Color: Black/Hyper Orange/Blue Lagoon/White
Nike's marketing pitch: Free to go farther.
Surfaces tested on: Road, ambient temperature of 19° C/66° F.
Upper: Knitted outer upper, inner sleeve, Flywire cord based lacing.
Midsole: Dual density foam. Lunarlon co-molding over a EVA base. 4 mm heel to toe drop.
Outsole: EVA foam, rubber pieces under the toe and heel.
Weight: 265 gms/ 9.3 Oz for a half pair of Men's US11/UK 10/EUR 45/CM 29
Widths available: Single - regular (reviewed).
(Disclaimer: For this review, Solereview bought the shoe at full US retail price.)
Looking back, retrofitting the then existing Free 5.0 with a Flyknit upper in 2012 proved to be a smart move. It not only helped Nike Free long outlive the glory days of the minimalist footwear trend, but also set the foundation for soon to be released models such as the Nike Free 3.0 and 4.0 Flyknit. Both of which are great products, by the way.
Nike Free was the sole product platform to benefit from the undiluted stretch Flyknit treatment – a single piece, knitted upper which snap-fitted over your foot. Can’t recall other performance running models featuring a stretch Flyknit upper; we’ve come across only variations of it. Like the Vomero 10’s or Odyssey’s Flymesh iteration, for instance. The Flyknit Lunar 3 has a knit upper, but not the stretch type.
We don’t have a sense of retail sales numbers, but Nike Free definitely seems to have cooled down in the past couple of years. Nike is trying hard to keep the Free in the public eye though, going by the visible product placement in the recent movie ‘The Martian’. The actors in that movie are wearing either the Nike Free 3.0 or 4.0 in zero gravity; in one particular shot, Matt Damon is seen growing space potatoes in a pair of Nike Free 3.0’s.
Here’s a small trivia for you: technically speaking, Saucony is the only brand to have done some actual mileage on a celestial landmass, and not just the IMAX type. Otherwise unofficially, many brands have seen space action. Astronauts are required to exercise, and most do so in running shoes. Here’re a couple of pictures featuring Asics and New Balance. Space gel, there you are.
But back on planet earth, not many people are seen running in them anymore. The fact that our own reviews of Nike Free models don’t generate as many views as before is a sign of waning interest.
So what seems to be the problem?
All Nike Free shoes do not have much cushioning in them, at least the type which people are used to in traditional running shoes. Nike Free 5.0 is well padded, yet feels relatively minimal. Add to that the somewhat unique positioning of the Free. On its website, Nike plugs it as a conditioning tool inspired by barefoot training.
The word strengthening or conditioning implies that the Free is to be used as a secondary shoe instead of being a daily mileage beast. And the term ‘barefoot’ has fallen out of favor with consumers a while ago. The Flyknit upper has definitely helped Nike Free’s cause, but then, novelty can only last so long.
Knitted uppers aren’t unique today. Adidas does it, and so does Skechers. A move not so much driven by the need to innovate, but to save costs. China has long ceased to be a place for cheap labor, and Vietnam, the last bastion for athletic footwear manufacturing can only produce so many shoes. India is cheap, but has problems of its own.
So the logical step is to cut down on manual processes like cutting and stitching, and develop designs like one piece uppers and co-molded midsoles which require less of human intervention. That saves on material wastage too, as there are no more curved patterns to be cut of square sheets of synthetic. Less wastage and lower labor = better costs.
And the Nike Free RN distance packs in a bit of both, with its upper being halfway between the Flymesh and Flyknit. It does not have the stretch properties of the Free 3.0 or 4.0, and yet manages to differentiate itself from the flat Flymesh texture. It also combines traditional components like an inner half-sleeve and a sparsely padded collar.
But before we get dragged into the minutiae of it all, what’s the deal with the Nike Free RN distance anyway?
Some might view this shoe as a mix of the Nike Free 5.0 and the Lunartempo. That point of view makes sense on paper, given that there’s Lunarlon foam fused with the recognizable Free midsole.
Yet the truth is, the Nike Free RN distance couldn’t be more different than the Lunartempo. The Tempo is a shoe meant to go fast (and it does), with a heel drop which hovers around the 10 mm mark. The RN distance is 4 mm, which is Saucony Kinvara territory. That said, the RN distance isn’t a Kinvara competitor either, because it feels completely different.
If you recall, we published a review of the Nike Lunarlaunch last year. The shoe had a rather brief and ordinary life; it showed up on the pages of a few online retailers, and then disappeared into mark-down nothingness. It was an odd fellow, to say the least.
The Launch had a 4 mm heel drop which was pretty drastic for Nike at the time, came with a Nike Free 5.0 insole (and presumably the last/fit too), and had a full Lunarlon midsole. Even came with an one-sided Burrito sleeve – again, another uncommon feature. The Lunarlaunch felt like a mish-mash of all the sleeper ideas Nike could throw at it.
