Nike Flyknit Racer Review

The Nike Flyknit Racer is an intriguing shoe. Let me rephrase that: It’s a mind-boggling shoe. The way the the upper is put together sees a dramatic departure from what we runners know of how shoes are made of. This isn’t to say that the Flyknit Racer is a near perfect shoe because it’s not. Nevertheless it’s an awesome start and the prospect of seeing more of the Flyknit upper in new footwear is exciting.

The Flyknit Racer is a very niched shoe. Most runners would probably not able to wear it, at least as an everyday shoe and I’ll explain in awhile. The Racer is one part of two shoes – the other’s a Trainer – produced for Nike sponsored athletes in conjunction with the London Olympics. Nearly a year on, the Racer’s finally hit our shores. Prior to laying my hands on them, I’ve had the chance to see them in Japan, both in Osaka and Kyoto, so I knew what to expect.

Those are the Flyknit Trainers on the top of the photo. Snapped this photo in the Nike Store in Osaka.
Closer view of the Trainer. The difference is the use of more fabric in the key areas lending more structure to the shoe.

When you first pick up the Racer, you’ll immediately be smitten first by the lack of weight and then by the upper. Indeed, this weave of the upper is so complex yet so simple in its idea. The entire upper is basically cut from a single piece of fabric as you can see from a still from a video below.

Ben Shaffer from Nike’s Innovation Kitchen explaining the technology at work. See the one piece upper he’s holding. You can find this video easily on YouTube.

How light is the shoe? At 6.3oz, it’s lighter than the 6.65oz of the Lunaracer+ 3 (reviewed here) and I’ve previously put some shoes to the scales to verify manufacturers’ claims (read here) against actual weight. Without the insole, the shoe drops another 0.7oz but the Racer is not designed to be worn sock-less. Any lighter you’ll have to pick up the LunarSpider R3 and Zoom Streak LT. Running Warehouse puts the Flyknit Racer at a 10mm drop (Heel: 24mm, Forefoot: 14mm).

Because the upper is a single piece of fabric, there are no seams to rub you the wrong way unless there’s some stitching anomaly. Nevertheless I doubt the Racer is designed to be run sans socks. The evidence is in the exposed stitching around the footbed as you can see from the photo below. Unlike conventional shoes, there’s a complete absence of padding under the top layer of knitted upper. No cushy material, nothing between your skin (well, unless you’re wearing socks) and the fabric. Even the collar is unpadded. This means carrying less weight around and more real estate inside for a roomier feel. I’m able to fit into a US9.5 rather than a 10 or 10.5 when it comes to a Nike racing shoe. I need to point out that the Flyknit Racer is a Unisex shoe. The sizes are men specific so women should subtract 1.5 from their usual size to determine their size in men’s. (Example: If you wear size 8 in women’s, order size 6.5 in men’s).

The next few photos will be close up shots of the upper, so that you’ll appreciate the intricate weaves of the thread. You’ll notice that everything is kept to a minimum, resulting in a shoe that’s ultra breathable. Even the swoosh is painted on rather than a separate piece of stitched-on. Where areas of additional structural support are needed, the threads are in a tighter weave.

You can see the Dynamic Flywire threads through the upper.
See through.

The thin fettucini-like laces, in my opinion, are a miss. Despite double knotting it on my first run, they came undone. From then on, it’s all about triple knotting for me. Lacing the shoe is smooth and easy, through the dynamic Flywire loops that pull the upper snugly against your feet.

The fettuccini-like laces

What you get in the Flyknit Racer’s midsole is a single Zoom Air unit in the forefoot, a reflection on its racing pedigree. We’re not talking about heel striking here, folks. The midsole has a very substantial flare especially in the heel section. Because running in the Racers are pretty much a get up and go fast affair, chances are you won’t be heel striking. Note the very thin use of rubber in the outsole. This is not a shoe you’d want to be dragging you feet – do that and you’ll basically be fast-tracking the shoe to destruction.

Underfoot, you get little nuggets of waffle. Called “Waffleskin” rubber outsole features a racing-specific diamond pattern, delivering lightweight durability and traction. As previously mentioned, only a thin layer of rubber serves to protect the heel. 

With all the features out of the way, let’s quickly talk about the wear experience. Out of the box, the Flyknit Racer needed no breaking in. It’s more spacious up front than the Lunaracer and most definitely firmer. Both shoes aren’t the most flexible around unlike the Free or Skecher’s Performance Series. Where the Nike Free, Skechers and even the Lunaracer are soft, pliable and cushy, the Flyknit is very firm and responsive.

My first run in the Flyknit Racer was over a hilly 9K course. There was an immediate fast feel to it, almost spike-like. You propel to the next stride the moment you hit the ground forefoot and there was a snap to the strides. True racing shoes are stiffer than regular trainers for a quicker turnover – imagine a short and tightly wound spring that stores and unleashes the energy. My lower legs were fully engaged throughout the run but since I’ve done most of  my running on transitional and minimalist footwear, I didn’t find the experience painful. Good thing there wasn’t any hotspots either.

I’ve also ran a handful of shorter runs around the KLCC track after the first wear. The Waffleskin held up very well on the wet synthetic surface and above average on the wet bricked sections. I didn’t have to pay extra attention to maintaining a grip of the wet surface. Rainwater entered the shoe almost immediately but exited almost as quickly.

The star feature of the Racer which is the upper, performed flawlessly in my opinion, although I won’t discount the chance of a stray pebble entering the compartment of the shoe. It’s the midsole and firm ride that most runners will have to contend with. If you’re fast enough, the Flyknit Racer would have an excellent track-like racing flat. World-class elites have been seen wearing the Racer for marathons but unless you’re really fast, you might not be able to do that. Personally, this is a perfect shoe for speed work and races up to 10K. It’s not a shoe that I’d put on for slow and easy runs, just like you won’t be taking a GTR or ST on a slow 60 km/h weekend drive. For that there are plenty of other options. If I’d a say in the design of Nikes, it’ll be for a wider forefoot. It’s something I’d wished for in the case of the Racer as well, but given what the shoe stands for i.e. pure speed, the snug sock-like fit is almost a necessity. There are reports on the Internet of other wearers subjecting the upper to a steam treatment before putting the shoes on, to allow the upper conform to the wearers’ feet – something like getting a customized fit. I’ve not tried it yet though 🙂 .

The Nike Flyknit Racer is hard to find with limited stocks everywhere. But if you find one on the shelves, just give it a try even if just to feel the upper.

Disclosure: The shoe was provided to me for by Nike Sales Malaysia for a review.

Previously reviewed on Apr 13, 2013