Nike Free vs. Vibram Five Fingers – Barefoot Supremacy

Hell on the hips, actually.
Hell on the hips, actually.

Never mind that the color pallette is nearly the same, this is about the claim from each that they mimick bare feet for running/jumping/peacocking. For the general ideas and arguments for and against being barefoot, check out this article, titled “How We’re Wrecking Out Feet With Every Step,” published in  New York Magazine. That’s not what this is about; this is a direct comparison between the Nike Free 3.0 and Vibram Five Finger.

The Nike Free, in my opinion, was the first real innovation from the juggernaut since the Air Go LWP, a shoe so light that you couldn’t wear it outdoors because they would shred inside of a week. The Free 3.0 have some great pros:

  1. They are light but still feel like you get some nearly-shoe levels of support. In fact they’re so light that my girlfriend thought they didn’t ship any shoes in the box before she opened the box.
  2. Benefit the athlete who has only worn overbuilt, over-supportive shoes over the years for fear of breaking their feet.
  3. They still look like shoes, so your wardrobe options move beyond constantly wearing board shorts or cut-off track pants.

The Free 3.0 does have some cons, however:

  1. They have a heel, more so than you would expect. I suspect this is because the shoe is still a running shoe and most weekend warrior runners have atrocious heel strike tendencies. The Free 7.0 “Trainer”  actually has less of a heel in spite being more of a shoe.
  2. They also have a thicker sole than the 7.0, in spite being made of a more flexible material. Perhaps this is to make up for the general lack of padding and support.
  3. They don’t have nearly the peacocking ability of the Vibrams (more on that in a minute).

That said, I like these shoes and basically cycle between the Free 3.0, the Free 7.0, and my Vibram Five Fingers throughout the week. The Vibrams have become a favorite of mine for a few reasons:

  1. I used to be that douchey guy going to class barefoot when I was in college…so this is better than that.
  2. They are incredible if you’re a fan of attention. Just yesterday while waiting in line to see Star Trek I had the attention of a family next to me asking about the shoes, how thick the sole is, are the waterproof, etc. My standard response is that they, “keep my feet from being stabbed by spent needles around town.” People like that.
  3. When you run in them, you feel faster/lighter. Suddenly striking at your forefoot feels like a series of bounds as opposed to a resistive locomotive effort.

As I mentioned before, they look good being worn with shorts or messenger pants. Jeans and vibrams don’t seem to vibe well, at least for my tastes.

The only thing I don’t like about the vibrams: I can’t play basketball in them, or rather, I want just a wee bit more padding than they offer. I can play in the Free 3.0’s without excessive wear and tear on my feet. I feel the vibrams…er…vibe more with outdoor activities: hiking, exploring, dog walking, being “that guy.” Beats the hell out of scorching the bottom of your foot to “be one with gaia/be more like grok/feel the ground beneath your feet.”

35 thoughts on “Nike Free vs. Vibram Five Fingers – Barefoot Supremacy

  1. Nice review, Skyler. My best friend has a pair and I just cannot decide if I can splurge on them or not. I really want them for the comfort factor + they would be beneficial for my training(squats etc). I just don’t know if I want to drop the change on them tho. I like eating A LOT.

  2. Thanks for this – useful info. I have already ordered a pair of Vibram Flow, having worn chunky-soled running shoes pretty much 24-7 for years. I have a leg-length discrepancy (about half an inch) which led to runner’s knee when I was distance running (now a thing of the past) which means I have a small raise in the right trainer. I also in the course of various consultations acquired a pair of arch supports that I insert into my trainers in place of the insoles. I wonder whether you have seen any articles covering how barefoot/barefoot-like shoes are viewed in the context of these kind of podiatric interventions. The guy who made me the insoles swore that it would save me having a hip replacement later in life…yet I suspect they will not fit into the Vibrams and in any case I sense they are counter to the philosophy. My Paleo sense tells me I should abandon all this crap, go pseudo barefoot with the vibrams, and let my body sort itself out. Any thoughts?

  3. I love the Nike Free 3.0. I wish though they made them without the tongue like they do the Nike Free 5.0. That way you can lace them once and just slip them on easily.

  4. Thanks for the review. I had just gone to a local store that carries that 5 Finger, but they had run out!
    I’ll have to wait til they get more in. I had also wondered about the evolution of the free…so thanks for the review!

  5. I’m hoping to get some sexy black Vibram KSO’s soon for the walk to work – not sure if I want to find out what my students will make of them though… But I can’t tolerate the colour palette of the Nike Free’s, maybe I’ll keep watch for a more aesthetically-pleasing generation 🙂

      1. It most certainly would.

        My general response to clients who ask me about my shoes is, “This keeps my barefoot but sharp rocks and spent needles can no longer do me harm.”

