Minimalist Footwear Hits The Military Barracks

***According to the Washington Post’s June 30 article, “Army bans use of ‘toe shoes,’ citing image concerns,” the Army has officially banned the use of minimalist footwear.

The recent barefoot movement has extended past the civilian runner — uniformed men and women have touted the benefits of the innovative new shoe. In fact, all you have to do is Google “minimalist footwear” and “military” to see just how many blogs and forum comments have been dedicated to the topic.

First broaching the subject last year, the Army Times explained that soldiers with lower back, ankle, calf and similar injuries converted to minimalist running shoes, oftentimes at the suggestion of their doctors. According to the article, military doctors are starting to prescribe minimalist shoes like the Vibram FiveFingers. Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney, Navy doctor and physical therapist at Kandahar, explained that he believed that the VFFs are the best product out there for rehabilitating lower extremity injuries. However, doctors warn the shoes are not for everyone, especially those with very flat feet.

[Special Forces Soldier helo casting during Exercise Emerald Warrior 11 while wearing Vibram FiveFingers. Image credit: Department of Defense, via Soldier Systems Daily]

Military bloggers are praising the minimalist shoe. In “Does the Military Allow Minimalist Shoes for PT?” Chris Barber shared that he had knee problems due to days of trail running and jumping out of airplanes while at Fort Bragg. Now he only runs in minimalist shoes. “Since minimalist running has kept me trail running with less pain, I wondered if others in the military — specifically those who are Airborne qualified and have some of the same knee issues as I do — had begun minimalist running.”

Despite the positive military feedback, rumors of military branches banning the footwear have been swirling within many online forums and blogs. In “U.S. Army Bans Vibram FiveFingers,” Dr. Dennis Shavelson shared information from an anonymous source. Essentially, the tipster posted a policy that would affect those attending basic training and officer basic courses.

[The style of shoe at the center of online rumors.]

The alleged policy states that the popularity of minimalist footwear has increased immensely in the last 12-18 months. The anonymous source related that the rise in popularity prompted the United States Army Physical Fitness School to provide “additional guidance as to the definition of ‘commercial running shoes.'” The policy explained that commercial running shoes do not include minimalist shoes, lightweight track/road racing flats, racing spikes or shoes that simulate barefoot running.

The anonymously sourced information rapidly spread through blogs such as Barber’s and Dr. Shavelson’s. Following up on the anonymous tip and the Army Times story, Military Gear Blog spoke with representatives of military public affairs offices to ascertain the most current regulations regarding minimalist shoes.

U.S. Marines

The Marines have no official regulations regarding minimalist footwear when training. “The Marines do not direct or limit civilian footwear,” said GySgt C. Nuntavong. “It’s up to the commander.” However, he did stress that the physical fitness test, otherwise known as the PFT, that was taken once a year required Marines to wear socks with their shoes.

U.S. Army

[If the rumors are true, servicemen and women will have to shelve their minimalist footwear. Pictured are new Navy recruits in Great Lakes, Ill. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Photographer’s Mate Chris Desmond.]

“The Army does not have a policy regarding this, but the Surgeons Generals Office is studying the shoe and the impacts it has or does not have concerning safety for our soldiers when running in army formations,” explained U.S. Army G-1 Sgt. Maj. Thomas S. Gills. “We are also looking at the uniformity and appearance aspect as well (with regard to the variety that have the five separate toes as opposed to the traditional ‘end cap’ for lack of a better term). No decisions have been made at this time.”

SGM Gills reinforced that the research was in its early stages, elaborating that nothing further would be released until Army Leadership reviewed the footwear from an aesthetic standpoint. The Army uniform is conservative and deters away from anything deemed “faddish.” Additionally, he stated that they were waiting on the Office of the Surgeon General to render its opinion on the safety of the shoes for use in Army running formations.

U.S. Air Force

“There is no Air Force-wide wear policy specifically related to the Vibram FiveFingers while in the physical training uniform,” said LtCol Belinda Petersen, Public Affairs IMA. “Any athletic shoe is authorized. Individual commanders make the determination on whether or not their Airmen can wear the VFF during a PT test.”

