Despite that Army Study, I Still Like Barefoot Running

Irene Davis took off her sandal for me last week. She wriggled her toes. We were in the press room of the American College of Sports Medicine, and she wanted to show me a “doming” exercise you can use to prevent injuries if you run barefoot.

A Doming Video by Richard Blake

Researchers like Davis, the director of the Spaulding National Running Center at Harvard are exploring the pros and cons of running this way.

Most recently, as I reported Monday, a big new U.S. Army study cast doubt on the theory that running barefoot or in minimal shoes might prevent injury by getting people to land on the fronts or middles of their feet instead of the heels.

But I’m not ready to hang up my Vibram FiveFingers, and neither is Davis.

She criticized the Army study for a couple of reasons. First, said a lot of people in the Army, truck drivers for example, may not run regularly. “There’s probably a threshold that gets you into the area where you have injuries.”

Second, the study compared the medical records of heel-strikers to non-heel-strikers and found no difference in running injuries. But Davis pointed out that the study depended on whatever was in the soldiers’ medical records. It’s not clear how diligently they had kept track of this type of injury.

I wonder if something else might account for the Army results. Many people who have tried switching from traditional to minimal shoes have gotten injured. “People just thought they could put on minimal shoes and run as much as they had run in traditional shoes,” Davis said.

Running on a different part of your foot requires different muscles, and it takes a long time for the muscles to get strong enough.

When I run in traditional shoes, my knee hurts. When I first tried running in FiveFingers, I got bad cramps in my calf. It took me over a year to reach the point where my calves were so strong I could run without either kind of pain.

In the Army study, 29% of the minimal shoe wearers had tried changing their foot-strike patterns, compared to only 12% of the traditional shoe wearers. Maybe they made too quick a transition.

Also, Davis pointed out, some shoes marketed as minimal aren’t really, and runners may get worse injuries by continuing to strike with their heels while wearing them. She recommends this list of true minimal shoes. (Most of the soldiers in the Army study didn’t know how their feet were striking.)

For those who do want to cast off their big-heeled shoes, Davis recommends a careful program of strengthening exercises. Doming is just one of them.

And it turns out that Maj. Bradley Warr, the lead investigator for the Army thinks minimal shoes could be right for some people. He just doesn’t think the Army should impose a new foot-strike pattern on its soldiers.

“There are a large number of people with injuries who have corrected by changing their running style,” he told me. “It’s just got to be slow and easy, a little bit at a time.”

If you are running without injury now, you probably shouldn’t make a change. But as Davis pointed out, you might learn something about your own body by walking around (and maybe running just a tiny bit) barefoot, touching the world with your skin.