  6. I find the barefoot thing sort of funny now — for two reasons, I was a swimmer/water polo player (and judo for that matter) and always preferred being barefoot.

    In fact, the few times we did running exercises for polo, I didn’t have any sneakers, just my sandals, so I took them off and ran barefoot. Ain’t no thing.

    For CrossFit type stuff, I tried the Nike Frees, but decided to go with the Nike Sparq Test Pro 3.,pdp,ctr-inline/cid-1/pid-205598/pgid-205599

    or here

    I love ’em. And yes, they do a little peacocking for you.

    But the great thing about my CF box is that no matter what we are doing, for example C&Js the other day, we are encouraged to go barefoot and we do.

    1. Patrik,

      The barefoot thing is kind of funny. Perhaps because I always associated barefooting with dirty hippy types, or my years in college of not wearing shoes/just wearing moccasins to class. Now it’s fashionable to build strength in your feet…such is life.

    1. Fit,

      Thanks for the link; I especially like the illustration has to how our feet hit barefoot vs. in shoes. I went sprinting in them yesterday and that’s especially how they felt.

      And thanks for the typo corrections; I’ll just outsource my proofreading to my readers from now on! 😉

    2. I’m a website designer and recently designed a site for some foot doctors here in Idaho. After reading an article about the Stanford track team, running barefoot, and the nike free shoes, I passed it on to a doctor there.

      He responded:
      “Thanks for the article. Its pretty interesting stuff. There was a very high end runner in Portland that actually advocated running in Crocs which would provide the benefits of running barefoot and still provide some protection.”

      Crocs are not nearly as cool as other options BUT they do allow the toes to spread out.

      1. I’ve been trail running in crocs and love them. I’ve got a mary jane style which has an arch strap. To my dismay, they have been discontinued but I found a few pairs online. I even contacted the company and asked them to get involved in the barefoot running trend. They’ve been great and the price is right ($25).

  7. Skyler,

    Looks like you got some serious spam-love from barefootrunningshoes dot org — I see their comments popping up on just about every blog that talks about Nike Frees or VFFs — this post of yours must have been a two for one special 🙂

    See the comments by:


    It’s become a personal crusade to alert bloggers to when their comments are getting (apparently) hijacked by someone and figured you’d like to know. Incidentally, barefootrunningshoes dot org *was* vibramfivefingersshoes dot com but it seems that Vibram got wind of the trademark domain squatting and did something about it. Of course, the site that was up there just sprung right back up at barefootrunningshoes dot org …

    Anyway sorry to bother — this sorta thing just drives me crazy since I find myself competing with a site that is mostly just regurgitated YouTube clips, “reviews” that are just cut-and-pasted from amazon (see the Born to Run review on their site for example) intermingled with lots of ads and affiliate links.

    1. Justin,

      Thanks for the heads up! I’ll take care of those spammy comments.

      Also, great job on your site; I’ve perused it on more than a few occasions. Also congratulations on fatherhood.


      1. Thanks for the props and the word of congratulations! Fatherhood is keeping me busy — as is my pet project gone wild (birthdayshoes).

        I just realized you’re a personal trainer — interesting! I’m gonna keep an eye on your blog (rss) — I’m not a personal trainer but sometimes I wonder if maybe I should be… hmm …

  8. I have been trying to decide if I want to go with the Nike Free’s or the Vff’s . Your review has really helped my decision. I am not ready to go totally barefoot yet (not sure if I ever will be, too scared to step on something sharp), but I am ready to give the vff’s a try and see if they can 1 help my running and 2 keep me stay injury free.

    1. Tracey,

      Make sure you don’t get too aggressive with the VFFs. Start with walking, move onto unstable walking, etc. I’ve been deadlifting barefoot for years, so my transition was somewhat easy but sprinting barefoot is a totally different animal. It left my feet very sore…just an FYI.

  9. Hey,

    So if you can’t play basketball in any of these barefoot type shoes, what do you end up playing in that gives enough protection? Looking for a new alternative.

    1. I play basketball in the 3.0’s just fine. I think most people would be better off with the 5.0’s but both are a huge improvement over normal basketball shoes imo.

  10. Ive been looking at a few different shoes and am torn between the New Balance MT100 and a pair of FF’s.

    Does anyone use both(FF and shoes)? I really want the FF because of they have your foot use all its muscles but I am concerned that if I wear the FF a lot but then go out on the town and switch to regular shoes that my dogs will be hurting from the change over. I could be just over thinking as well.

    Also how do ppl feel about the look of the classics. I think they look is pretty minimal and not as attention grabbing or ugly as the KSO color ways.

    Or go for both?

    1. Kato,

      You’re over-thinking. Your dogs and their adjustment is a dose/response relationship.

      You could always get KSOs in all black for the most stealthy look.

  11. I walk more than I run and only 5ks so far. (Last one at Disney)
    I’m 61 and am nearly always barefoot from my Hawaii living days.

