Beware of what you wear

Military health experts sound off on minimalist footwear

By Sgt. Marcy Sanchez
I Marine Expeditionary Force 

You’ve seen them on the streets, in physical fitness tests and at the gym. Minimalist running shoes, shoes that look like a pair of gloves wrapped around the toes, have become quite popular in the last few years. Whether or not this type of shoe is the right fit for a runner is not a simple decision.

The advantages and disadvantages of these shoes can be different for every runner and in different environments. Runners should consider several factors that can help determine if this type of shoe might be for them.

The first factor runners should consider is what part of their foot lands when running. There are three different positions runners land when running: on their heel, mid-foot or toes. Each of the running styles has pros and cons and each impacts different muscles when landing. Runners can train their bodies for any type of landing, but they must be conscious of it while running.

The five-fingers running shoes have been designed to allow people to run in a more natural running style that simulates barefoot running, said Dr. Amy N. Leu, a family and sports medicine physician with Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton’s Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Therapy Clinic. “They’re designed to let people run with a mid or forefoot strike type of running. Biomechanical studies demonstrate that you have less of an impact on your lower extremities when running barefoot.”

“It makes you run by putting your toe down first,” said Sgt. Matthew L. Burks, a radio chief with 3rd platoon, 1st Reparable Management Branch, 1st Marine Logistics Group, I Marine Expeditionary Force. “It’s the way we were meant to walk and run.” He first started using the shoes two months ago.

“I had to build up my muscles in these, if I didn’t my ankles would wear out,” Burks said.

“It’s a training process for any foot type,” said Robin Rainie-Lobacz, a physician assistant with the SMART clinic. “Just like any training process, training in the shoes will take time to develop.”

Another factor runners should consider is the type of foot they have, whether they have a high, mid, or low arch can impact the way their foot hits the ground.

“More times it’s the people with the flatter type of foot who have difficulty with the shoes,” Rainie-Lobacz said. “People with higher arches often times strike the ground with their toes before their heel.”

Forefoot runners are more compatible with the shoes because they don’t get much of an impact, said Rainie-Lobacz. The shock from the ground is absorbed through the foot preventing those forces to transmit to your ankles, knees, hips and back.

The last factor when deciding on the shoe is distance. Runners using the minimalist shoes might see a big impact on their mileage. The manufacturer suggests taking up to six months to get used to the shoes to avoid overuse injuries and allow muscles and tendons to build the strength they require.

“Whenever you start running barefoot or with these running shoes you start building up those muscles,” Burks said. “So at the beginning the muscles are pretty weak.”

Burks said he had to cut down from running five times a week to two times a week. “After seven or eight miles of running in them your knees start tearing up because there is no cushion at all,” he said.

Runners who run too far too soon might be prone to injuries, said Leu. “Runners should start with ten percent of their usual mileage for the first two weeks and only increase at a maximum of 10 percent every two weeks.”

For instance if a runner normally runs 10 miles, then Leu suggests starting with a mile for the first two weeks and building up to their normal mileage. At this rate runners should be back at their normal mileage in about five or six months.

Although runners can train to run as far as they did in other types of running shoes, there might be some runners who might feel uncomfortable or pain when running in the shoes.

Before runners begin trying minimalist footwear, they should consider the advantages and disadvantages of the running shoes and whether or not they need to change.

“Some people do fine with their running styles currently.” Leu said. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

As with any new sport or activity you should consult a physician or a medical professional before transitioning.