Right now, Vibram is the the only mainstream company making "toe shoes." If the distinct toes look too weird for you to wear to PT, you may get away with other "minimalist" footwear.
Merrell Barefoot Collection: Teaming up with Vibram, Merrell footwear is set to be among the first shoe companies to offer another line of toe shoes for near-barefoot running enthusiasts. Its Barefoot Collection hits the road in February.
Terra Plana Evos: If you’re looking for a minimalist shoe with a more traditional profile, try Terra Plana’s Evos with 4mm soles and removable insoles.
Nike Free: This Nike line offers scaled-down, lightweight runners that have gotten high marks from many.
Marine Corps leaders say no problem. Navy leaders say no way. Top Air Force leaders have cleared them for takeoff, even while some base commanders have grounded them for being too faddish.
The sergeant major of the Army is thinking about training for his next marathon in them, but Army officials have banned them from the PT test over worries they might give some soldiers an unfair advantage.
Hard to believe a pair of running shoes could cause so much debate.
But these aren't your typical shoes.
If you've glimpsed what looked like gloves on the feet of passing runners, you've already seen them around. They're a favorite of the special operations community, distance runners and CrossFit disciples. Some troops call them "ninja shoes," "gorilla feet" or "bear paws."
Many just call them "toe shoes," or simply their "fives."
Made by the same company that puts the treads on millions of combat boots every year, Vibram's line of FiveFingers shoes, or VFFs, are quickly becoming the most controversial item in military running since the MP3 player.
Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Jeffery Cui, at Bagram Airfield, has banned airmen from wearing them with the Air Force PT uniform in Afghanistan, citing their wear as one of the most violated rules on base in a recent edition of the Bagram Express.
"Vibram and other brand ‘toed' shoes are not considered conservative and are not authorized here at Bagram Airfield," he wrote.
Down at Kandahar, however, military doctors are encouraging their use and even prescribing them for recovering runners.
"VFFs are the best thing out there for rehabilitating lower extremity injuries," says Navy doctor and physical therapist Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney at Kandahar. "I have converted a heck of a lot of people since I got here."
An early evangelist of the FiveFingers, Mahoney first slipped on a pair three years ago and now wears them for everything from golfing and hiking to long-distance running.
Before his latest assignment, he was the physical therapist for Naval Special Warfare Group 4 in Norfolk, Va. He estimates about 35 percent of SEALs have incorporated Vibram's toe shoes into their workouts.
"Once Navy SEALs start wearing them, everybody in Virginia Beach wants to wear them," he says.
The shoes are not for everyone, however.
"Very, very flat-footed people should probably not wear them," says Dr. Steven Pribut, a podiatrist and sports medicine expert in Washington, D.C., who specializes in working with runners.
Runners with greater than a one-inch difference in leg length might find them painful as well, he says.
Pribut says the biggest problem with VFFs, though, is operator error.
"I'm seeing a lot more injures from people wearing them," he says. "It's not a problem with the shoes themselves; it's mostly a function of people doing too much too soon."
Indeed, most VFF fans — and medical experts — recommend transitioning into VFFs slowly.
"If something feels uncomfortable you may be transitioning too fast," Pribut says.
Lt. Col. Kerry Sweet, the Army's top foot doctor and chief of podiatry at Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis- McChord, Wash., has been monitoring the trend at his base.
"We have not seen any appreciable — or even noticeable — increase in injuries as a result of people wearing these shoes," he says, but he adds it may be too soon to tell. "We're in a real gray area right now."
His advice to commanders weighing whether to allow troops to wear VFFs during unit PT: Be cautious.
"Make sure people have trained up adequately," he says.
The rise in the shoes' popularity has come with a surge in barefoot running, fueled in part by Christopher McDougall's bestseller "Born to Run," which has become a kind of manifesto among minimalist runners.
Former Marine and Marine wife Jennifer Nuntavong credits her FiveFingers with improving her circulation and contributing to a foot- and calf-strengthening regimen she started when she adopted barefoot running in early spring. Most importantly, though, the hip pain that had been slowing her down in recent years is gone.
"No joke, I have had no problems with my hips since taking my shoes off," says Nuntavong, a certified personal trainer and avid CrossFitter.
But if you're thinking of slipping on a pair for PT, think twice. If your commander says you can't wear them, then you can't. Otherwise, here's what the services had to say:
"There is no Air Force-wide wear policy specifically related to the VFFs while in the PT uniform," said Air Force spokesman Maj. Cristin L. Marposon, citing Air Force Instruction 36-2903, which notes, "Any athletic shoe is authorized."