So when you picture the Nike Free 5.0 and LunarLaunch together, then the Nike Free RN distance begins to make sense. At least from a design perspective, that is.
It’s got a 4 mm heel-to-toe differential and has a Lunarlon top layer co-molded with the Free midsole, constructed like the Nike Dual Fusion. Also included are other elements such as a sleeve, Flywire cord lacing, and a collapsible heel counter.
We had a couple of pre-conceived notions about the Free RN distance before we bought the pair, and solereview was wrong on both counts. The first assumption was that the RN distance looked wide from the outside, so it must be spacious inside. It is not, for reasons we’ll dive into.
One has to look at the Nike Free RN distance purely inside the Nike Free framework instead of placing it on a wider plane of models. If we had to sum up the shoe in a few sentences, it would sound something like:
“The Nike Free RN distance is for runners who like the Free 5.0, but want the ultra-flexible midsole to be filled with more cushioning. It does not have the snappy and responsive ride of models such as the Lunartempo or Lunaracer 3, which makes it less suited for fast miles over distance. It also fits very snug and runs warm, belying its Flyknit pretensions.”
Makes sense? The word ‘distance’ simply suggests that now you have a Nike Free with a lot more cushioning, which means you go longer in greater comfort. This isn’t Nike’s first stab at mainstreaming the Free – there was a shoe called the ‘Nike Free everyday’ which attempted to soften the Free experience.
This was nearly 7 years ago, which meant that this example of diluted minimalism swam against the strong tide of the minimalist, zero-drop movement. Needless to say, the Nike Everyday lasted exactly two years, much like a lackluster television series getting cancelled at the start of its second season.
If you’ve run in the Nike Free 5.0, you will feel much at home in the RN distance. For obvious reasons; the insole is the same Ortholite pop-in found in the 5.0 and the Launch. Below the insole is the foam lasting, and it is here you begin to see tell-tale signs of change.
The blue Lunarlon is visible through the hole over the heel, and around the midsole rim too. It might look like paint to some, but it is not. The Lunarlon and white Free midsole are injection molded together. The result is a deeper Lunarlon fill in the center with a shallow rim around the midsole edges.
The outsole design and layout is similar to the Nike Free 5.0, save for one aspect. The heel edge has a lower count of rubber pieces and hexagonal foam columns than on the Free 5.0, which impacts the way in which the rearfoot comes in contact with the ground.
If you have a regular (non over-striding) rearfoot strike, the inner edge of the rubber outsole piece tends to come in contact first, and signs of wear appear rather quickly. This was not a problem on the Free 5.0 as the strike zone had a higher number of smaller rubber pieces.
And then you have the debris trapping tendency of the generously siped outsole, an occurrence which is common to all Nike Free models.
As for the ride experience, it feels like a built-up version of the Free 5.0. Both the front and rear midsole feels thicker, though the top layer softness feels similar to the Free 5.0 when just walking around – thanks to the identical Ortholite sockliner.
As far as the Lunarlon insert is concerned, it comes into play only when you start running. It increases the padding underneath, but not so much the softness, if you know what we mean. The initial softness is still delivered by the Ortholite insole, and that does not change on the RN distance. What has changed however, is the way Lunarlon insulates your foot from the firmer landings of the Free 5.0.
Is it responsive? Not so much. Ever since we’ve had a taste of adidas Boost, other midsole materials now have a higher bar to vault over before they can be termed as responsive. Lunarlon is many moons (see what we did here?) old now, and Nike really needs to up its game to compete against adidas Boost.
adidas’s running assortment strategy can best be described as mediocre, but there’s no taking away the fact that Boost is awesome. Despite hundreds of recent patents, Nike has yet to come up with a credible cushioning tech worthy of competing with Boost.
Sure, Nike Zoom is a good stand-in for now, but Air bags have their limitations. These inserts make the shoe stiff, and can only provide cushioning in specific spots instead of consistent coverage. Remember our Zoom Streak 5 review?
The Free RN distance does feel very consistent though, and that bodes well for smooth transitions. The material spread from heel to toe is uniform, so yes, no rogue soft areas for the foot to sink into.
Nike Free’s revised outsole geometry, which involved making the switch to interlocked hexagons instead of side-to-side flex grooves, makes the ride much smoother.
The thicker front and the Lunarlon insertion also translates into a stiffer forefoot than the Free 5.0, and that helps relatively quicker toe-offs.
As we’ve underscored earlier in this review, the RN distance is not a shoe which feels fast. The Ortholite has too much squish and the forefoot is very flexible and soft, two factors which get in the way of faster speeds. Like how Nike Free’s are, there are no outsole pieces under the forefoot (like the LunarTempo or Racer 3), which makes the forefoot comfortable but not speedy.