    I wear crocs (the thongs) to walk or run in and they do fine for short distances
    except for the callous that builds up between big and second toe.
    Don’t think they stop needles (and I now know they don’t stop nails),
    but they sure are comfy. Next year: BolderBoulder

  12. I’ve tried the vibram for a few weeks then brought them back to the store.
    I have a wide foot and big toes… I like to run barefoot on a grass/sand/mud trail around the parc. I can run for hours without any shoes.. I think the vibram is only good for people wanting to train on the road.. I don’t see the any good sides about it if you’re trail running / cross country running and know that the track is safe. It’s all about the track! The best is to clean a big nice loop and then just go barefoot 🙂

    Also, most runners (those who never run barefoot) are always laughing at you even though you go faster and longer — I think the runners world has to changed and we need to make it clear that you don’t need $200 nu balance. I have a pair of technical shoes but it’s like having sex with or without a choose.

    I might consider the Free for everyday life… I mean something that I can wear with jeans and tshirt…and occasionally run in them.. In the meantime the solution is to go really barefoot I guess…Those 5fingers didnt impressed me at all..

    My 2 cents..

    1. did you go barefoot a lot as a kid? where I’m from that’s not unusual and people’s feet get really big- wide, big toes (ugly feet, but very tough). people there even do construction work with flipflops/barefoot! when people wear shoes they say they bother their feet and get them off as soon as they can.I didn’t always go barefoot (our mom wouldn’t let us, specially the girls), mostly inside, but floors are concrete so my feet probably got bigger too. we used to run barefoot a lot on the beach. anyway only when I started wearing sneaks a lot I started having knee pain, shin splints. I thought because I was older. I tried more expensive air, etc- same thing. By accident I bought some free trainers 7.0 for stability in weight training (some them in the pics of a mens health) and noticed my knee pain and shin splints totally disappeared! Now I will buy them or, I always like to change, maybe Adidas marathon? ANyone tried those?

  13. I love the Vibram Bikilas but I think I went too fast in them. I ended up injuring my hip. I transitioned over to the Nike Free 3.0, but don’t like them nearly as well. I have a crazy little toe on my right foot and they give me blisters. But they are better than regular running shoes for sure.

    I am training for a half marathon over Labor Day.Following that, I am going to go back to the Vibrams and take it slow. And I can’t wait to get the new Speeds.

  14. Hi everyone, just thought i would add my two cents. I am an avid bare-footer. I have used 5 fingers and loved them. They are awesome for running. I felt so free!!! Well needless to say after months of use, they got pretty stinky….. and um… well… i washed them and washed them and washed them and it did not relieve the smell… so i tried toe socks… helped for the first few days… then more stink…. I can’t stand stinky feet, so i had to move on…. bummer :),
    They are funny looking too- which seems strange cause it looks like a foot…. guess feet look strange- or we aren’t used to looking down at toes.
    Nike needs to come out with some more suttle colors… whats up with all the bright neon colors; what ever happened to earth tones.
    Well try em it won’t hurt, and if any one wants to develop a shoe…. I have some great ideas.

  15. I dont really care how much they say it there is still a large amount of padding for your heel in the nikes taking away the whole point of being barefoot. I’m not saying the nikes are bad shoes just they are not really bare footing in my view.

  16. finger shoesThe typical human foot is an anatomical marvel of evolution with 26 bones, 33 joints, 20 muscles, and hundreds of
    sensory receptors, tendons and ligaments. finger shoes are like the rest of the body, to keep our feet healthy, they need to be stimulated and exercised.

  17. I’ve always been a shoe wearing person, right now Im wearing crocs in side my house for just walking around, I would like to move to the Nike free’s for some 30 min running sessions, just to keep my cardio up( 2 to 3 times a week). But is that even enough to warrant any of these shoes?

  18. okay…so does anyone know if the 5 fingers create blisters between your toes? i’ve tried on these & the nikes & the 5 fingers are the most comfortable. barefoot is great on a beach but where i live you would get hurt so you need something. so confusing, but much better choices than regular ‘running’ shoes.

  19. Why can’t anyone spell palette anymore?

    And when will the word “pretty” be the logical response to a minimal shoe?

    The closest I’ve found is my black suede minimal shoes from Renaissance Mocassins – and I like to wear mine – but they aren’t exactly work appropriate…or modern. Runamocs just look home-made.

    They look like this:

    Women want to wear attractive minimal shoes with their jeans and skirts…not costume footwear or athletic footwear or gorilla feet. Where are they?

    One guy is trying to help men get a minimal shoe they can wear at work….I’m jealous.

    1. Livia,

      You might be interested in the Vivobarefoot options for women. They can be expensive but they come up for sale periodically on wholesalers like left lane sports and the clymb.

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