Comparing Barefoot Running Shoes – Nike Free vs. Xero Shoes

I bought my first pair of Nike Free about 6 years ago, soon after they came out.

I LOVED them. The flexible sole really let me feel the ground in a whole new way and they quickly became the only shoe I wore. Once I had the chance, I went to NikeID and made a custom pair that were all black… my “dress” Frees 😉

On the one hand, I’m glad I did that because earlier this week I needed to appear for a legal arbitration hearing and the only pair of “real” shoes I owned were those all-black Frees. For the last 3.5 years, all I’ve worn are Xero Shoes running sandals or my sprinting spikes (I’m a sprinter, not a “runner”).

On the other hand, I could barely remember why I used to be such a Free fan.

Compared to huaraches, where the only thing between you and the ground is a few millimeters of rubber, the sole on the Free felt a mile thick.

But the weirder thing was how quickly my stride changed. With the big, cushy, heel on the Free, I was almost instantly reaching out with my foot and landing hard on my heel, using the padding. In fact, with the elevated heel, I couldn’t even find a way to land on my mid-foot as I was walking… no matter what I did, my heel struck the ground first.

Let me back up a bit and add one fact: I removed the insole from the shoe. The insole — at least the 5mm one that comes with it — has 2 rubber “bumpers”. One under your heel, and one under the ball of your foot. Without those shock absorbers in place, I noticed something else about the Free… the sole offers some cushioning at first, but once you’ve fully compressed the foam, it’s really solid. Jarringly solid.

I could feel the jolt of force run from my heel to the back of my head. After just 5 minutes of walking, I had a mild headache!

After 2 days of wearing them, my right knee is out of whack and I’m writing this post during a time I’m usually out on the track, training.

It’s been so long since I’ve worn any of the “barefoot” style running shoes that I forgot how un-barefoot most of them truly are.

  • Dwight

    I had a similar experience. I hadn’t used the Nike Free for some time before wearing them them on a hike. I had severe knee pain by the time I got back to the car. I gave the shoes away and no longer have knee pain.

  • Jamie G.

    I bought my huaraches from IS a few months back and was withholding judgment until I put a few miles on them.

    Since then, all I can say is that I’m so glad that I bought from IS… they have been awesome, and have helped me so much get over my ITBS. I even wear them out while on chore runs around town, and get a lot of looks.

    I even had a friend of my wife make a comment before we ran on the local HS track. She asked me, “Are you really going to wear those to run in?” She is one of those that thinks you got to go do the big hoopla test runs at some big specialized shoe store, and then lay down the $200 for the big thick corrective running shoes. She was laughing at me, but at $15 for the make-it-yourself kit, I’m the one laughing.

    I want to try out the Altra Adams, but they keep pushing back the release date. I think I’d switch to them when the weather is really cool, but for now, besides being barefoot, the IS huarache is my first choice for foot protection while either running or out doing stuff (lookers and nay-sayers be damned).

    • Steven

      I haven’t worn anything but my IS or sprinting spikes in 18 months, Winter included… just an FYI 😉

  • I also owned a pair of Nike Frees for a long time and had never really thought to run in them–I had them because my boyfriend is a professional distance runner sponsored by Nike and occasionally he gets me the same products so we can match (cute).
    I did run in them finally and was fine running a mere jog 8 minute miles for warm-ups and cooldowns while I was training some of my female triathletes… as well as some of my youth high school xc athletes… so I figured…hey, why not try a few more miles in them… so of course I went from running 2 miles in them to attempting 9… at 6:40 mile pace because I was running with the boyfriend on his easy run vs with my high school kids… and about 45 minutes in, my calves were rediculously tight to the point of no return (and I already run on my toes all the time anyway in any shoe I put on my foot)…but my calves had never been that tight in my life minus the time we did those hill repeats up Magnolia Road at 8600′ without drinking enough water before hand.
    The first time I ran 9 miles at faster paces in my Invisible Shoes, I wasn’t even sore the next day. I thought, maybe it’s because I tried to run too far in them. Nope, anything over 20 minutes in them resulted in rediculous amounts of calf pain I really didn’t desire to replicate, especially when plenty of other barefoot plus products really were closer to barefoot, and I didn’t have to pay for a massage or freeze in an ice bath after running in them.

    Conclusion: Free= great shoe to potentially walk around in, match boyfriend with, ok for warm-ups or cooldowns that only last perhaps 13-16 minutes total, potentially stylish, rediculous calf pain after running in them= owww, never again.
    Invisible Shoe= actually functional for running short OR long distances, can match boyfriend in them if we figure out a way to put a little Nike charm pendant on his pair, great for walking around, CAN actually run long distances in them without pain, fashionable (I have pink laces for my stylish pair and black for my professional looking pair muwahaha), and they result in no pain.

    Invisible Shoes 1, Nike Frees O. Checkmate.