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Review of Nike Free Technology
By Larry Eder
Summer 2004
ATF Resource Guide, Vol. 11, No. 5

Steve Pensinger was the track coach at Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, CA, during my junior year in high school. All of twenty-one, Steve was the coach who finally got through to me about the need for hard work and focus in track and field. Pensinger used much of Australian coach Percy Cerutty's theories in his workouts.

Cerutty was the coach of Herb Elliot, probably the greatest 1500/miler ever. Cerutty had Elliot running one workout a day during the week, then two to three workouts on Saturday and Sunday in his Portsea training site on the ocean shore south of Melbourne. Free weights, running barefoot through sand and on grass, and a diet high in fruits and vegetables were part of the Cerutty playbook. Coach Pensinger took the idea of running barefoot to new levels. Once a week during the spring, we would venture to the De Anza Country Club, where we would do 300m repeats on a nicely trimmed grass loop. Running barefoot was a little scary at first, as we worried about broken bottles and such, but we sure ran fast and it did help us during the season.

In college, my coach Dan Durante spoke of varying our surfaces. A scientist by trade, and masters sprinter by vocation, Durante told us that our foot, to work properly, needed to run on dirt, grass, road, concrete and gravel--it allowed your foot to grasp and release, like the magnificent bit of engineering that it is. Later on, at clinics featuring Brooks Johnson, I heard Johnson bemoan the fact that shoes were babying our feet, and that, to work properly, to run fast, we needed to train our feet to sprint. He advocated barefoot running, among other things. Johnson also warned coaches about too much mileage and not enough focus on speed work, but he was a voice in the wilderness. Coaching is both art and science. Coaches from Brutus Hamilton, to Percy Cerutty, to Brooks Johnson, to Vin Lananna, knew that barefoot running was part of an overall program to train the body to run long distances fast.


"The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art." -- Leonardo da Vinci

The human foot has 26 bones and a number of muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. It is amazingly complex, a masterpiece of engineering--a series of levers that, if working properly, allow people to walk and run efficiently and without pain. Running shoes have tended to provide a certain amount of control or cushioning based on the feeling that they are needed to complement the natural action of the foot. And truth be told, for at least half of the people walking today, running shoes give them a chance to walk and run comfortably and to keep from injuring themselves on a daily basis. Imagine running several miles a day in dress shoes!

In the last 30 years or so, running shoes have gone through several evolutions. First there was control: runners and the footwear companies believed that pronation and supination were harmful, and that shoes should actually stop the inward or outward rolling of the foot. And some shoes were so controlling, that they mimicked blocks of concrete. Then cushioning became the buzzword, and the ride became so soft that runners felt like the y were running on big pillows. The current running footwear theory comes down to this: People's feet come in all shapes and sizes. Lucky are those with 'neutral' feet, who need only a bit of cushioning, and some lateral control. Others, runners who overpronate or oversupinate a great deal, require additional and serious correction. Large, heavy athletes, of course, need cushioning to help prevent back problems during and after their daily runs.

But today's forward thinking, discussed in research centers across the world--and in the bars at big races where running geeks congregate--is that maybe, just maybe, supination and pronation are natural, and that shoes should be designed to work in tandem with the feet, not to replace the feet. That ideas used to be contrarian, but it's becoming pretty well accepted now. Then there is a really contrarian, out-of-the-box way of thinking. And this is what this article is about--a really new and different approach to footwear--an approach to footwear so revolutionary that it resulted in the development of shoes that are not shoes, but training tools that condition the feet. Read on, please.


Two years ago, Vin Lananna, then the head track & field coach at Stanford University, was overseeing his athletes during a series of workouts. Vin had been at Stanford since 1992 and his teams had been winning NCAA individual and team titles in cross country and track, and had also organized a group of new elite distance runners called The Farm Team. Vin was doing something right. Stanford was supported by Nike, and the Nike designers and researchers were watching Stanford workouts. They noticed that Vin had them running barefoot a couple of times a week. These workouts were part of an overall program to make the runners ready to compete on a national and international stage. Nike designers Toby Hatfield and Eric Avar watched Lananna's runners working out barefoot, and Lananna's comments kept ringing in their ears: "I do not know why it works, but when my runners run barefoot, they seem to get faster in their racing."


How do you mimic barefoot running?

That was the question posed by Toby Hatfield and Eric Avar, as footwear designers at Nike, to their boss Mario Lafortune, director of the Nike Research Lab. To help them find the answer, Lafortune asked Jeff Pisciotta, a biomechanics researcher at the Lab, to film runners going barefoot. In the summer of 2002, Pisciotta took 30 runners, had them run 7:30 miles barefoot on the grass, and filmed them. Jeff is one of 29 merry pranksters in the Nike Research Lab, who film athletes, in all types of activities, to determine how the body works, and how apparel and footwear should work. They are managed by the Willy Wonka-esque Lafortune, with a pedigree of European and Canadian research centers and a French accent.

The Nike Research Lab is Lafortune's chocolate factory, a place where scientific theory and practical applications meet to find out what works and what doesn't. You could call it runner geek's heaven. What Pisciotta's films showed was that the human foot, unobstructed, would land softly and repeatedly, using all of the muscles, ligaments and 26 bones in the structure. Pisciotta compared it to a very soft airplane landing.

Although runners' foot shapes were different, the foot compensated and the gait (a person's way of walking or running) would result in the same thing--a nice soft landing of the foot, heel to toe, with the process repeating itself, step after step.


