What’s a “CrossFit” shoe, anyways? (Nike Free Trainer Review)


Chances are, when you started CrossFit, you weren’t wearing CrossFit shoes.  You might have been wearing shoes that were better for CrossFit, but not CrossFit specific shoes.  Come to think of it, CrossFit was around a LOT longer than it’s had a shoe out for.  But, what makes a CrossFit shoe different than normal trainers or running shoes? When I started at my affiliate, I came in wearing anything from the original Nike Free’s, Reebok Real Flex and Vibram Five Fingers.  For the last month or so I’ve tried my hand in going back to shoes that weren’t designed for CrossFit, including a few different shoes by Nike; mainly because I wish they would come out with a shoe that was better suited for CrossFit, or “functional fitness”.  Before I post my results, I have to say that you should be able to perform in any circumstance.  Dress shoes, sneakers, hiking boots, Crocs and bare feet…CrossFit is all about being functional and you’re probably not going to always have a pair of Nano’s on hand when life happens.

Like I said above, I tested Nike shoes. Mainly because they get a lot of negative rep in boxes.  All too often I see people taking their shoes off to squat (overhead mainly), or complain about some kind of instability…all while mainly wearing Nike Free’s (but other brands of running shoes are included here).  Why is it that this is happening? I’m no expert but, my experience indicates that even as an above average CrossFitter with about average mobility, the cushioning takes away from ground feel, makes it harder for you to balance depending on how soft the soles are, and hinders power transfer between your body and the ground.  I tried three different models, the Free Trainer 3.0, the (new) Free Trainer 5.0, and the Zoom Speed Trainer.  I only went for shoes that were supposedly made for cross-training, in hopes that they would be suitable for a WOD.  Depending on what you’re doing, they can be actually pretty decent to downright awful.  Let’s just get into it…

Nike Free Trainer 3.0 Camo Pack (2013)

The 3.0 designation means that these are the minimalist and most “barefoot” type shoe that Nike makes for men.  Which is pretty sad, because you’re going to gain a good inch by wearing these shoes (or good depending on who you are).  Okay – maybe an over exaggeration, but if you’re used to wearing any kind of real minimalist shoes, these are going to definitely feel like you’re romping around in moon boots.  Sorry, can’t stop the over exaggerating.  They sport a 4mm heel to toe drop, which isn’t too out of the ordinary for minimal shoes; the main issue here is just the amount of sole you get (1″ heel height).  Performance wise, they’re actually okay to WOD in; flexible and light weight (8 oz) for most body weight and running metcons.  Decent in handling lighter weight Oly lifting or squatting, but I wouldn’t bother with these for anything over 70% of your 1RM’s; forget about squatting or deadlifting to a 1Rm.  The support in these shoes will save your knees if you’re a heavy landing box jumper or runner, but I found my feet getting sore after wearing them for extended periods of time.  To much squishing around going on in the shoe; just not accustomed to the softness of the soles.  Nike Free Trainer 3.0’s retail at $120, but can usually be found for a lot less.

Stick to gymnasty/running days and WOD’s with these shoes, but they should be okay for most WOD’s.

Nike Free Trainer 5.0 (2014)

I had high hopes for this shoe, seeing as how its design completely changed from the previous models.  The Nike Free Trainer 5.0 sports an adaptive fit, that roughly translates to being actually having the most sock-light fit out of pretty much any shoe I’ve had for the last 5 years.  That much I like, along with the way they look, their flexibility, and the comfort.  The first problem I have with the shoe doesn’t even have much to do with the shoe, but more with Nike’s marketing.  Why the hell would you do a promo video of a bunch of guys hardly even on their feet for a training shoe?  Seriously, the only things they showcase with their feet are jump roping and kicking a heavy bag.  That right there just goes to show that these aren’t actually any better Tom’s for training purposes.  Once again, that’s an over exaggeration…but seriously just go watch the promo video.  The second issue I have with these shoes is that they’re somewhat heavy.  They feel substantial on your feet coming in at 10oz.  Talk about moon boots, the third thing I dislike about these shoes which makes them almost worthless is the fact that you’re going to be fighting with them to gain any kind of stability since they’re like walking on pillows; even air squats were a struggle.  Anatomically shaped heel works okay when you get lazy and start heel striking.  The new hexagonal flex grooves actually work better than the previous Free’s squares, but other than that, there’s no reason to buy this shoe over the 3.0 unless you really wanted to save that $20.

Stick to body weight metcons or casual wear with these.

Nike Zoom Speed Trainer NRG

I had my eye on these shoes for a while and when they went on sale for almost a full 50% off, plus a 20% off coupon, I decided to pull the trigger.  Can’t say that I’m too disappointed in my purchase, seeing how cheap I got these shoes.  It was at least worth all the compliments I got on the shoe/colorway.  These shoes are probably one of the better ones suited for weightlifting.  The outsoles, while extremely tall, aren’t very compressible and squishy like the former shoes.  A big trade off is being less flexible, but plenty enough to get through a workout with.  While I’m not positive on the exact heel to toe drop, it’s substantial and feels like it’s in the 6mm range.  I guess that could possibly help some people out with tight hips or ankles in getting down into their squat.  I probably wouldn’t do much outdoor training or running in these shoes due to the unorthodox tread pattern.  Seems like it would be more suited for rubber gym flooring.  Speaking of running, they’re a bit on the stiff side, so you might want to stick with sprints v.s. any kind of distance running.  They weigh about as much as Nano 3.0’s at 9.3oz, so they’re not the lightest or the heaviest shoes.   Pretty decent value here, they retail for $95 but you can find them for as low as almost half that directly from Nike.

Decent for most things indoors, but stay off the pavement. Better off sticking to the 3.0’s though.

So, what’s the verdict?  You should be able to WOD in ANY shoe.  Are these shoes a viable substitute for actual CrossFit shoes (Inov-8, NB Minimus included)?

Yes, but with reservations. 

While you could get away with the Free Trainer 3.0 and possibly the Zoom Speed Trainers, I would stick to spending that money on a tried and true CrossFit sneaker.  Like I said, you can definitely WOD in these shoes, but that would probably be better suited for people that have some experience in CrossFit.  Athletes just starting should probably look to invest into a pair or minimal/CrossFit sneakers ASAP.

I really wish Nike would cater to the functional fitness community a little bit more seriously.  They’ve actually got some interesting 1.0 models over on the female side, but nothing on the male side.  You can’t really even bash Nike for developing shoes like this, because hell, they’re Nike…athletes out there actually use this stuff so I’m sure it’s not all for nothing.  Imagine if they really made a push into the world of functional fitness; they would probably advance the level of shoes to incredible heights.  I know I speak for millions of other people when I say that I would love nothing more than to see that happen.


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