The military has become a house divided over an increasingly popular, if controversial, pair of running shoes.
On one side of the skirmish, the Army has banned them when wearing PT uniforms, while on the other side, the Air Force and Marine Corps have approved their use. As for the Navy, it depends on whom you ask, with top officials saying the shoes are OK but fleet physical fitness leaders insisting they're off limits.
The shoes in question: Vibram FiveFingers, the glovelike running shoes with an individual compartment for each toe.
Made by the same company that's slapped the soles on millions of combat boots, FiveFingers have garnered a growing legion of advocates inside the military.
Proponents say they provide a better workout for feet and calf muscles than traditional shoes while promoting a more natural stride. Critics say there is not enough evidence to support those claims.
Marine Corps officials say that unless a local commander objects, they have no problem with the shoes. The headquarters battalion for the Corps' top brass and support troops in Washington, D.C., has approved them for use when wearing PT garb, according to Gunnery Sgt. Chanin Nuntavong, a spokesman for the sergeant major of the Marine Corps.
Air Force officials agree.
"There is no Air Force-wide policy on wearing the shoes while in the PT uniform or during off-duty PT," says Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Mary Danner Jones. "Individual commanders may make the determination on whether or not an airman can wear them during a PT test."
While it's not often that the Air Force and the Marine Corps come out on the same side of a physical fitness debate, that didn't stop the Army from issuing a servicewide ban on the shoes June 11.
"Effective immediately, only those shoes that accommodate all five toes in one compartment are authorized for wear," reads the new order. "Those shoes that feature five separate, individual compartments for the toes, detract from a professional military image and are prohibited for wear with the [Army's PT uniform] or when conducting physical training in military formation."
Meanwhile, Navy physical fitness officials are telling sailors and command fitness leaders that toe shoes are not allowed during official Navy workouts or during the biannual Physical Fitness Assessment.
The Bureau of Naval Personnel, however, insists there is no formal policy banning the shoes. At least not yet, command spokeswoman Sharon Anderson says.
"Current policy allows for sailors to wear footwear or PTU components of choice during personal PT," she says. "At sea, the wearing of the PTU and other PT gear is at the discretion of the commanding officer."
Lack of support
A recent review of medical studies by the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center found insufficient evidence to support or refute the safety of toe shoes. It did note that the shoes strengthen foot muscles, reduce excessive pronation — when the foot strikes the ground while tilted either inward or outward — and encourage lighter landings.
While considered a positive by advocates, the report found fault with the shoe's lack of protection and support. It also noted the need for a gradual transition from traditional running shoes.
A spokeswoman for the Navy's medical command says, "Given the current evidence, Navy Medicine cannot recommend the use of minimalist footwear in command-directed physical training activities."
But Army Maj. Shane Koppenhaver, a professor and director of research at the military's joint physical therapist school at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is confused by the Navy's findings.
"I get banning them in uniform based on the fact that they don't look ‘conservative,'" Koppenhaver says. "However, it does seem silly to me that they would be banned based on lack of proven safety. ... The scientific evidence is pretty clear — that forefoot and midfoot striking during running reduces joint reaction forces when compared to heel striking."
The Army and Navy bans have left some accusing the services of being more concerned with appearance than substance.
"I don't understand how the image of someone that takes their running serious is detracting from a professional military image," writes one Army company commander in a guest post on Tom Ricks' The Best Defense blog.
After wearing FiveFingers for more than a year, the writer credits them with reducing shinsplits, toughening his feet and shortening his five-mile run time by five minutes.
"Is this a matter of national security? In isolation, probably not. But, I would say that an Army that is more concerned with looks versus results is a matter a national security."