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iWatch Video

Use caution when using minimalist running shoes

February 1, 2012
By MAJ Zack Solomon
U.S. Army Public Health Command

In 1974, Bill Bowerman (co-founder of Nike) created one of the first modern-day running shoes, the “Waffle Trainer” in an effort to create a lightweight shoe that would grip the road. This shoe launched a revolution in running shoe design and probably triggeredthe explosion in popularity of distance running throughout the United States in the 1970sand early 1980s. Innovative shoe designs multiplied out of demand for more foot cushioning and motion control as people fromall walks of life took up running. Shoe mid-foot arch construction grew rigid, and heel cushion material was heightened to correct running form and presumably prevent injuries.

Three types of shoes emerged: motion-control shoes for runners with low foot arches, stability shoes for neutral arches, and cushioned shoes for high arches. These designs were meant to make shoe selection easy; runners would first identify their arch type, then they would choose an appropriate shoe, and finally they would begin running injury free. Unfortunately, this system of shoe selection hasn’t lived up to runners’ expectations as running injuriespersisted. As well, multiple U.S. Army Public Health Command studies in basic trainees have demonstrated that shoe selection based on arch type does not reduce injuries.

Now, a new trend, a departure from control and cushioning, has emerged—the minimalist running shoe.

A minimalist running shoe is extremely flexible and low to the ground to create the sensation of barefoot running. By running in a shoe with minimal cushioning, most runners will naturally reduce their stride length to avoid landing painfully on their uncushionedheel. This change in running form reduces initial joint impact and promotes a return to what some consider a more natural foot motion.

The growing popularity of minimalist running shoes in both the civilian and military communities was sparked by the promise of increased running performance and decreased risk of running injuries. Although the jury is still out on whether minimalist running shoes will live up to these expectations, the trend will surely grow as shoe companies expandand market their latest minimalist shoe product lines.

Soldiers interested in making the switch from a traditional running shoe to a minimalist design should exercise caution in doing so because a sudden change in equipment or training can result in sore muscles and joints, blisters andeven injuries, for example stress fractures. The calf muscles will require the greatest adjustment, followed by the muscles of the foot and hamstrings. Running impact forces may also increase temporarily as the Soldier adapts to a shortened stride and forefoot strike.

The following are a few tips to make a smooth transition:

Soldiers should only perform 10 percent of their normal running distance and volume in minimalist running shoes for the first two to three weeks. For example, if a Soldier runs 10 miles per week, only one mile per weekshould include the use of minimalist running shoes. Traditional running shoes can still be worn the rest of the time.

No more than a 10 percent increase in distance per week is recommended for at least eight weeks after the initial transition phase. Some Soldiers may take up to six months to get used to running in minimalist shoes.

Avoid running two days in a row in minimalist running shoes for the first four weeks. Run on different surfaces, such as grass, dirt and pavement, to get used to the feel of the shoes. Make sure the running surface is clear of debris and glass.

Stretching will be very important during the first few weeks to alleviate soreness. Focus on stretching the foot, calf and hamstring muscles.

As with any change in training, a planned transition phase is critical to limit the short-term soreness and potential complications from an overuse injury.

For more information or if problems developfrom any change in training or equipment, Soldiers should contact their medical provider or physical therapist.

The U.S. Army Public Health Command focuses on promoting health and preventing disease, injury and disability in Soldiers and military retirees, their families, and Army civilian employees. As well, the USAPHC is responsible for effective execution of full-spectrum veterinary services throughout the DOD. The USAPHC was created from the merger of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine and the U.S. Army Veterinary Command.