Whether storming the beaches of Normandy or sweeping across the Kuwaiti border, the U.S. Army is known for making big, bold statements. Take their latest medical research as further proof. This study was huge and thorough. The study sampled over 2,500 people, all of them serious runners. The average person in the study had been a runner for eight years! Army physicians evaluated the incidence of injuries in runners who wore traditional shoes, minimalist and no shoes at all. Did barefoot runners prove to be the healthiest yet again?
Score Another One for Barefoot
As you might have guessed by my enthusiastic buildup, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” Runners who opted for minimalist footwear and no shoes at all fared bar better than their shod peers. It wasn’t only in the feet, either. Those who reported their preference for wearing supportive, cushioned running shoes had more injuries in the foot, ankles, lower leg area, knees and even hips! Sometimes when I read these studies, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a Public Service Announcement warning about the dangers of your thick, cozy running shoes.
How Do Your Feet Pound the Pavement?
When looking at the effects of supportive shoes on the lower body, you have to take into account the way your feet strike the ground. In the classic scenario, your feet will connect first at the heel of your foot and then at the balls of the feet. This heel-first system (known as a posterior foot strike) is dominant whether you are wearing your favorite stilettos or a pair of expensive running shoes. Once you take the padding away and increase your ability to feel (and respond) to the ground, your foot strike usually becomes different.
The Balls of Your Feet: Where the Muscles Are
Taking out the thick cushions in traditional running shoes and trying a minimalist shoe often leads you to a different sort of foot strike pattern. Without all the padding, your feet tend to connect first at the balls (an anterior foot strike) at an area of the foot that is better equipped to absorb the stress of your body weight. Remember that the runner who tore his path from Marathon to Athens to proclaim victory over the Persians did so without shoes! He might have dropped dead right afterwards, but I bet his feet were fine. Some muscles in the bottom of our feet weaken from lack of use. This problem is worsened when our shoe’s thick support does the work of holding up the foot rather than its own muscles. Instead of allowing muscles to toughen and strengthen, we soften them with our traditional supportive shoes and leave ourselves susceptible to injury.
How Do You Bridge the Gap?
While the evidence supporting barefoot and minimalist running and walking mounts, you have to be careful about your transition. After a lifetime of wearing shoes, you’ll need to start slowly and do some lower extremity strengthening exercises. If you’ve ever spent a summer at the beach, it’s like the days when you first go barefoot on the boardwalk. After a while, you’re ready to stroll as far as your beach villa. Next thing you know, you’re ready to stroll around town, forgetting the need for shoes. Your feet have toughened up.
Take the same approach to minimalist shoes. Start with short distances and see how your feet respond. Stop at signs of pain. Once you feel the power in your feet, try a dose of barefoot. Keep increasing until you learn what I have learned: Barefoot is the only way to go! Yes, I’ll don my Vibram Five Fingers when the weather is bad, but the results are the same. Once you’re accustomed to going without traditional shoes, you’re on your way to fewer injuries and better health.
Reference: Relationships among Self-Reported Shoe Type, Footstrike Pattern, and Injury Incidence
LTC Donald L. Goss, SP, USA
Michael T. Gross, PhD