When the Nike Free was launched a decade ago, it wasn't really designed for running. Its creators intended it to be used as a training tool to help strengthen your feet — the bulk of one's mileage should still to be done in standard trainers. But, between then and now, the running industry experienced two seismic shifts: First, the minimalist craze took hold, with barely-there shoes promising runners improved form (supporters claimed we were born to prance on our forefoot) and fewer injuries. Every major shoe manufacturer churned out models to capitalize on the craze, and the Free, ahead of the wave, became Nike's de-facto offering. Fast forward a few years, when enough runners realized they we were crashing to the ground heel-first and getting new injuries, the minimalist movement flickered out as fast as it ignited. The next trend: cushiony, comfortable shoes.
The Free lineup, over that time, shifted to accommodate runners seeking a more "natural" experience — typically defined by thin, flexible shoes that put your foot close to the ground for better proprioception. But it also included models that skewed slightly more toward the mainstream, offering just enough structure to support bigger bodies.
That's all led to the introduction of the Nike Free RN Distance, the beefiest Free yet. As the name implies, this shoe is all about handling higher mileage. Under foot is where the magic happens: If you bend the shoe, you'll see a color pop through the flex grooves in the white foam, called Lunarlon. It's Nike's insanely soft foam found in other highly successful shoes like the LunarGlide and LunarTempo. The stuff is so soft that it has to have a "core-carrier construction" — basically a cradle of firmer, more durable foam encapsulates the softer foam and shields it from the road. The result, however, is a silky smooth contact with the ground that hardens as you fully load it, so your toe-off is responsive, not mushy like overly padded shoes made of EVA.
The construction allows the shoe to remain remarkably thin, given how soft the ride is. Adding even more cushioning is the sole's build: The hex-shaped midsole that's exposed to the road has protruding sections that give a piston-like effect for added cushioning. Basically, those hit first and compress, helping to slow your trajectory into the tarmac. Sure, they'll wear down faster than rubber, but we've found them to hold up remarkably well in our early testing.
The combination of the two technologies in this shoe, along with the still highly bendy chassis, leaves us always wanting to run fast when we lace up. And you can do so, because the shoe is quite lightweight. Our size 12 sample weighs just 9.9 ounces. For comparison, our Saucony Kinvara 7 (also size 12), which is set to release in spring 2016, weighs 9.2 ounces. That's not the featherweight build of shoes you might wear on the track, but it's still a good ounce or two lighter than most traditional shoes you'd reach for when heading out on a long run.
If there's a knock on this shoe, it's that the upper fits a bit loose and unrefined compared to the rest of the Free lineup. Typically, Frees have gotten sock-like, stretchy knit materials for the more minimal models, while some more traditional features like overlays were added to the mainstream offerings. The RN Distance sits somewhere in between. Its upper has a fabric inner bootie giving a super soft on-foot feel, while the circular knit construction gives ample support for neutral runners who just need the platform secured to their sole. You can further wrench the shoe down, thanks to Flywire that binds the laces directly to the midsole throughout the midfoot. But we still long for a snug fit with more stretch. That said, the structure of the upper is designed to get out of your way entirely when you run — there are no heel counters or overlays to irritate you 10 or 15 miles down the road.