I write as a concerned Veteran. While I left US Marine Corps in 2006, I try to keep abreast of the state of occurrences throughout our nation's military. ALARACT 239/2011 recently came to my attention banning the wear of Vibram's Five-Finger Shoes for wear with the IPFU or in Formation PT. What concerns me is that while there are reasons why they would be a poor choice for Unit/Formation PT, the reason cited was possibly the weakest reason.
Let's get this out of the way: Yes, they look like ape feet.
I can honestly say that in my eight years of active duty I never heard anybody comment on another's shoes except for their shine. Within the last couple of months I purchased my first pair of Vibram Five-Fingers (VFFs), and am still getting used to them. I've worn them as my main footwear almost exclusively since. Yes, people have commented on them on the street or at work, but, well, who cares? They are practical footwear made with the intention of promoting stronger lower-body and decreased pain. As you're still serving, I can be fairly certain that you don't see this, but we who serve age prematurely. I've come to realize that I can no longer accurately judge how old a civilian is. I've met too many people who I've mis-estimated their age by twenty years, because I'm used to a 40-year-old man often being stooped, with significant grey and wrinkles, and often a couple of knee or back surgeries. They usually look like they need to retire.
That's not normal. It comes from our lifestyle. Especially our exercise regimen.
If you want to know why and how barefoot running can be of benefit, I encourage you to read "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. If nothing else, it's an entertaining story and a quick read. (It's a good candidate for library checkout.)
But I'm not trying to preach the church of barefoot running; I'm trying to say that this is a stupid policy for the wrong reasons. First, at least in the Marine Corps, the PT Uniform isn't really a matter of "Professional Military Appearance." Yes, it's a uniform; you should look the same, but there's never been any mandate of style (running vs walking vs cross-training vs soccer vs tennis vs...), or even color. And there's a lot of room for "unprofessional appearance" there.
Next, the people who have this footwear are your prime athletes. They specifically and purposely found a place that sells these shoes, had a nearly custom fitting (as they're not sized the same as regular shoes), spent over $100 on them, and then learned to run differently because they want to do it better! These are people who want to enjoy running! They want to do more of it. They don't want to be a 30-something with arthritis in their knees, hips and back.
Barefoot running requires you to run with a different stride, shorter and faster steps landing on the midsole or ball of your foot. For me it's like sprinting but slower and for longer distances. This makes it inappropriate for Formation Runs, because it's impossible for an individual to run with the cadence. But this is true of all minimalist running shoes, whether or not the front is a solid piece or five toes. I encourage you to try to run barefoot more than 20 feet by landing on your heel. If you can take more than three strides doing it, there's probably something wrong with your nervous system, because the shock of the first landing should make you stop. If the policy had said something specific about formation runs (boots-and-utes, anyone?), that would have been something different. But this is banning the use of better equipment for your best athletes who were going to exercise wearing their Army colors.
Because somebody is squeamish about seeing toes.
Feel free to contact me about this.
Harold "Waldo" Grunenwald
Ex-Marine (because saying "former" is stupid; it means the same thing)