“Also, there is no Air Force-wide wear policy restriction regarding wear of VFFs during off-duty PT,” she said, elaborating, “One of the Air Force’s top priorities is to develop and care for Airmen and their families. Fitness is one way of taking care of Airmen and is a vital component of Air Force culture. Proper fitness is an important aspect of an overall healthy lifestyle as well as maintaining peak combat capability.”

Navy

“Sailors are not authorized to wear these shoes with the PT uniform during command or unit physical training,” said naval spokeswoman Sharon Anderson in the Army Times article. Chapter 3 of Navy Uniform Regulations  states that athletic shoes and socks must be worn with the PT uniform.

Most regulations specify that the yearly PT has to be done in socks and shoes. However, where there is a will there is a way. Soldiers have found a loophole and wear Injinji socks with their minimalist footwear. The socks do not have writing on the cuffs, which is prohibited by various branches of the military.

[Barefoot-ready socks offer one loophole. Photo from Injiinji]

While barefoot shoe wearers share that the shoes do not quite fit the same with the socks, they are happy to be wearing the Vibram FiveFingers.

What do you think about minimalist footwear in the military?

18 Comments on “Minimalist Footwear Hits The Military Barracks

  1. i love this trend but its not over now you have to stop siting in chairs and start doing the asian squat that further reduce lower back and leg pain as it elongates your achillies streaches your hips decompreses you spine and rests your ham string. white westerns are inflexable beasts with a body that just falls apart. go bearfoot use natural rest positions and walk everywhere you go no mater what camp out if need be and you will be a physical god. just never sit in a chair your the whole next part of your life burn the damn thing. god luck

  2. Let’s accept for the moment that VFF’s are all folks hope they are. Regardless, they are not in most cases combat worthy. At some point in military training must mimic combat situations. If you aren’t planning on wearing VFF’s to battle you can’t wear them too far into training.

  3. There are a number of minimalist shoes available that do not have separated toes and look much more like conventional footwear. The benefit of separated toes is small, at best, compared to the light weight and thin soles of this type of footwear. The New Balance Minimus line is just one example.

  4. Pingback: Vibram FiveFingers: 7 Alternatives for Military | Military Gear News

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  7. Per ALARACT 241/2011 “ANY” “….shoes that feature fives separate compartments for the toes, detract from a professional military image and are prohibited for wear with the IPFU or when conducting PT in military formation.

    As a Commander I hate this type of policy and I am trying to contact the POC on the message in order to get this undone. If I can’t, I’m getting a doctor to write me a prescription for them and encouraging my Soldiers to do the same.

    I dropped 7 minutes off my 5 mile time in the course of 1 week using my VFFs. If Soldiers can wear running shoes that are neon and have neck and hand tattoos, I should be able to wear the shoes that cause me less injury and better training.

  8. The Air Force actually does have a force-wide policy regarding Vibram Five Fingers that came out last year. It specifically authorized the wear of VFF during the annual fitness test as long as socks are worn as well.

  9. If someone tells you that they are against regulation, tell them to SHOW YOU THE REGULATION..

    Ive been arguing with 1SG’s and CSMs over wearing my VFF’s for about a year now. I wear socks so they dont get upset…

    This whole mess reminds me of when the Army was introduced to the Camel back! At first all the old “back when i was” leadership thought it was unsanitary, it would leak, yada yada yada. We went from being able to hand carry it, to being able to wear it under our blouses, to being issued it but still having to carry canteens. Now, all we use are camelbacks, and i havent touched a canteen in years.

    The US Army is a classic example of bureaucracy.

    Look at the ACU debate, we’ve been talking about changing a camoflage pattern now for almost ten years now with no clear winner. (Not sure what camo you need for sitting in a big armored vehicle or on a FOB, but whatever)

    The fact is, my generation was brainwashed to belive that you need support,cushioning, stabalizing, and all this other stuff in a running shoe. Most of that stuff was added because of the bad effects inherent in all that cushioning.

