YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Army Puts Footwear Front and Center


WASHINGTON — Wearing running shoes that are wrong for the runner's feet is an easy way to get an exercise program off on the wrong foot. In the military, where fitness is a way of life, a new program aims to avoid that.

The system teaches personnel which type of shoe is right--and therefore least likely to cause them injury.

"It's very simple, and I think anyone can learn how to do these methods," said 1st Lt. Lance Cross, chief of physical therapy at Ft. Drum, N.Y., home of the 10th Mountain Division light infantry. Cross was one of the organizers of Ft. Drum's version of the system.

Military clothing centers and the Army and Air Force post exchange system have been rolling out their versions, said officials at the Army Air Force Exchange Service headquarters in Dallas.

The system, which is commonly used by civilian experts, has never been used on a service-wide scale before. It matches the arch of a person's foot to the model of shoe that should fit that arch.

Arches are divided into three groups: low (flat), normal and high.

The division is based on the principle that the arch acts as a spring, compressing as the foot strikes the ground and returning to its original shape as the foot lifts back off.

A low arch makes the foot act like a car with a worn-out suspension by allowing free play during the forward motion of running. The poorly controlled movement creates twisting pressures on the leg, which can wrench ankles or knees. Low-arched feet need shoes with strong motion control, Cross said.

A normal arch does well in a shoe that lets the foot do what it needs to do, Cross said. The shoe provides stability, emphasizing a smooth feel during a run while retaining movement control and shock absorption.

A high arch is fairly rigid, creating risk of jarring injuries. Shoes to fit these feet offer more cushioning to absorb the impact of running.

The military program is intended to make sure personnel know their foot type and can use the knowledge when they select shoes.

At the store, shoes are categorized according to their ability to fit one of the three types. Color-coded displays and tags on the shoe models tell which type is which. The customer then simply tries on shoes and selects styles from within the proper type.

Publications such as Runner's World magazine and the Road Runner Sports catalog rate shoes by such categories. Ft. Drum relied on the ratings, as well as the opinions of its own foot experts, in setting up its categories, Cross said.

At Ft. Drum and some other posts where soldiers do a lot of running, such as basic training facilities, a trained examiner studies the foot and makes the classification.

But experts say the exam is do-it-yourself simple and can be performed anywhere. The difference is easy to spot, simply by looking at the imprint of a wet foot.

"All you need is a bathtub and a floor," said Dr. Glenn B. Pfeffer of San Francisco, an orthopedic surgeon who is not connected with the military initiative.

In a high-arched foot, the print of the wet instep appears as "only a tiny band," maybe one half inch wide, Pfeffer said. In a low-arched or flat foot, the print may be almost as wide as the rest of the foot, he said. And in a normal foot, the imprint may be about 1 inch, he said.

For the military, the goal is to improve training and reduce injuries. Ft. Drum is still analyzing its data, but it appears fewer people are getting hurt, Cross said.

It doesn't take a military command structure to set up this system. Some retail footwear chains are trying it, said Diana Eckert, a footwear manager for the PX system.

But most civilian shoe buyers don't check their feet or examine the ratings, said Dr. Carol Frey, an orthopedic surgeon in Manhattan Beach. They go to a store--possibly a discount chain with many shoes and few workers--and guess at a fit, she said.

Still, learning how to classify an arch is not rocket science, Frey said. "See it once and you can do it 100 times," she said. "But you still have to go and see it once."


On the Net:

Army Air Force Post Exchange:

Runner's World:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' patients' guide to feet:

Los Angeles Times Articles