With each running stride, Ryan Davis can feel the uneven ground on the soles of his feet, cracks in the sidewalk and twigs scattered in the path.
He's a barefoot runner - sort of. More than a year ago, Davis, 27, bought his first pair of barefoot running shoes - Vibram FiveFingers Bikila LS - after a knee surgery. He's now one of hundreds of runners who swear by the lightweight shoes designed to encourage runners to mimic a barefoot running style.
Best known are Vibrams' distinct "five fingered" shoes, but other companies such as Nike, New Balance and Merrell also make barefoot shoes.
"I'm glad I switched - I've had real success with them," Davis says. "It's essentially like running barefoot."
Research shows that barefoot runners tend to land on their forefoot or midfoot rather than the heel, which minimizes the jarring impact to the foot. Proponents say the light, flat shoes encourage better running form and minimize repetitive stress injuries. Barefoot shoes allow Davis to run without pain again, he says. He had been running since middle school, averaging 25 to 30 miles a week. But two years ago, he couldn't run more than two or three minutes before the pain forced him to stop.
After surgery, Davis researched barefoot running shoes and bought his first pair. He's been hooked ever since, running two marathons in his Vibrams in the last year. The shoes are also more durable than regular running shoes, Davis says. He used to burn through a pair of running shoes in three months; he's had the Bikilas for eight months now and a replacement pair he bought is still in the box.
"You start to see more and more people wearing them," he says. Barefoot shoes were a hot Christmas gift this year and sales have increased in the last six months, says Wendy Oates, who works at Rock/Creek.
Runners should gradually switch to barefoot shoes, Oates and Davis warn, since they will use different muscles.