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Industrial Athletes and Minimalist Shoes: Can it Reduce Workplace Injuries?

Posted by on Dec 22, 2012 | 3 Comments

Since Cyber Monday, I’ve been working for UPS helping to deliver packages. There are several reasons I took the seasonal job, some of which are related to running. I was in a bit of a funk and needed to take a break, but needed an activity to maintain my fitness level. Spending many hours five days a week running heavy boxes up and down apartment building stairs has certainly did the trick. I actually lost weight, got stronger, and improved my fast walking technique. As a sidebar, I’d highly recommend working as a seasonal driver’s helper as a means of crosstraining for ultrarunners.

Anyway, another reason for the job was experimentation. I wanted to see if a zero drop minimal shoe could handle the daily rigors of a physically demanding career. If it’s good for recreational running, is it good for day-to-day wear?

As a high school teacher, I wore minimalist shoes daily for years. It definitely helped strengthen my feet and legs, and eliminated the knee and back pain many of my colleagues experienced. The job was pretty passive, though. There was minimal movement involved.

The UPS job provided a much better “testing ground.” Would the minimalist concept generalize to the blue collar world? The theories we promote certainly indicate minimalist shoes would excel as a daily work shoe, but would real-world testing really produce the same results?

Methods

One of my drivers, Rodney, coined the term “industrial athlete” to describe delivery drivers (and their helpers.) This is certainly appropriate. I’ve had jobs that required a lot of heavy lifting. I’ve also had jobs that require a lot of moving fast. I’ve had jobs that required traversing different terrains. This is the first job I’ve had that combines all those elements.

On a typical day, I would deliver around 125 packages ranging from a few ounces to about 70 pounds. The average stop consisted of stepping out of the truck, lifting the package, and quickly walking it to the door of the destination. I would then run back to the truck. I used a running gait on the way back as I found it produced significantly less impact than walking fast (think midfoot versus heel strike.) The average trip to the door was about 75 feet; the average trip back to the truck was about 350 feet (the driver would drive to the next stop.) The average stop included about 6 steps up and 6 steps down.

The overall average stats looked like this:

  • Total daily mileage = 10 miles (8.3 running, 1.7 weighted walking)
  • Total elevation gain of about 485 feet up and 485 feet down

This was repeated five days a week for about four weeks.

Shoe Choice

My shoe of choice was a pair of Merrell Edge Gloves, which I reviewed for Onlineshoes.com here. It’s a business/casual shoe featuring all the important qualities of a good minimalist shoe: zero dropped, wide toe box, minimal cushioning, etc. The fit is very similar to all of Merrell’s Barefoot lineup.

Results

After four weeks, I felt great. Aside from sore muscles due to novel movement patterns, my lone “injury” was a knee tweak due to a freak slip. I caught myself before falling, but it was enough to twist my knee in an unusual way. Embarrassingly, it happened on a wet restroom floor.

Many of my fellow helpers complained of injuries I’m used to seeing in runners: Plantar fasciitis, sore knees, shin splints, and sore backs. I didn’t experience any of these problems.

Discussion

UPS seems to be plagued with employee injuries, which appears to be quite common among industrial delivery companies. The vast majority of our training involved safety procedures to help reduce the risk of injuries. They had some great ideas, like using the handle of the trucks when getting in and out of the cab (which they tested using a force plate.) Unfortunately it appeared as if footwear was not considered as a variable in injury prevention. In training, the lone mention suggested we use a well-cushioned supportive shoe. The color of the shoe seemed to be a bigger concern than actual function.

This wasn’t a surprise because we still don’t consider the effects of shoe design on movement patterns. Most medical professionals, including physiologists, podiatrists, and biomechanics experts agree that shoe design will affect posture and gait.

Based on emerging research and anecdotal evidence, many “industrial athletes” may benefit from moving from supportive, cushioned raised heel shoes to minimalist shoes. My own personal experimentation confirms this. However, my own experiences with barefoot and minimalist shoes limit the generalizability of my own experiences.

Of course, there would be trade-offs as the athletes would have to properly transition to avoid the same pitfalls runners experience. Furthermore, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fix-all solution for everyone. Regardless, it would be beneficial for industrial athletes to consider minimalist shoes as a viable option. It may also be beneficial for employers to consider deeper study of human posture and movement to give employees better footwear recommendations.

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3 Comments

  1. Charles
    December 23, 2012

    I agree completely! I was a FedEx ground driver for 4 years. I never figured out my on foot mileage but routinely did around 120 stops a day. I lost about 40 lbs when I started the job. I started wearing Chuck Taylor’s after starting barefoot running. They do have some cushioning but have no elevated heel. Overall the ground feel was superior to the previous heavy supposedly good for you work boots that I wore before. I like that. Walking over all kinds of uneven surfaces and constantly getting in and out the truck meant you needed to be very aware of where your feet were. Drivers were constantly spraining ankles due to stepping on sidewalk or drive edges. I gotta wonder if they would have felt things quicker if they would have had a better chance at protecting themselves.

  2. Spencer
    December 22, 2012

    Totally agree with this. I have to wear steel toed shoes for work, and their are elevated and they decrease my ability to do things. I wish someone would zero-dropped steel toed shoes.

    • Jason
      December 22, 2012

      Spencer, your local cobbler could probably zero-drop steel-toed boots for you. Or just hack off the heel with a knife.

      They could also probably widen the toe box.