Updated Free RN
Nike updated this shoe since we tested it, giving it some new features and a new fit. Check out the new version next to the version we tested (left and right, respectively).
- Updated Fabric — In the hopes of providing an improved fit while still maintaining a soft and lightweight profile, Nike has employed the use of spandex in the upper of the new shoe.
- Heel Structure Changed — The heel is now wrapped in a wide strap, which you can see in the photo above on the left. This was designed to provide a secure fit and more structure.
Since we've yet to test the new shoe, the review that follows is our account of the previous version.
Hands-On Review of the Free RN
One of the first things to stick out about the Nike Free RN is their low profile design. Everything from the thin, short upper to the limited, mostly uniform midsole says that the shoe is meant to feel, well… free. The idea is that a stripped-down design will feel more natural and be less of an impediment to movement and in landing, which is why the shoe scores so well. Certainly, for a traditionally-designed racing shoe, this configuration is fantastic. However, shoes like the Minimus 10v1 have thrown off the constraints of padding, cushioning, and other conventions to deliver an extremely free, natural-feeling shoe that makes these feel like squishy floppy things. Yet, the minimalist shoe will not appeal to all runners and these do a great job in their stead. We compare them to the rest of our cohort and lay out their advantages and shortcomings to help you make the right choice.
What's so interesting about these quick shoes is that their plush foam and barefoot-inspired design come together to make a fairly responsive shoe. Typically the plush foam in a midsole will eat into responsiveness, but their naturally-fitting upper, secured by flywire arch wraps, work really well to mitigate the sapping effect of the pillowy midsole. This puts it in the company of other great models like the Pegasus 34, which won our Best Buy award.
These speedsters derive their responsiveness from their low-profile and barefoot-inspired design.
The highest ranked shoe here was the HOKA Arahi, which won our Top Pick Stability award and would serve even non-stability seekers well, but its design is radically different from the Free RN. For that reason we suggest runners take a look at the On Cloud, which won our Top Pick for Lightweight Racing Flat with its firm and uniquely-designed outsole that gave slightly less kickback than the Arahi, but more than these.
We were impressed with the landing of these as everyday trainers, but they fell short compared to the other racing flats in our lineup. Their design was inspired by barefoot runners at Stanford University and we ranked their feel alongside the Minimus 10v1, which earned its way into our cohort as a high-performance minimalist shoe. The actual impact of the ground is lost in the Nikes, but they allow for a great range of motion similar to the minimalist design and superior to many other models.
John and Tomasz give feedback on our lightweight racing flats, the Minimus (left) and Nike Free RN (right).
Yet, the padded landing had a number of competitors whose mix of firm midsoles and low profile designs got the better of them. The firm, uniform Pegasus 34 sole created a better landing pad than the softer, flexible Free RN and that put it up at the top alongside the Editor's Choice Brooks PureFlow 6, whose mix of flexibility, low profile, and slightly firm landing gave it the edge.
These kicks were among the lightest in our pack, adding just 18 ounces to your feet if they fit into 11s. They're lighter than even the PureFlow 6s, but the field of lightweight racing flats demands impossibly light shoes, which is what to find with the three pairs that come in lighter: Kinvara 8s at 17.6 ounces, On Clouds at 17.3 ounces, and Minimus 10v1s in size 11.5 at 17.2 ounces. The best performer out of that group is the On Cloud, which should be at the top of the list in considering alternatives, though the Minimus arguably offer a more natural barefoot experience.
These slide in at just 18 ounces in a men's 11.
It's no surprise that these stripped-down racers do not have the durability of Sherman tanks like the New Balance 1540v2. That tends to be the deal with lightweight racing flats. They sacrifice longevity for speed. Their mesh upper is vulnerable to tear and there were user complaints of the sole coming unglued, but we didn't experience any serious degradation or failure. Fittingly enough, the minimalist Minimus rate very well on durability, with their tough upper and hard outsole, sitting in the same tier as the tough stability shoes. We think this will be a good stand-in for those looking for a durable shoe that simulates the barefoot experience.
Carbon rubber placed along high impact areas protects those areas and extends the life of the shoe.
A well-padded collar and smooth sockliner slide into a single layer knit mesh upper makes for a close, natural fit that puts these up among the more comfortable rides. They had a similar feel to and had the same ranking as some of our top picks, like the On Cloud and HOKA Arahi, but they were behind a few other much more comfortable shoes. Most notably, their cousin, the Best Buy winning Pegasus 34, whose collar had fuller padding with a moderately thick tongue that did not chafe. The other category topper is the Editor's Choice PureFlow 6, whose naturally-fitting, plushly padded upper had to occupy the top tier.
The lightweight upper fits naturally enough, but the thin tongue tends to rub and chafe.
The mesh upper afforded these a fair degree of breathability - better than would be expected from the average shoe. But it makes a tradeoff between its comfort and its breathability. The previously discussed sockliner and padding that create such a natural, welcoming upper also hold in heat and moisture. The other trainers that top our list in breathability are also lightweight racing flats: On Cloud, Minimus 10v1, and PureFlow 6, all of whom are ranked the same, have very thin mesh uppers, and/or other ventilation schemes. We suggest the Minimus for the runner looking to get a more natural barefoot experience, but the PureFlow should be the choice for those looking at a more traditional running shoe.
Multiple mesh layers and a smooth sockliner make for a great feel, but do not offer as much breathability as less comfortable designs.
These are most practical for solid, clean terrain like even roads. They may do okay on light trails, but the road is where they really excel.
$100 isn't too bad for these, but they may have a quicker life than some of the other high-performance products out there. At this price, you might as well pony up and go for the Pegasus 34 or On Cloud.
We usually expect Nike to have a few good racing flats and this year was no exception. Though not quite as good as the Best Buy winning Pegasus 34s, the Free RNs still came out with good performance. They are light with a speedy low profile and offer pretty reasonable padding for a racing flat. We also thought that true to their name, they offered a really natural, free feel. Then again, the bare foot doesn't have plush foam affixed to the bottom, which was a sticking point for these. Their midsoles felt great in terms of cushion, but that took away from its responsiveness and quickness because each step had a little more give than in some of the more responsive models like the aforementioned cousin or the Top Pick for Lightweight Racing Flat, On Cloud. We still thought these were good shoes and runners will probably be happy in them, but there are better products out there.
The author (left, Nike Free) out with John (middle, Pegasus 34) and Tomasz (right, On cloud) comparing racing flats.