serious running: trail running, races, shoe reviews

Does the Military allow Minimalist Running Shoes for PT?

posted by Chris Barber

army-platoonI began my trail running days in the sandhills of Ft. Bragg, NC and have been running off road ever since.  I also began deteriorating my knees by jumping out of airplanes at Ft. Bragg, NC, which has lead me to only running in minimalist shoes today.  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.

I know the largest organization in the United States is slow to change, but I found that some soldiers were finding ways around the regulations to wear Vibram Five Fingers and other minimalist running shoes while others were being told flat out that they could not PT (physical training) wearing them.  FM 20-21 states that soldiers must wear white ankle socks with no logos while conducting PT.  The first loophole some soldiers point to is that the FM doesn’t state that soldiers must wear socks, just that if they do, the socks must cover their ankles and have no logo.  Since most commanders will not honor loopholes, some soldiers have been wearing Injinji socks which fit in Vibram FiveFingers to cover their ankles.  Another part of PT regulation states that soldiers may not wear athletic shoes that are “trendy” or “faddish.”  For this reason many base commanders have banned Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist running shoes completely.  I somewhat understand the reasoning because sometimes if you give soldiers an inch they will take a mile; and being in the correct uniform is important for building unit cohesion.  However, making a regulation based on “trendiness” may be constraining soldiers who legitimately need to wear minimalist running shoes to avoid injury.  According to the Army Times, even Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney, a Navy doctor and physical therapist says, “Vibram FiveFingers are the best thing out there for rehabilitating lower extremity injuries.”

In a typical flip floppy manner, the Army has also banned minimalist running shoes on the PT test because they believe the shoes may be “unfair.”  So if they are deemed unfair then they must help soldiers run better in training, right?!  Then why not let soldiers wear them?  This may be a case in which the military must make a blanket policy to cover the well-being of the whole instead of allowing Commanders make their own SOPs (standard operating procedures).  The same Army Times article quotes Dr. Steven Pribut, a podiatrist and sports medicine expert in Washington, DC, who specializes in working with runners saying, “I’m seeing a lot more injuries from people wearing them.  It’s not a problem with the shoes themselves; it’s mostly a function of people doing too much too soon.”  Military personnel are definitely susceptible to over doing it because they are all taught to push their bodies to the limit and to ignore pain.  It looks like the Army is pulling the trigger and making a blanket ban on Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist shoes in a policy released through today.  The new policy amends the current policy which states that Commanders “may authorize the wear of commercial running shoes,” as it goes on to say, “Commercial running shoes do not include minimalist shoes, lightweight track/road running flats, racing spikes, toe shoes, or shoes that simulate barefoot running.”  This is coming from the same organization that makes it’s soldiers run and walk 10s of miles in combat boots.  Oh well, there you have it, Army personal are now not authorized to wear minimalist running shoes during PT.

I believe because of the rapid growth in popularity of minimalist running the Army is making a rash decision without doing their research.  They even have a Marine study that was done 6 months ago which studied fitting recruits with motion control, stability, or support running shoes would have an effect on injuries.  The study assigned a control group, of 432 Men and 257 Women, with only stability running shoes.  They then formed an experimental group, of 408 Men and 314 Women, who were fitted with the correct running shoe based on plantar shape.  The study said the incidence of injury after the 12 weeks of basic training had no difference between the two groups.  If types of traditional running shoes don’t increase injuries, then why do they believe minimalist running shoes will?  I understand that soldiers are the military’s greatest assets, but banning something that may decrease injuries is absurd.  Maybe the military should start by developing an “Army issued” minimalist running shoe based on their doctors’ recommendations.  This would most likely increase the available fighting force while allowing soldiers to train as their body needs them too.  The Army ruined my knees, the least they can do is try to prevent that from happening to the rest of the Men and Women serving our county.  I guess for now, just like everything else in the military, you simply have to play the game, whether you agree or not.  Thank you all for your continued service.

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  1. E Dennis says:

    Wow! This is just sad. I completely agree with you, to ban something like minimalist shoes when no actual study has been completed by the military is just absurd. I personally love Vibrams and anything else that provides the basic layer of protection from the elements when my own feet won’t do. I really don’t understand the argument that they are an unfair advantage. I was in the Marines for 5 years and never once used a typical running shoe. I always used racing flats. I didn’t think it was an unfair advantage to use something better suited to running. Awesome study too by the Marines. There are numerous reports and studies show that all those cushioned running shoes most likely cause the majority of running related injuries. Instead of preaching good shoes, we should be educating people on better form.

  2. Jeff says:

    Currently deployed to Iraq. Would love to run in my VFFs, but it’s clearly posted everywhere (even though I’m a USAF officer in a Joint position) that “toe shoes” are off-limits. I run in a pair of New Balance MT 101s instead, and no one gives me any grief.

    Honestly, it’s simply a matter of lack of leadership. It’s easier to say no to something non-standard than to try to find a reasonable way to integrate new ideas.

    Minimalist running shoes have been instrumental in changing the way I run and kept me from injuring myself.

    The Army isn’t concerned about injuries in this case. In my opinion, the Army leadership (most over 45) don’t like the way the shoes look. Period.

  3. Matt says:

    I do recall the days when my commander, on more than ten occasions, would make some kind judgement call on my uniform. Luckily I was the company admin clerk/training NCO and knew the regulations better than he did. What really needs to happen is New Balance needs to come out with a great minimalist road shoe. New Balance has a toe hold on the military market. Maybe due to at least some of their shoes being manufactured in the U.S. I know there is some great research out there backing up the barefoot and minimalist running. I also know that there are some very interesting new companies emerging, specializing in minimalist/no rise footwear.

    Sounds like the military should use the Physical Training Programs to do some research.
    Maybe get some of these well respected Phd types from elite schools to talk some sense into the people making the decisions. I only wish that Born to Run had come out 15 years ago. Jeff, I couldnt agree with you more and thank you for doing what you do.

  4. M Milner says:

    The Air Force does not restrict the wear of minimalist shoes (including Vibram) during PT – not even on most deployed locations that are controlled by AF. I am getting ready to publish an article in the medical corps newsletter by an AF doc who supports minimalist footwear. Additionally, RunBlogger is friends with an AF Reserve doc who owns a minimalist footwear store in WV. Both of these docs, along with many others, are quietly spreading the word so it becomes an accepted form of training.

  5. [...] bloggers abound 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 [...]

  6. Reticuli says:

    The podiatrists are about to be relegated to the same sub-class of quasi-medical practitioners as acupuncturists and chiropractors. They can either start acting like scientists, or slither off into the corner to practice a profiteering pseudo-science.

  7. Adam says:

    Im in the Navy and wear VFF and Merrells Road Gloves during PT. During our PRT I will wear the Merrells with socks to conform to regulations though this actually bugs my feet and slows me down. The US military is slowly changing its stance and hopefully will allow them completely soon. At this point it falls on the individual COs discretion.