It is important to recognize the RN distance from a Nike Free assortment standpoint. It rides like a Free 5.0, just with more insulation from the ground, and makes for a better all-around, daily use shoe.
A helpful guide would be to view the RN distance on Nike’s minimal running scale of zero to ten – see the chart above from an older review.
If the RN distance had a number, it would be around 8.0, close to a regular model, and yet flexible enough to stay within the confines of the Nike Free concept.
Among other things, stability is great on the RN distance. Sidewall design is uniform across the inner and outer side, with subtle raised ribs running down its length. Lunarlon is deepest in the center, which keeps the foot seated without bias. The outsole coverage is full contact, helping spread the weight evenly.
The bright spots of the RN distance’s ride aside, one has to ask though – is this new Free actually good for longer distances? Sure, you can run far in this shoe, but it’s not the best tool of choice. There is cushioning, yes, but it lacks the engaging experience of the LunarTempo or Lunaracer 3.
And the shoe runs very warm too. And with the season heading quickly into spring and summer, that isn’t exactly a good thing. Which brings us to the faux Flyknit upper design and its inner workings.
On the outside, the RN distance seems simple enough. A single piece knit upper with a texture which draws from both the Flyknit and Flymesh, joined at the back with a fused overlay which also doubles up as the heel window.
There are no other external layers to speak of, except for the lamination over the lacing area and Flywire cord guides.
If you turn the lacing eye-stay over, you’ll see a thin fabric backing up the underside, which also extends as a vertical strip on either sides of the midfoot.
Though it is not outwardly visible, the rearfoot gets the same fabric backing treatment.
What isn’t visible from the outside is how the Nike Free RN Distance’s inner sleeve is constructed. Near the collar opening, the sleeve starts late, leaving a lot of tongue flap.
Regardless, once the sleeve begins, this second covering of spacer mesh extends right till the toe-tip.
Hence, the RN distance might appear wide, but it is actually not. The fit of the inner sleeve is the true fit of the shoe, and not the dimension of the knit upper.
So this creates a paucity of forefoot room, making the shoe fit snug. While far from being Hoka type uncomfortable, the actual fit will take many by surprise.
Around the tip, the toe-bumper has decent vertical room, and not as shallow as last year’s Lunartempo or even the ageing Lunaracer 3.
An invisible stiffener raises up the bumper, preventing the shallowness felt on the Tempo.
Midfoot lacing is Flywire cord assisted, and the RN distance does this differently than some of the other Nike shoes.
The cords are stitched flush to the base of the inner sleeve like the Lunarglide 6, instead of leaving some gap.
This means that the Flywire cords sit closer over the foot, and makes the sleeve hug the foot. That said, cinching the lacing tight does not result in a lot of pressure.
The punched-in eyelet holes prevents the Flywire cords from working independently. If you lace the RN distance tight, there will be a slight upside in midfoot wrap, and nothing more.
The heel on the other hand, doesn’t have the assertive fit of the fore and midfoot. It lacks an internal counter, which means that it is completely collapsible. So while the Lunarlaunch inspired design is kind on the Achilles, the relaxed fit stands out in contrast with the rest of the upper.
The collar walls are made of soft hexagonal textured mesh, and the padding is minimal inside. Both of these elements don’t do favors for the collar grip either. So if the RN Distance’s heel is similar in design to the Lunarlaunch, then why the fit variance?
There were a couple of things which the Launch did differently. First, the heel window made of closed mesh sat very flush over the heel instead floating over, like how it is here.
Secondly, the collar opening was narrower, and the top was firmer due to the synthetic underlay around the edges. This helped the Lunarlaunch provide a better heel grip as compared to the RN distance.
And the part about the shoe being warm, yes. The double layer upper does not let air pass through as well as the Nike Free 5.0 does, and the liberally porous structure of the Ortholite insole creates a ‘hot zone’, trapping heat inside its foam cells.
So that gets in the way of the ‘distance’ part, because a continuous run of over 7 miles in 20 C/68 F will make the insides quite hot. Unless you’re surrounded by snow or are in Australia, where reverse seasonality applies.
Ever wonder why shoes such as the Lunaracer 3, Streak 5, adidas adios and Boston have firm, compression molded insoles? They don’t trap heat, and provide an efficient snap feel – an important ingredient of a shoe meant to feel fast.
As far as the Nike Free RN distance is concerned, just remember what we said. It is for runners who like the all-day comfort of the Nike Free 5.0, but want a little more cushioning to extend the mileage range of their favorite flexible shoe.
As Nike puts it, ‘Free to go farther’. Who said anything about going fast?