“The class was outstanding, a must,” said Tech. Sgt. Heidi Zawistowski, 440th Airlift Wing command post. “It should be mandatory. Running is the meat and potatoes of the military. This class should be taught to every Airman coming in.”

Dr. (Lt. Col.) Antonio Eppolito, Chief of Air Force Telehealth, visited Pope Field to give a two-hour workshop on Efficient Running to 80 Airmen of the 440th Airlift Wing at the Hercules Gymnasium on Sunday. The workshop consisted of a one-hour presentation and an hour of shoes-off demonstration and exercise.

“Our hypothesis is that the high-heeled big bulky cushioned shoe, the traditional running shoe that we have known for the last 30 or 40 years in this country, is causing running injuries,” said Eppolito.

The natural barefoot runner strikes the ground with the ball or middle of the foot, said Eppolito, which allows the natural mechanics of the foot to spring a runner along. “High-heeled” running shoes force the heel to impact the ground first, which sends three- to four-times the runner’s weight concussing through the foot, knee, and hip, which underlies many podiatric problems experienced in American athletes.

“Big shoes change the gait of a runner,” he said. “The heel strike causes injuries. Big heeled shoes are causative of injuries, not preventative.”

Eppolito said that returning the body to its natural physiology and allowing the foot to function as designed has reduced running injuries in thousands of his classroom participants. Although, he said the evidence is anecdotal, the results have encouraged him to take the Efficient Running workshop on the road to Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force bases across the country.

Master Sgt. Jason Bigart, a quality assurance technician with the 440th Airlift Wing Maintenance Group, said the information presented in the class made a lot of sense.

“I knew before this class that I was supposed to run on the balls of my feet, but it’s tough to do in my athletic shoes and the exercises weren’t as easy as they looked, let me tell you,” Bigart said.

During the demonstration, Eppolito had the Airmen perform squats, balancing on one leg with eyes closed, stretches, jumps and plyometric exercises.

A few Airmen stood upon one leg like patient oak trees, while most fidgeted and some fell.

“If anyone here has kids at home, they can stand on one foot all day,” said Eppolito. “But by the time we become adults we are pathetic.”

Eppolito said that people lose their proprioception, or the location of one’s own body parts in space, over their feet in particular because of the foam heel, arch support, and toe-tightness inherent to modern athletic footwear. However, dancers, martial artists and everyday beachgoers rarely have this problem due to the time they spend shoeless or in minimalist footwear. These same individuals, approximately 25 percent of running athletes never develop the problematic heel-strike gait.

The track record of injuries in American runners differs distinctly from those in nations where athletes have traditionally run shoeless like in New Zealand and Kenya, he said.

“We want to prevent running injuries in military members,” said Eppolito. “If we can impart a little bit of prevention and a little bit of education on how to transition to the more minimalist shoes, and do so safely and effectively without getting hurt, we hope that in the long term we will have fewer injuries and get a handle on this epidemic of running injuries that is just flooding our primary care clinics.

“This is the number one cause of injuries we see in our primary care clinics,” Eppolito said.

Col. Mary Nachreiner, chief nurse of the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, said that during a deployment to Iraq, she donned her new specially-ordered minimalist shoes and headed to the gym for a punishing workout, only to discover that transitioning into minimalist footwear too quickly can have painful consequences.

“I was trying to run short distances to transition into them, but this day I decided to go on the treadmill,” said Nachreiner. “Of course, I didn’t want to go flat because that would be no challenge, so I put the treadmill up, way up like I was going up a hill, and I felt it pop on the top of my foot.”

Nachreiner said that her symptoms were synonymous with a metatarsal injury called a stress fracture.

“Of course I didn’t want to stop, I wouldn’t even think of that, but it hurt me,” she said, “and I know it was the heel striking that hurt me.”

It took Nachreiner roughly six weeks to overcome this setback. She has since transitioned to the barefoot style of running, albeit more gradually than originally attempted.

“I usually learn by doing things, but that can be painful,” Nachreiner said.