This is a summary of how my expectation was crushed by a disappointment. The 2012 Nike Free 3.0 V4 is one of the 3 “minimalist” running shoes in the 2012 Nike Free Collection. Since my positive experience with the Nike Free 4.0 V2 a few months ago, I have been eagerly anticipating the release of the 3.0 V4. In fact, I wanted this shoe so badly that I paid out of my own pocket for it (instead of getting a test sample for free usually for my reviews). But what I found in the shoe box that arrived – instead of the dream shoe I’ve been looking for – was a colorful eye-catcher that failed to meet my needs.
At 7.0 oz (men’s size 9), the Free 3.0 V4 feels noticeable lighter than the 4.0 V2 (7.6 oz). This aligns well with the fact that the 3.0 is supposed to be the most minimal of the 2012 line up. The stack heights are 21mm (heel) and 17 mm (forefoot) with a heel drop of 4mm. Again, compared to the 4.0 V2, the 3.o V4 is a step down in terms of overall bulk.
The outsole of the 3.0 V4 also has less rubber material – under the toes and outer heel – than the 4.0 V2 does. I suspect this is to further reduce weight. However I wish Nike had kept the same amount of rubber for the 3.0 V4 because the Phylite midsole foam just doesn’t suffice in certain regions (more on this later). Also the flexibility of 3.0 V4′s outsole is similar to the 4.0 V4′s.
At first glance my immediate attention was grabbed by 3.0 V4′s seamless upper construction. The entire upper seems as if it’s “painted” on a stretchy mesh – just imagine a sock with some sort of crust (chocolate perhaps) on the surface. There are star-shaped slits covering most of the upper – allowing the upper to flex and stretch with the top of the foot. The main difference between the 3.0 V4′s and 4.0 V2′s uppers is that there is significantly less upper material covering 4.0′s mesh. If you recall from my previous review of the 4.0 V2, you’ll remember that I had a minor compliant about not having enough ventilation in its upper. I find this a bit confusing because 3.0 is supposed to be the most stripped-down shoe of the collection (or the most “Free”, if you will) – but instead it seems to have more upper than the 4.0 V2 does.
There is no adjustable tongue on the 3.0 V4. Because of this, the asymmetrical lacing eyelets are independently protruding on top of the upper. The soft, plush ankle collar appears to have a steeper (or more acute) curvature (it extends towards the bottom more) than that of the 4.0 V4′s. With a very slight arch support and the lack of a heel cup, this shoe is more or less a padded sock or booty with a sole and a glued-on sockliner.
Let me get my negative comments out of the way first. After 104 miles in Nike Free 3.0 V4, my biggest complaint is that the upper is too narrow. I’ve ran a couple of 17 milers on pavement and a couple of speed works on track, as well as an easy run on the treadmill in this shoe; and my feeling toward the end of each run remained universal – I wanted to take them off and let my feet breathe! Don’t get me wrong: I am aware that shoe width can be subjective and dependent on one’s foot shape, as I personally like to wear wide shoes. However, I must emphasize that the 3.0 V4 is much more restricting than the 4.0 V2 in the upper. Doesn’t this contradict Nike’s description that the 3.0 V4 is supposed to be the most “barefoot” model of the 2012 Free collection?
I presume the main concept for 3.0 V4′s upper construction is to eliminate as many stitchings and overlays as possible, while maintaining a structural support, to mimic a one-piece tube that molds and conforms perfectly with anyone’s foot. However, as sound as this idea may be, in practice the upper just isn’t stretchy enough to allow the foot to be “free”. In addition to the narrow width, the toebox of the Free 3.0 V4 is also quite low. From time to time I’d feel as if I was clawing the top of the shoe with the tips of my toes. Again, this is a personal preference; but the 3.0 V4 is to tight to me. As a matter of fact, it’s so tight that some of the upper material ruptured and tore in the medial side above the arch area (on both feet) after only 104 miles of usage.
Due to the construction of the 3.0 V4′s upper, getting my foot into it was a new experience. Since there’s no adjustable tongue, putting on this shoe requires me to slip my foot into a sock-like tube while tugging on the ankle collar. This took mew a few runs to get used to – but in the end the ankle and the heel areas of this shoe turned out to fit me quite securely. Also related to the upper construction is the ventilation issue I had with the 4.0 V2. Perhaps it was because I’ve gotten accustomed to the 4.0 V2 – or that I’ve been so distracted by 3.0 V4′s narrow width - breathability of the 3.0 V4 was never too big of a bother to me.
