoot training, the primary complaint is a lack of protection. In the gym, falling objects or heavy objects can do damage to the barefoot and stubbed, painful toes are a possibility.  Further, when running outdoors, if the barefoot comes into contact with rocks, pebbles, glass, or any other hard, sharp surface, you’re going to feel pain and perhaps trail some blood back to your apartment.

Enter the Free 5.0. This shoe has been specially designed to allow your foot to have increased freedom — hence the name. The sole has deep grooves running both horizontally and vertically, making this shoe able to be moved and twisted easily in any direction.  The upper of the shoe is a very tight mesh the breathes well and also is a factor in the increased flexibility.  Also helping the freedom of the foot is the very lightweight nature of the shoe, allowing for fast footfalls.  Despite all of the effort put into making it feel like you’re wearing almost nothing, the soft sole still provides some support and cushioning, and best of all protection from debris on the ground.

The first time I put on the shoes and went for a quick run I wasn’t all that impressed, though I was wearing a thick pair of athletic socks.  The next time I decided to go sockless — after all, the shoe is designed to breathe well, and this made all the difference.  With the Free, I’d recommend going with either very thin socks or just ditch them altogether.

The shoe itself is comfortable.  It’s lightweight and breathable, you can actually feel the breeze on your feet while still wearing shoes.  Tactile response is also heightened with the Free.  I didn’t notice it at first on pavement, but when I went off course and ran through some grass, there was a huge difference felt from running through a field in regular running shoes.

Now, the Nike Free 5.0 might not be for everyone because it offers a bit less support than you’re probably used to.  It has a low profile heel which offers less cushioning than a traditional running shoe, but when I did some normal heel strike running, it wasn’t painful for me. I think maybe if you’re prone to rolling your ankles when you run you might want to skip out on the Free, or if you have some other foot problems, but for most people I think the 5.0 is still a good, lightweight running shoe.

With the increased flexibility of the shoe, you do feel your foot working more in terms of balance and traction.  The only area where being barefoot would be much different is in toe movement, but I find the Free to be a great balance. If you’re in the house working out, you can still just rock it out barefoot, but if you’re looking for some protection, a little support, and a comfortable shoe that still lets you get much of the benefits of barefoot running with very few risks?  Well, the Nike Free 5.0 is about to open you up to a whole new world.

The Nike Free 5.0 on Amazon.

Robert Fure is a fitness, lifestyle, and entertainment writer living in Los Angeles. He is also a certified Personal Trainer and the Creator/Editor of Fit and Furious, an online outlet dedicated to the pursuit of a fit lifestyle. His entertainment work can be viewed at Film School Rejects.

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  • Andrew Mac

    If you want a shoe to protect your feet but the feeling of going barefoot, you really have to try Vibram FiveFingers. The individual toe pockets allow for much more foot flexibility (and require more work from the leg muscles) than any standard shoe sole.

  • http://www.fellrath.com Jamie Fellrath

    I agree with Andrew Mac. I’ve not tried the Nike Free but part of the issue I’ve read about with regular running shoes is all that padding, especially that which allows you to land heel-first. Is the Nike Free doing enough to make sure you’re using proper form when running (i.e. NOT landing heel-first)?

    And I think this article misses an important point – running shoes with all their padding allow us a running form (landing heel first) that we didn’t evolve to use. Barefoot or minimalist running (like using the aforementioned Vibram FiveFingers shoes) makes us use that proper form, thus reducing the injuries immensely.

    http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/21/phys-ed-do-certain-types-of-sneakers-prevent-injuries/
    .-= Jamie Fellrath´s last blog ..On Staying Positive – Even Under Duress =-.

  • http://www.allswagga.com Alvin

    I’ve been looking for a good running shoe and it came down to the Vibram Five Fingers and the Nike Free 5.0. Nice review and because of it I’m a bit closer to making a decision to go with the Nike Free. I think the Vibram Five Fingers shoes are AWESOME but to me it’s probably not a wise choice to start using a shoe so different while in the middle of a challenge to run 500 miles.
    .-= Alvin´s last blog ..5 Minute Interview- Brett McKay =-.

  • Andrew Mac

    @Alvin

    I completely understand your hesitancy to swap shoes while getting ready for such a challenge. I have never prepared or even considered running 500 miles, so I am unable to speak on the subject. But I did want to point to a couple of places that talk about fivefingers and running..

    http://www.crunchgear.com/2009/08/10/review-vibram-five-fingers-classic/

    http://birthdayshoes.com/how-to-transition-to-running-in-vibram-five-fingers

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  • http://www.allswagga.com Alvin

    @Andrew Mac

    Thanks for the tips and info I actually purchased a pair of the vibram five fingers. I should recieve them sometime this week or the next week.
    .-= Alvin´s last blog ..5 Minute Interview- John Sherry =-.

  • http://www.primermagazine.com Andrew

    @Alvin, Be sure to check back and let us know what you think of the five fingers. I’m curious what you think of them.

  • superseiyan

    How is this shoe for sprinting/running? My training profile is spring intervals once or twice a week, and an occasional 30+ run (once every 10 days). I walk at a brisk pace almost every other day though.

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  • Jairo Hernan Garcia

    I am a runner and have bought Free 4.0 for many years. I decided to buy the 5.0 because they look cool. Big mistake ! The strips besides the shoes form a bulk under the arch causing blisters. I do not recommend this product at all.