When Bob Nicol of Winnipeg, Manitoba, went running, left behind something that most runners could consider essential for this sport: footwear.
He usually runs barefoot on roads, roads and trails near his home and this year he hopes to cover the 750 miles barefoot. And it's not just about putting aside shoes. Nicol belongs to the Barefoot Runners Society, a group with about 3, 500 registered members and more than 90 branches around the world. This is one of several organizations that have appeared in recent years.
While this devout and growing group of athletes has adopted the style of running barefoot, with runners coming out and walking the streets without their shoes, others might consider it a rare choice and wonder if it is safe.
Runners are adopting the practice, claiming that barefoot running strengthens the feet, reduces injuries and is simply fun.
The "tendency" to run barefoot is nothing new.
Since Abebe Bikila won the Olympic marathon in 1960 running barefoot, the practice of running without shoes has been surrounded by a mystical aura. But while Bikila's world record running through the streets of Rome could be the most memorable example of a barefoot race, it is far from the only time a top-notch runner has chosen to compete in this manner.
Perhaps inspired by Bekele's performance, running barefoot became popular among elite British marathon runners in the 1960s and barefoot runners continued to appear in championship races. In the 1980s, the speedy South African Zola Pieterse, better known as Zola Budd, was recognized for winning races and breaking records with bare feet.
Of course, the real story of running barefoot probably goes back much earlier. After all, people ran long before the shoes existed. According to a study published in 2010 in the journal "Nature", the researchers found that African runners who had always run barefoot had developed a very different stride, and much softer than those who had always trained using sports shoes. This led researchers to suggest that the tread a runner uses when running barefoot may have evolutionary foundations. According to the study, humans probably evolved to run barefoot and shoes would impair the way the foot was designed to function.
Why runners are now giving up shoes
The recent surge in interest in running barefoot came mostly from Christopher McDougall's best-selling "Born to Run". The book follows the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico who run hundreds of miles without rest wearing only very thin sandals.
While the American runners are far from the isolated Tarahumara, they are adopting the practice and claiming that running barefoot strengthens their feet, reduces the rate of injuries and is simply fun.
Steven Sache, an All-American Masters sprinter who runs barefoot and is the CEO of InvisibleShoe, says that this way of running helped him get rid of years of injury and improve his stride. According to Sashen, the shoes reduce the impact that the feet receive when they hit the ground hard or unevenly and this footprint that is not optimal can cause recurring injuries over time.
"Running barefoot will cause you pain and it will take you to change the step to avoid it," he says.
Michael Ross, a sports doctor who specializes in treating athletes and runs a sports performance lab in Cherry Hill, NJ, says the barefoot runners he sees tend to run more efficiently.
"You can hear it on the treadmill and see it in the amount of oxygen it consumes while running at a certain speed," he says.
This is because running barefoot changes the way riders hit the ground, forces them to use their bow as a spring and to lean gently on their bare foot, instead of hitting the heel. It is also believed to strengthen the arch and the muscles of the foot and ankle.
"A footwear is like a tab: it will keep your foot stable, but that foot will not get stronger," says Ross.
Despite these supposed benefits, some of the recent popularity of running barefoot has undoubtedly resulted in the fascination and enjoyment that many runners claim to experience.
"Running barefoot feels fantastic," says Nicol. "It connects me more with the floor and my surroundings."
The truth naked?
Despite how popular it has become to run barefoot, many medical professionals are not convinced of its benefits and worry about the possible risks.
Justin Griesberg, an orthopedic surgeon in New York City who specializes in foot and ankle problems, has seen many patients with foot strain fractures due to running barefoot. He cites problems in the calves and the Achilles tendon as other important risks and discards the idea that running barefoot is the "natural" way to run.
"The claims that feet are underdeveloped are probably wrong, there is no scientific evidence to support them," he says. "Primitive humans did not run all day and life expectancy was also very different. 30 or 40 years trying this, "he says.
The risk of injuries that barefoot running can cause comes from the different ways runners must adopt and the lack of cushioning provided by traditional sports shoes. There are also more obvious dangers.
"I had a patient running barefoot and a toe stuck in a rock," says Griesberg. "He was very sore":
Do you dare to run? barefoot?
How to get started
Do some research online and in the library on the proper way to run barefoot.
Choose a hard surface. Steven Sashen, barefoot racer and CEO of InvisibleShoe. com, says that this is essential to give you the impact you need to modify your stride.
Start slowly. Start running a few yards and then wait a few days to see if you feel pain. It is normal to feel some pain due to the use of new muscles, but the sharp pain is a sign that you have overcome.
To run barefoot, use the smoothest and quietest step you can handle.
Listen to your body; Recognize pain, injuries and ways to modify your stride to reduce impact and scratches.
Stretch your calves and Achilles tendons regularly. Running barefoot overloads these areas more, so it is important to pay special attention.