differences between a few nike running shoes

Nike free 3.0 photo by flickr user edtrigger

I found myself looking for running shoes and found myself a little overwhelmed by all of the choices out there.  My goal was to find a semi-minimalist shoe – basically a cross between a flat, minimal shoe with no heel-toe drop (difference in height between the heel and the toe) and a traditional running shoe that typically has a bunch of heel cushioning. I realize that the minimal shoes are already a cross between shoes and barefoot running, but my legs and calves aren’t quite ready for that yet.

I focused solely on Nike shoes.  Nike’s website, while pretty, sucks for obtaining any technical information.  Luckily, Running Warehouse has a lot of good information.   They have a neat shoe fit predictor (“shoefitr”) and good information about the amount of support running shoes provide as well as measurements of heel to toe drop.

Nike Free series:

I like the Nike Free series because they allow your foot to flex naturally, which allows you to build up strength in your foot muscles when training.  There are a ton of different variations out there and it’s hard to tell what the differences are.

  • Nike Free 3.0 – most barefoot-like with a super flexy sole
  • Nike Free 4.0 – a little more support, this is in between the 3.0 and the 5.0.
  • Nike Free 5.0 – flexy sole like the 3.0 but with about 4mm more cushioning throughout. This is ideal for runners new to the “Free” series.

Nike Free Run+ by flickr user Yoshihuang

Anything with “TR” in the model name is for cross training.  This isn’t always obvious.  There’s also a Nike Free Walk walking shoe. The Nike Free Xilla is a cross training shoe. I don’t know what the Nike Free Waffle AC is exactly other than it uses the Nike Free sole with an old school upper. I think it’d function as more of a cross training shoe.  There are other versions, such as the N7 and Livestrong which are pretty much the same shoes with different colorways.

Nike Flex series:

What’s the difference between the Nike Free and the Nike Flex series of shoes?  The stack height of the Flex looks higher, and also, there appears to be a larger heel to toe drop.   It appears that the Nike Flex shoes are more flexible than a traditional shoe, but not as “free” as a Nike Free.  So if you are considering a Nike Flex and a Nike Free and want a bit more support, then I would go with the Nike Flex.  If you are looking for something closer to minimal, go with the Nike Free.

Nike Lunar series (and others):

The Nike Lunar series contains more lightweight cushioning than most of their other shoes.  I did a lot of research on the Nike Lunar series (I purposely focused mostly on these to make my decision easier) and here’s what I’ve found for heel-toe drop.  Once again, Running Warehouse was a great resource.  Since creating the original table, I’ve added the heel-toe drop numbers for New Balance and Brooks shoes for comparison.

Ok, this is only sort of related, but what does the “MSL” in a Nike shoe name mean?

MSL stands for “Mesh/Synthetic Leather” upper.  I got that straight from Nike’s customer support.

Heel-Toe drop table:

Brand/Model Heel Height Toe Height Heel to Toe Drop Image and notes – Clicking on name or image opens Amazon link.
Nike Lunar Racer 27mm 21mm 6mm
Image via Amazon

I bought a pair of these.  Sort of.  They were actually the Nike Lunar Vengeance which has the same sole but a different upper.  They are ok – I think I bought half a size too small and my forefoot feels a little cramped.  They have a firmer feel (less flexible sole) than the Nike Free.
Nike Lunar Spider 22mm 16mm 6mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 4.0 v2 22mm 16mm 6mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 4.0 flyknit 24mm 18mm 6mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free Run+ 25mm 18mm 7mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 3.0 v4 21mm 14mm 7mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 3.0 v5 21mm 17mm 4mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 4.0 Flyknit 20mm 14mm 6mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 5.0 '14 21mm 14mm 7mm .
Nike Flex Run ?? ?? 7mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Free 5.0 '15 23mm 15mm 8mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Flyknit+ Volt 23mm 14mm 9mm
Image via Amazon
This looks to have a Free 5.0 style sole for flexibility.
Nike Lunarfly (Nike Lunar Fly) 29mm 19mm 10mm
Image via Amazon

I bought a pair of these also.  These have been my main running shoe for a while.  The heel feels giant but it is still possible to run with a forefoot strike with these shoes.  I have to admit that the cushioning feels nice and the shoe is more comfortable to run in than my Nike Frees or my Nike Lunar Racer/Vengeance.
Nike Lunarswift (Nike Lunar Swift) 26mm 16mm 10mm
has more pronation support (which I did not want)
Image via Amazon
Nike Flyknit Lunar1+ 26mm 16mm 10mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Men's Lunarspeed Lite+ 28mm 18mm 10mm
Image via Amazon
Nike LunarElite (Nike Lunar Elite) 31mm 20mm 11mm
Image via Amazon
Nike LunarEclipse (Nike Lunar Eclipse) 30mm 18mm 12mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Lunarglide (Nike Lunar Glide) 30mm 18mm 12mm
has more pronation support

Image via Amazon
Nike Air Pegasus 33mm 21mm 10mm
(traditional running shoe for reference)

Image via Amazon
Nike Air Max+ 2013 34mm 20mm 14mm
(traditional running shoe for reference)

Image via Amazon
Nike Air Max+ 2015 34mm 22mm 12mm
Image via Amazon
Nike Zoom Elite+ 6 27mm 18mm 9mm
(traditional running shoe for reference)

Image via Amazon
Nike Zoom Elite+ 7 25mm 18mm 7mm
(traditional running shoe for reference)

Image via Amazon
Nike Zoom Elite+ 8 27mm 19mm 8mm
(traditional running shoe for reference)

Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus MR00 12mm 12mm 0mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus MR00 v2 11mm 11mm 0mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus Zero Trail MT00 12mm 12mm 0mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus Trail MT10 15mm 11mm 4mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus Trail MT10 v3 16mm 12mm 4mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance Minimus 10 MR10 19mm 15mm 4mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance NB M1400 21mm 11mm 10mm .
New Balance NB M1400 v3 23mm 13mm 10mm
Image via Amazon
New Balance NB 101 Trail 26mm 16mm 10mm
Image via Amazon
Brooks PureConnect 20mm 15mm 5mm .
Brooks PureConnect 4 20mm 16mm 4mm
Image via Amazon
Altra Instinct 16mm 16mm 0mm
I just bought a pair of these.  They are being phased out for the newer models so there may not be a lot of availability.  First impressions: these shoes are pretty damn ugly.  They look goofy on my feet.  But they feel pretty good.  The build quality and finish of the Altra Instinct doesn't seem to be up to that of other running shoes that I wear but I like the fit.  The roomy toe box is wonderful for my wide feet, and I was happy with the level of cushioning.  I started forefoot running almost two years ago, but in the 10mm drop Nike Lunar Fly or the 6mm (I think?) drop Nike Free 5.0s.  Not wanting to have sore calves for a week, I cut my first run short after 2 miles or so to ease into these shoes.  So far, so good.  This model has since been replaced by the Instinct 1.5.
Altra Instinct 3.0 17mm 17mm 0mm
Image via Amazon. No offense to Altra, I like their shoes but wish they looked better.

don’t see what you’re looking for here? leave a comment at the bottom of the page and I’ll try to add it. thanks.