"Individual commanders make the determination on whether or not airmen can wear the VFF during a PT test," Marposon said. "There is no [Air Force]-wide wear policy restriction regarding wear of VFFs during off-duty PT."
Army officials say there are no specific policies forbidding the wear of VFFs with the PT uniform and that local commanders have the option to allow them — or not — in their PT formations.
"There is no specific policy that says you can or can't wear the toe shoes in formation with the Physical Fitness Uniform. A local commander has the authority to allow or disallow this footwear in their formations as they see fit," an Army spokesman said.
Sergeant Major of the Army Kenneth O. Preston hasn't ruled out training for his next marathon in the FiveFingers. "I have recently heard a lot about toe shoes, though I have not tried them. But because I have started running longer distances and marathons, I might give a pair a try in the future," he said. "I am still doing some research to see if these shoes are right for me."
In the meantime, they've been barred from use in the Army's PT test. According to the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School, the shoes may provide too much of an advantage.
"The Army Physical Fitness Test standards were developed wearing ‘traditional' running shoes. The Vibram shoes ... may be determined to offer an unfair advantage during testing," Army spokesman Paul Boyce said.
"Sailors are not authorized to wear these shoes with the PT uniform during command or unit physical training," said Sharon Anderson, a spokeswoman for the chief of naval personnel. Anderson cited Chapter 3 of Navy Uniform Regulations, which states that athletic shoes and socks must be worn with the PT uniform.
But proponents are quick to point out that VFFs are considered running shoes and you can wear readily available "toed" socks with them.
Anderson later said the Navy is doing further research into the question.
"There is no official Marine Corps-wide policy on civilian footwear to include Vibram [FiveFingers] running shoes," said Marine Corps spokesman Gunnery Sgt. Chanin Nuntavong, citing Marine Corps Order P1020.34G, which notes footwear "with PT uniforms will be as prescribed by the commander." He said there are no rules prohibiting their wear during the physical fitness test, either.
Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Carlton Kent is a traditionalist.
He "does not own a pair and has never tried them. He also has not talked to anyone about them or really heard much about them," says Kent's spokesman, Gunnery Sgt. Fredrick Zimmerman, who described Kent as an avid runner who "wears traditional shoes and hasn't considered wearing any of the new styles."
What to tell your commander
Military officials have largely left the decision on wearing Vibram FiveFingers toe shoes with PT uniforms up to local commanders. Some arguments to sway their opinions:
1. They are running shoes. The regs say troops must run with legitimate running shoes during PT formations and testing. While VFFs make look a little strange, so do F-117 stealth fighters and high-and-tights. On this there is no debate: Several models are made specifically as running shoes.
2. You can wear them with socks. For reg-thumpers who point to the rules on wearing socks with running shoes, Injinji — among others — makes "toed" socks. Vibram officials say the socks shouldn't affect sizing or performance.
3. They build foot, ankle and calf muscles. Because you can move each toe independently and restrictive padding is stripped away, your feet get a real workout. That's why coaches at the Naval Academy routinely put the football and track squads through barefoot running drills, head running coach Carla Criste says.
4. They improve proprioception. That's another way of saying "situational awareness," or keeping your body tuned to what's going on around you, which in turn means fewer body blowouts. It's the basic math of biomechanics, Navy physical therapist and special ops doc Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney says. "Increased proprioceptive feedback equals decreased injuries," he says.
5. Faster run times. Super-sized calves and ripped feet pay off with faster runs and higher PT scores, say many who train with VFFs. Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney says he's carved two minutes off the Navy's 1.5-mile running test. Others report similar improvements.
6. Longer hauls, better conditioning. "They're great to wear as a conditioning tool for rucking," Mahoney says, but cautions against wearing heavy rucks with VFFs. He humped a 45-pound pack to see how they'd do, but it was punishing on his heels. "I finished, but my feet were very sore."
7. They improve balance. Like the hands, the feet are a bundle of nerves that get numb when boxed away in traditional shoes. That can affect balance and agility, says Dr. Steven Pribut, a podiatrist and sports medicine expert in Washington, D.C., who specializes in working with runners. "Running barefoot or with minimalist shoes helps balance and joint position sense," he says.
8. Eliminates heel lift and motion control. The heavy padding and raised heel common on many running shoes can throw your body out of whack. "Shoes with a lot of motion control are good for very few people. Shoes with too much cushioning are not good for anyone," Pribut says.