The art and the science of footwear

In building any shoe, a last (a model of the foot) is used as a base for the shoe, and for the construction of both the upper and outersole materials; i.e., the shoe is built around the last. Hatfield and Avar realized, from Pisciotta's research, that they needed a last that truly mimicked the way the foot operates when it's barefoot. The last they created would move to the left and right, up and down, just like a foot. When I held the Nike Free last in my hand, it collapsed into my hands, just like a foot would. A drastically different approach to the last would need a drastically different approach to footwear, and so the Nike Free began. The Nike Free is a shoe which looks like no shoe in sports that I have ever seen. The upper is a mesh that has small holes in it, and it allows the foot to be encased, but also move pretty freely. There is no heel counter, but the heel fits snugly in the shoe as the inner sole allows the foot to sit naturally in a neutral position. But the key is the outersole. Picture an expensive bar of chocolate with many sections cut out so that you can eat one small piece at a time. The designers set the shoe up so that the outersole can move and flex independently, with each section being sliced so that the foot is allowed to move as naturally as possible in the shoe.


How does it feel?

As one of about 25 media people who were invited to see the Nike Free at a press introduction in mid May, I had a chance to run and walk in the new Nike Free shoes and generally put them through their paces. The shoe did not provide the cushioning that my normal running shoes do, and because of that I became very aware of the muscles and the movement of my foot. It was not painful, but it was very strange to be so aware of how different natural movement of the foot felt. I walked on a treadmill with it, and tried several training exercises with it as well.


Nike Free -- What does it mean?

The fundamental idea behind the Nike Free is that instead of making the foot fit the shoe, the shoe should be made to fit the foot. There has been great progress in the development of running shoes over the past 30 years. Control of lateral movement within the shoe, cushioning, and similar mainstream ideas have in general benefited millions of runners and walkers=. Indeed, at least half of the runners and walkers today owe their daily fitness regimens to the motion control or cushioned shoes of today. However, for years many coaches have felt that by controlling the natural movements of the foot, running shoes were making feet weaker. Could it be that the shoes were actually inhibiting leg speed and the runner's natural gait, and were, in fact, producing weaker and somewhat less healthy feet.

The Nike Free is an attempt to answer that question. Does it work? Before I ever saw or even heard of the Free, Nike did a good deal of testing.

The test that made the most sense to me was a six-month actual use test by 110 ordinary runners, neither world-class runners nor beginners, but people who exercise and run more or less regularly. One group, consisting of 30 men and 27 women, wore the Nike Free shoes for four 30-minute runs, four times per week. The control group, 30 men and 23 women, used their regular personal training shoes. Outside of the four 30- minute runs per week, both groups continued their usual workout schedules. All the participants were tested at the start of the six-month period on their abilities in a number of physical areas--including shuttle runs, lateral running, short sprints, and leg strength--and they were tested again at the end of the six months. These tests would measure such qualities as speed development, lateral coordination, and optimal speed. As you might expect, there was some slight improvement on the control group. They registered a little more speed and a little more coordination, but not enough to be statistically relevant. However, the test results from the group wearing the new "barefoot" shoes showed improvement in all the parameters measured, and the improvements in speed, lateral movement, and coordination were significant--in the 10% to 20% range.

That's a very significant improvement considering that the new shoes were worn only two hours a week over a mere six-month period. After all, an improvement of only 1% in speed could mean a meter's difference in the 100-meter dash--often the difference between first and fourth place. What the six-month test showed was that the new design, mimicking the motion of a bare foot, was adding flexibility, control, and speed to the foot. In other words, the Nike Free was acting not as a running shoe, but as a training technique! One of the researchers put it this way, "Nike Free is a gym for your feet."


Time to talk to the trainers...

Two of the best sports trainers I've ever met are Gerard Hartmann, and John A. Blievernicht. Gerard Hartmann works with Paula Radcliffe and Suzy Favor Hamilton. Hartmann was an athlete at the University of Arkansas, running the 1500 (3.45), 5,000 (14.14) and the steeplechase ( 8.48). After being a track athlete, Hartmann went into the triathlon--but his athletic career ended after a cycling accident. Gerard then put his energy into physical therapy, based in Gainesville, FL. Last year he was given the chance to have his athletes try out the Nike Free shoes. Hartmann says he was cautious at first, but now he has used the Nike Free footwear in his training programs for six months. Starting slowly, his athletes have now moved up to using the shoes four times per week, for their morning runs. Hartmann uses the shoes as part of the therapy that he uses with elite athletes to develop their locomotive skills, a therapy that includes emphasis on equal leg strength, proper footstrike and strong hip flexors.

"You can only run so much mileage," he says, "so we decided, with Paula and Suzy, that developing their feet, their legs and proper locomotion is the area to focus on." John Blievernicht works with professional athletes in other sports. He has some fascinating suggestions for uses of the Nike Free shoe, which he sees again, as a training tool. Especially, Blievernicht feels that one application could be of great interest to senior citizens in terms of improving their foot strength, which in turn will allow them to do more and better exercises for developing their core strength and their overall body conditioning.


How do we use this? Or should we?

The Nike Free is not for everybody, but it is adding to not only the research but knowledge that we have of the foot and how it works. The key to understanding Nike Free is that this shoe is more of a training tool, or a conditioning tool, than a piece of running footwear. By using it perhaps three to four times per week as part of an athlete's warmup, over a period of six months, the general health of the foot will be improved and the ability of the athlete to develop speed and proper locomotion will be enhanced.

What types of athletes could use this? Track athletes who want to improve their technique and speed, marathoners and road racers who want to improve their times, football and basketball athletes who want to improve their overall condition, tennis players, obviously. The Nike Free "shoe" may not work for everybody, but I'm sure lots of athletes will want to give them a try.

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