Accompanying its narrow upper is Free 3.0 V4′s narrow midsole. My own measurement revealed that the width of the 3.0 V4′s midsole is about 4 mm narrower than 4.0 V2′s. This dramatically cut down the weight of the 3.0 V4 – but the down side is that I feel a tad of instability. At times I would run, literally, into a sensation that I could topple or tip over during the transition of a foot strike. I suspect this feeling could be amplified by the design of the extremely flexible midsole, which splays and expands as the foot rolls along the ground. But this wasn’t a major setback of the Free 3.0 once I got used to handling it.
Now I’ll talk about the pros (finally) of the 3.0 V4. What I appreciate the most about this shoe is its low-profile midsole, as I mentioned earlier. Its 4mm heel drop and low stack height allows the 3.0 V4 to be a serious contender in the minimalist (or transitional minimalist) category, to compete with shoes like the Saucony Kinvara or the Brooks Pure Project. The midsole of the 3.0 V4 feels noticeably more responsive than 4.0 V2′s. The superior road feel of the 3.0 V4 is exactly what I wish the 4.0 V2 had. Although I’d still prefer a stiffer sole in terms of cushioning of a shoe, I didn’t mind the bouncy, foamy sensations that are present on all Nike Free’s I’ve tried.
The flexibility of the Nike Free 3.0 V4 is comparable to that of the 4.0 V2 – nothing drastically different in these shoes in terms of allowing the foot to bend, roll, and grab on to the road. When running in this shoe, I find the transition of each stride to be very smooth – this is to be expected from all Free’s due to its midsole cuts. Another thing about these cuts is that they tend to pick up small pebbles – this is a well known issue with the Free line. This problem is less pronounced if you wear the Nike Frees on pavement mostly. In wet or damp conditions, the midsole can be a little slippery. But in general the traction is ample for daily use.
As for durability, the Free 3.0 V4′s outsole holds up pretty well. But as I mentioned earlier on this – I’d prefer more high-density rubber in the toe area, especially at the very tip of the shoe, where my 3.0 V4 showed the most wear. There is almost no deformation or degradation in the midsole foam after 104 miles of total usage over 1.5 month – the pillowy bounce remained throughout the testing period. Mind you, though, the midsole durability can be greatly affected by individual’s weight, running style, or running conditions. But compared to other shoes I’ve worn, besides the upper tears I brought up before, the Nike 3.0 V4 is reasonably durable.
The Nike Free 3.0 V4 is a light-weight running shoe built upon the solid foundation laid by its popular predecessors. However, along with several modifications that are innovative only conceptually, this shoe exhibits some shortcomings in terms of practicality. The fact that the upper of the Free 3.0 V4 is much more constricting than that of the 4.0 V2′s leaves me with a sense of confusion and disappointment. My opinion might be biased in this area because of my own foot shape. But similar reactions were noted by Pete Larson on his blog recently.
On the other hand, for those who have medium to narrow feet, the Free 3.0 is a great light-weight training shoe, as well as an excellent transitional tool to the minimalist category of footwear. It’s the lightest and lowest model in the 2012 Free collection. With the redesigned upper construction and reduced midsole, the 3.0 V4 is inching toward the zero-drop category (3.0 V3 had a 7mm drop) that’s currently under the spotlight in the running community.
The 3.0 V4′s midsole performed exactly as I expected based on my experience with its sibling – the Free 4.0 V2. As with other Nike Frees, I’ve reached a conclusion that the 3.0 is best used for running on pavement, track, or treadmill, where the running surface doesn’t contain a lot of pebbles, wood chips, or small debris. I don’t recommend using the 3.0 V4 for cross training or other gym activities that require lateral or diagonal movements because stability may be an issue.
The last point I’d like to make is that if you’ve enjoyed running with the Free 3.0 line in the past; and you want to try this latest iteration but have wide feet like I do, perhaps you can consider customizing a shoe using NIKEiD. I noticed from playing around on the site that it’s possible to get this shoe in 2E width – or even match its 3.0 midsole with 5.0′s upper – if you are willing to shell out around $30 more.
What do you think of my review of the Nike Free 3.0 V4? Have you ever tried any Nike Frees? What other shoes would you like me to review? Please share in the comment section below.