    I think eventually minimalist running shoes will be the norm, its just going to take the old generation to move out, and pick up their orthopedic shoes as they retire.

  10. The Coast Guard doesn’t have a PT test after Boot Camp, but I’d be interested to know if they allow VFFs there as well as OCS and the Academy. Nearly every time I wear them I get questions – kinda kills my cooldown program, but I’m happy to answer. I get my revenge, though – as a sports medicine major I tend to go further “into the weeds” than most folks expect.

    I do love my VFFs. Working my way up to a marathon while attempting to convert my fellow Coasties to the Barefoot Brigade!

  11. Not that socks are really such a great thing, as you’re less likely to get fungal infections from a laundered, breathable slipper than an unlaundered shoe surrounding a sweaty pair of socks. But I often wear toe socks with mine. The toe shoes last longer. You just have to make sure the thread count is high and weave tight enough not to create a rougher material than the inside of the shoe. The Sprints, in particular, have that nasty seam on the outside of the big toes that you pretty much either need the socks, or have to tape the side of the toe. My only issue with toe socks is the original Classics, which have that awful embroidered logo on the footbed right in the wrong spot. Socks make that worse. Besides toe shoes, though, there are plenty of other minimalist and/or split-toe offerings out there that don’t necessarily have individual little toes. And there’s always the hope Nike will come out with a zero drop (or near zero) fusion of the Rift and the Free. Or that some competitor will do it and put them to shame 🙂

  12. Thank goodness I’m in the US Coast Guard and we haven’t developed an issue with the VFF’s. I haven’t even seen any USCG gyms that prohibit the VFF’s.

    Semper Paratus!

  13. I recently converted to the VFF, and there is no way I would ever change back. I have been in the Marine Corps for 3 years now, and I am currently trying to get my re-enlistment package in. After getting back from Afghanistan in August ’10, I started running a lot more and it became a hobby of mine. I used to look at people who ran in these shoes as if they were crazy and just think how painful it would be to stub a toe in them. I have a Lt who runs in them every time we do a unit PT or a PFT, physical fitness test, and he said he loves them. I still didn’t take his word. It wasn’t until I seen somebody who looked much heavier and out shape than I did pass me in a run. As he came up behind me I could hear his feet slapping the ground and I knew instantly, he was wearing the “toe shoes.” So I asked him as he was passing how he liked him. He said that they dropped his 3 mile run time by 1-2 minutes. Once he told me that it was time for me to research them. After researching them I bought a pair of KSOs. Now I am a true believer of barefoot shoes. I love them. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Tomorrow I will be wearing them for our unit PFT. I have dropped my avg pace to 8 min/mile. I have never been able to do that. My fastest 3 mile run time was under 24:00 for the first time ever. Tomorrow I will push myself to get under 23:00. I am glad my unit accepts the shoes and the Marine Corps hasn’t banned them. Hopefully it stays that way.

  14. I bought mine shortly before deploying to Basra, Iraq. Command policy here bans them on base. Due to my work schedule, I haven’t been able to train in them and break by my feet like I’d want to, though others have been running in theirs. I don’t think the CSM is our there checking, and he can only “advise” an officer on uniform policy anyway. Enlisted runners like myself who want to train in VFFs have to be more covert. I did have one of my MAJs seemingly look the other way when I was training in mine recently, so I guess there is hope for the future
    As far as faddishness, as an NCO, the military style VFFs conservative coloring complements well with the Army Physical Fitness Uniform. I’ve seen more faddish, outright glaring oulandish running shoes and reflective belts tolerated by the top brass, brazenly conflicting with the AFPUs overall appearance. Why they should get wrapped around the axle about soldies wearing VFFs if this footwear can help improve a soldier’s physical fitness is beyond me. But it doesn’t surprise me.

