Nike Free

What is Nike Free? A History of the Nike Free Running Shoe


Nike Free shoes hit the market almost two decades ago, revolutionizing how the running foot hit the ground. Since then, they have taken various forms and shapes to remain one of the most loved landmark shoes from Nike’s rack. 

Have you ever wondered how the Nike Free line got its start? Learn all about the shoe’s history, including key style and launch dates.

Making of the Nike Free Running Shoe

The concept of barefoot running originally inspired the creation of Nike Free shoes. Although they are not the toe shoes many people might picture when they think of barefoot running, they mimic how athletes run and land on their feet. Stanford athletes first inspired the engineers behind the shoe. At the time, these athletes trained on the university’s golf course barefoot.

The test group of men and women wore pressure-measuring insoles. They taped these to their feet to capture their data using high-speed cameras studying the foot as it flowed in motion. The culminating result of the study was a thorough comprehension of the “natural” landing stride. This knowledge then transferred into what became the technology behind Nike Free running shoes.

What is Nike Free?

The Nike Free shoe is characterized by a minimal heel-to-toe offset and a super Phylon flexible outsole. In addition, these shoes have an unconventional shape meant to mimic the foot’s shape and complement the way a foot should move as it lands and pushes off again. The last significant characterization of the shoe is its super flexible Phylon outsole, made to bend and flex with the foot.

A History of Nike Free

Nike Free 5.0 V1 – 2004

The original Nike Free was the Nike Free 5.0 V1 that launched in 2004. The release of these shoes wasn’t the only new thing to be released at the time. They also established a numbering system that ran from 0 to 10. They ranked the “0” shoes as “barefoot” whereas “10” represented a “normal running shoe.” The Free shoes encompassed 3.0 to 7.0 on this scale. 

The first of the Free line came with a skeleton print found on the insole to give even more of the impression that you were running barefoot. However, unlike many other interpretations of a barefoot running shoe, these used a traditional lacing system that took away from the desired breathability.

Nike Free 5.0 V2 – 2005

Nike was able to take the relatively new concept of barefoot running to the next level. They used a recently developed “natural motion engineering” technology and incorporated it into the Nike Free 5.0 V2 in 2005. The shoe was geared toward athletes who needed to build stronger feet to revitalize their running game.

The primary features of the V2 included a triple-stitched heel with more forefoot cushioning compared to the original. The snug medial fit was also a trademark of the new version of the Nike Free.

Nike Free 5.0 V3 – 2007

These shoes were the first shoes in the Nike Free line that significantly incorporated the use of mesh. As a result, the shoes are ideal for runners wanting to strengthen their gait. However, unlike running barefoot, the shoe still provides traction, underfoot protection and cushioning. In addition, the shoe includes a BRS 1000 carbon rubber outsole and a Phylite midsole.

Nike Free 3.0 – 2008

The year 2008 saw the abandonment of much of the heavier overlays used in prior versions of the shoe, changing the appearance of this line. These shoes have extra durability combined with a mesh upper in two panels for a snug, compression fit. They weigh a total of 5.6 ounces.

Nike Free 5.0 V4 – 2009

The Nike Free 5.0 V4 marked the fourth year of this shoe’s production and success. It was this year that barefoot running hit its stride. That encouraged the success of the all-mesh upper shoe featuring supportive bands. In 2009, there was also a double release: the Sparqs Fly and the Free Turns 4. 

Nike Free 3.0 V2 – 2010

The design of this shoe upgraded the ventilation game of the whole line, but specifically of the previous 3.0 version that had deviated from the original 5.0 line. Nike put this shoe together with a seamless one-piece mesh upper. The no-sew overlays completed the barefoot feel while updating the fit of the shoe. Other releases in 2010 on this line included the Nike Free TR, Nike Free Everyday+ 2 and the Nike Free Run+.

Nike Free N7 5.0 V4 – 2011

As sustainability picked up interest, Nike doubled their eco-conscious efforts in 2011. As a result, they built this high-performance yet low-environmental impact shoe. One of the secrets of this shoe is the asymmetrical lacing system designed to reduce pressure and the sock liner that mimicked the curve of the foot. Other releases in 2011 included the Nike Free Walk+, Nike Free Run 2 and the Women’s Free TR Fit 2.

Nike Free Walk+ – 2012

2012 was a big year for the Nike Free line. They released the Nike Free Walk+, which featured a completely new design of the upper from the shoes that came before it. Nike essentially decided to take the line of Nike Free and diversify them beyond runners. They not only made a walking shoe but one for yoga-lovers and the Nike Free Haven 3.0, released for multi-directional training. Finally, the Nike Shield Footwear Collection was also released, which helped runners in the rain, dark and cold.

Nike Free Flyknit+ – 2013

The fly knit design that was essential to some of the other designs of Nike athletic shoes met with the Free run model in 2013. Nike released a sneaker similar in build to those in the Free line but with one significant difference: This shoe has a built-in compression sock to enhance the feeling of running barefoot while still supporting the natural movement of the bottom. It worked as the lacing system, taking away pressure from the lines of the shoe. Other releases in 2013 included the Nike Free Trainer 3.0, the Free TR Fit 3, and the Free Trainer 5.0

Nike Free Flyknit 3.0 – 2014

In 2014, the idea from Nike was that it was all about the feet, not the shoes. These words echoed those of Bill Bowerman, the coach and co-founder of Nike. They inspired many of the advancements in the Nike Free 3.0 Flyknit, 4.0 Flyknit and the Nike Free 5.0.

Nike Free 5.0 – 2015

The 11th year of the Nike Free line saw them paring down more than adding to — maximizing the “less is more” mentality. These newer models in 2015 pared down to harness the natural motion of a runner’s body without adding to the natural running experience. This meant enhancements to make the sole naturally flexing in as many ways as possible, sock-like uppers similar to the flyknit line, and an incredibly lightweight design.

Nike Free RN Commuter – 2017

The Nike Free RN Commuter released in 2017 was another version of the walking shoe that was originally released back in 2012. This version featured a flyknit upper with a sock-like knit, but this time it had laces over the top that you can tighten and an elastic band for support around the ankle.

Nike Free RN 5.0 – 2019

The design of the Nike Free RN that came out in 2019 was based on the idea of barefoot running for shorter distances. That is why they made the midsole firmer and flatter to the ground, similar to the original model from 2004. In 2019, Nike also released the Nike Free RN Flyknit 3.0 with similar barefoot-inspired tweaks.

Through the Barefoot Years

Since its inception, the Nike Free line went from a popular yet simplistic running model to a steadily more developed model and then back again when studies showed the simplicity and directionality of a runner’s natural foot. If you have ever been interested in running barefoot but want a little more protection or support, then check out the most recent Nike Free running shoes, colorways and models from one of Nike’s most-loved footwear lines.

Do you own a pair of shoes from the Nike Free line? Show us by tagging @finishline!