Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What brought me to barefoot shoes

My feral feet

Early days

One of my earliest memories of running is in slippers, on grass, in our garden, racing my elder sister. Running, playing with a ball, climbing and cycling were activities that I did everyday for at least an hour. When my sister felt competitive, she would challenge me to races.

Primary and secondary school

During primary and early secondary school, I did not wear the white canvas shoes that my schoolmates wore. My mother made me wear some other shoes with more breathable material because I suffered from eczema. It was only in late secondary school that my mother allowed me to wear those cavas shoes that everyone else wore, and I was excited to finally get to be like everyone else.

Whatever shoes I wore to school were the same shoes we did Physical Education class in. That meant the same shoes for walking, running, basketball, hockey, etc. I did own a pair of running shoes though. I can't remember what brand they were, but they were probably Nike. The only times I wore them were at my schools' annual athletics competitions, when travelling overseas, and sometimes when running around outside my house.

In primary school, I could do long distance, short distance and jumping events. In secondary school, it narrowed down to 100m, 200m, long jump, triple jump, high jump, and short distance relays.

In late secondary school I also became the proud owner of a pair of Adidas track spikes when I joined my school's track & field school team for a year. My father had taken me to Queensway Shopping Centre to buy track spikes. As I did not know how to choose such shoes, I simply picked the pair that looked the most cool. When taking part in competitions, we would screw on the spikes. Otherwise we would remove them so that they would not blunt. 

At that time the barefoot revolution had not yet begun. However I could feel the difference between normal shoes and track spikes, and very much preferred running in track spikes.


Reef slippers - one of the most comfortable slippers I have owned

We were allowed to wear whatever we wanted. Most of the time I was in running shoes or leather Timberland shoes. When there were no classes, I switched to Teva sandals or slippers.

Late 2003, instead of running on tracks, I began running on gym treadmills. The pair of running shoes that I bought for that purpose was the Asics Gel Nimbus. I do not remember the model, but after a month of running, both shins started hurting. It was baffling as I had never experienced pain in that area. When asked, one of the trainers at the gym told me that I had "shin splints", and suggested taking a break from running.

That made me even more baffled because I thought that a splint was a piece of wood tied to broken arms or legs for support, and my shins clearly did not have pieces of wood tied to them! So I Googled this "shin splints" and found a few articles about avoiding them by slowly incrementing distance when running, instead of hitting 5kms outright.

After a week of rest, I began with a 1km run with the intention of adding another 1km every week. However, the shin splints returned after three weeks and I was frustrated. As I had a feeling that it was the shoes, I went to a sports shop to search for a new pair. Still being clueless about running shoes, I bought whatever the salesperson recommended: a pair of Reebok running shoes with lots of cushioning to protect my joints.

Heavy, thick soles, padded and clumpy. Those were my impressions of the Reebok shoes. Additionally, they changed my running form even further so that I was landing on my heels quite heavily instead landing lightly on the pads of my forefoot like a cat. When I was walking, my shoes made a clumping sound. When I was running, they went CLUMP CLUMP CLUMP so loud you would think that an elephant was on the treadmill.

The regularity of my shin splints were reduced with the Reebok shoes. However they still came up when I covered too much distance too fast, and two new problems emerged: knee pain and twisted ankles. 

My parents told me to take it easy on running, otherwise I would not be able to walk when I got old. My father bought me sports knee wraps.  My sister gave me her ankle braces. I wore both for runs, and they helped a little, but like the shoes, did not eliminate any of the three problems. This led me to believe that my knees and shins were so badly damaged that the ridiculous amount of injury support gear I was wearing would not solve anything. As such, I stopped running and switched to the elliptical.

Image from

Nike Frees emerged in 2004, but it was only in 2006 that I bought a pair. They were black Nike Free 3.0s and the way the cubes on the soles separated when the shoe was stretched was intriguing. The moment I put the shoes on, I fell in love with them. They were one of the most comfortable running shoes I had ever worn, and were lighter and sleeker as compared to the Reebok shoes.

To test the Nike Frees out, I ran in them on a treadmill. No shin splints, no knee pain, no twisted ankles. The next day I ran in them again, and the next day, and the day after. Still, none of the three problems re-emerged. I was overjoyed and brought running back into my gym workouts, even doing impromptu 5 - 10km runs without any leg pains.

 Images from and

After 2.5 years of running and walking everywhere in my Nike Frees, their soles were almost smoothened out. A new pair of shoes were in order, but I was hesistant to leave the pair of shoes that solved the mystery of my leg injuries. 

By luck one day on my way to the supermarket, I spotted a pair of Asics Onitsuka Tiger Tai Chis going at half price. Even when sockless, they were a bit small (which was the reason they were going for cheap).  However, the discount was too good to pass up and I went home carrying groceries and new running shoes.

The Tai Chis were a big leap from the Nike Frees: very much flatter and lighter. Although their soles were very bendy, they felt a bit stiff when I ran in them, probably due to the leather upper. Also, they were not very safe on the road as I slipped a few times on metal manhole covers and nearly fell.

At that time, Vibram Five Fingers and Pose Running were the rage within the CrossFit community. I almost bought a pair of VFF Sprints, but eventually did not as they were over my budget plus I would have had to spend additional money on toe socks.

Therefore, when my Tai Chis became too slippery, I returned to Queensway Shopping Centre. After visiting all the big shops, I decided on pair of red Puma Speeders. Their soles were thicker and less flexible than those of the Tai Chis, and the shoe was just as stiff as the Tai Chis, but they fell within my budget and were barefoot enough for me.


After a year of running in the Pumas, I now alternate between the Nike Streak XC 2 (left) and the Nike Waffle Racer V (right). The Streak XC 2 is used indoors on the treadmill, and the Waffle Racer V is used outdoors for sprinting on the road. Both pairs of shoes are pretty barefoot and comfortable, although I am partial to the Streak XC 2 as it about hits the sweet spot.

Since switching to the Nike Frees I have not had shin splints, knee pains or twisted ankles. The only injury I have suffered was strains in both arches caused by running for a few days with a 10kg backpack.


Inov 8, Merrell and New Balance are brands that have been taking barefoot seriously, and I have read many good reviews of their shoes from the barefoot community. When both my Nikes collapse, I reckon I will have a tough time selecting a pair of shoes from the Inov8 Road collection, the Merrell Barefoot collection, or the New Balance Minimus collection. Even the VFF KomodoSport Shoe looks interesting.

It would be ideal if I could try all of the above shoes before settling on a pair. However most of them are not sold in Singapore and I will have make a decision decision based on pictures and online reviews. A hard decision, amusingly, but I sure am excited that that there is now a wide variety of barefoot-type shoes to choose from compared to 10 years ago!

Bare feet = happy feet

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