  15. I’ve had my pair for about 2 months now, and I absolutely love them. I recently wore them for my Navy physfical fitness test (twice a year), and nobody said anything. I’ve just become aware of the regulation after reading this article. I didn’t think they would be considered out of regs… LAME. I guess I’m going to have to buy injinjis :D. This also proves how little people know the regs at my command!

  16. There is nothing faddish about VFFs. I am a 14 year vet that discovered VFFs through a friend two years ago. I decided to try VFFs after having two surgeries on my ankle from torn ligaments sustained during Ranger school. The doc tells me after my second surgery that long distance running was out of the question for me. Unfortunately, that does not fly in the military. Thus, trying VFFs was out of necessity. I had no other alternative. These shoes have practically saved my job in the military. They have allowed me to run correctly again. I wear them whenever I can because they promote correct biomechanics while walking and running.
    So why would you ban something that improves Soldiers posture and overall physical fitness? That seems to be the million dollar question to me. This will also determine what military leaders are focused on. Is it improved physical performance? Or is the shoe banned because it was not culturally accepted when senior leaders used to be junior leaders?
    I would also suggest that there is enough empirical data to support that fact that these shoes do actually improve physical fitness levels. If anything they clearly support a natural running posture. I am still waiting for the Surgeon General or any other medical “professional” to defend the shod-style of running (heel-to-toe) that running shoes propagate. When was it ever recommended to heel strike? What does that do for the average runner (i.e. Soldier). So why would you continue to encourage wearing a shoe that creates undue pressure on the ankles, knees and lower back?
    Over the last two years of personal study, I found the vast majority of folks that disagree with this shoe have either a) never worn a pair or b) do not like the way they look. I do not think that these shoes were intended for fashionistas. They were (and are) intended for pragmatists who are active and have a desire for improved physical fitness. Those characteristics sound like the same characteristics senior leaders promote in the military. So why would we ban them? I am still befuddled.
    That said, the most important advice I could give to someone transitioning from a soft, cushion-y based running shoe to a minimalist shoe is patience. The best analogy I can think of is if you have ever worn a cast, cut the cast off and then had to rehabilitate your extremity. Take it slow, listen to your body and allow your foot to strengthen with the rest of your body. If you have a little bit of patience and discipline to educate yourself on the benefits of barefoot/minimalist movements, I think you would be highly surprised at what your body (and feet) are capable of doing. I just finished my seventh half-marathon a couple of weeks ago in VFFs and was able to set a personal record (PR) at the age of 35.
    If you are a senior leader, my only advice is that they might actually improve the performance of others even if they do not work for you. And give them a try before you outright ban them.

  17. I remember when I first started wearing them in ’07 in the Air Force, some people were ok with them, while others not. While deployed the Command Chief of the base said they were fine. My immediate supervisor at my home base said “no”. His reasoning was that they were “water shoes” and would not allow argument. In turn I left the pamphlet that came with the shoes, back in the day, in the break room for people whom were curious. I’m sure he saw them, but you know how it goes some people don’t like to be proven wrong.

  18. I am a 90% disabled veteran and I think if these shoes were around when I was active duty Marines, I would not be 90% disabled. I have owned my VFF’s for about a year now and they have worked wonders.
    The people evaluating if these should be allowed to be worn by military personnel should be wearing them to determine this! Though, they may be faddish, no civilian would really care. I think the Army going out to eat at a nice resturaunt in cammies looks more appaling than these running shoes during a run. I am glad that the Army is studying these to make sure they are actually beneficial shoes, though.
    I think that “orders” regulations” “rules” “standards” all of these things hold back progress. If something is designed to be worn without socks, People shouldn’t have to wear socks with them to fit the rule. The rule should be changed to make sense. Wear sock with shoes that are intended to have socks and don’t with shoes that are intended to not have socks! How hard is that? I think it’s just an excuse for not allowing them. I can see a Marine Commander saying he doesn’t approve of them without even trying them out himself just because he thinks they are a faddish shoe.
    I love the Air Force, they are just so laid back!

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