By Bob Reinert, USAG-Natick Public AffairsMarch 14, 2014
NATICK, Mass. (March 14, 2014) -- At a time when running barefoot or with so-called minimalist shoes has gained increasing traction, researchers at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center decided to study how Soldiers run during physical training and if running style contributes to training-related injuries.
"Running as part of physical training, for a long time, has been implicated as a source of injury in the Army," said Maj. Bradley Warr, deputy chief of the Military Performance Division at USARIEM. "(If) teaching people how to run differently could potentially mitigate those injuries, there would be a huge payoff."
As Warr pointed out, most people land on their heels first as they run. Going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes allegedly forces them to make contact on the midfoot or forefoot.
"Proponents of these alternative styles say that running in a way other than (heel) strike will prevent you from getting injured, and you can run faster," Warr said. "That's really the background of this study.
"Eighty-five percent of people run with a heel strike naturally. And then the other 15 percent run with a midfoot or a forefoot strike. So we decided to compare injuries between runners who already run with these different styles."
Nearly two years ago, Warr and Dr. Joseph Seay, a biomechanist with the Military Performance Division, began studying Soldiers' running styles to see if they affected performance or the likelihood of injury. Initially, they looked at 341 members of the 1st Battalion, 66th Armor Regiment, at Fort Carson, Colo., to see how they compared to the general population.
"Nothing like that's (been) done before," Warr said. "Before we would implement new policy or training, we have to really evaluate (if) that really makes a difference in injury profiles amongst runners or Soldiers, in particular, because runners and Soldiers aren't necessarily the same thing."
Seay said he liked this study because it was basic.
"Really, the study is less about what is or is not worn on your feet than it is about how your foot hits the ground and how that relates to getting injured," Seay said. "You're getting to something that's very relevant, that everybody can understand."
Warr and Seay, runners themselves, filmed and analyzed the foot-strike patterns of participants and had the Soldiers complete surveys about potential running-related injuries, training history, and two-mile run times. They presented their results at last spring's American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting.
"As far as we're concerned, there does not seem to be a benefit to modifying Soldiers' running style," said Warr, adding that there was no statistical difference between running styles when it came to two-mile run times or the number of injuries. "If it's not broke, don't fix it, is essentially our perspective at this point, I would say."
"Neither group was faster," Seay said. "Neither group got injured less frequently. A finding of no difference is still important information to report; we're just documenting that there might not be a magic bullet."
Warr and Seay did point out that other studies have indicated that a change in running style might be warranted for Soldiers with such injuries as anterior compartment syndrome.
"There is some research that has shown that retraining those people to run with a different technique -- maybe more forefoot, instead of heel striking -- relieves shin pain," Warr said.
"It relieves their pain, and it measurably relieves pressure in the anterior compartment," Seay added.
Warr and Seay are far from done with their own study. Data have been collected on a group of more than 1,000 Soldiers to allow for comparisons between men and women, and traditional and minimalist running shoes.
"It's very relevant right now," said Warr of the study. "You could talk to anybody about it (who) has any interest in fitness or running -- they want to know what we're doing with this."