The U.S. Army apparently does not take physical training serious any more.
On Tom Ricks’s blog, The Best Defense, a company commander who does take physical training seriously, complained about All Army Action message 239/2011, highlighted a few days ago by the Military Times. The U.S. Army just banned minimalist running shoes. More precisely: shoes that provide a single pocket for every toe, in other words: Vibram FiveFingers. The official ban makes the following point:
There are a variety of minimalist running shoes available for purchase and wear. Effective immediately, only those shoes that accommodate all five toes in one compartment are authorized for wear. Those shoes that feature five separate, individual compartments for the toes, detract from a professional military image and are prohibited for wear with the IPFU [Improved Physical Fitness Uniform, i.e. T-shirt and shorts] or when conducting physical training in military formation. [our emphasis]
We need to take a step back here to understand just how utterly stupid this statement is. As our company commander rightly points out, the Army’s message doesn’t say anything about efficiency, only about looks.
So what about professionalism and efficiency?
Anybody who is serious about fitness will immediately find this a familiar debate. Go to any mainstream gym, and you see plenty of people training for the looks: blowing up their pecs by bench-pressing their body-weight in 12-rep sets, then observing in the mirror how their neatly isolated biceps behaves while curling. That’s working your “mirror muscles.” If you see yourself as an athlete, not as a muscled-up mannequin, you will likely sooner or later gravitate towards some more effects-based and more professional way of training, and perhaps start including Crossfit, kettlebells, or Olympic lifts. And many in the military and law enforcements communities have long done that, at least in the United States (believe it or not, there’s no Crossfit gym in Paris. None). So what’s that got to do with minimalist running shoes?
Well, I had my wake-up moment when my pal Charles Levinson took me to the Crossfit gym in Herzliya, in Israel, about a year ago. I thought I was in pretty reasonable shape at the time, working out every other day in the Jerusalem YMCA and already running reasonable distances in my still new FiveFingers. In fact I had met the first guy who ran in the strange-looking things on a short visit to an army base, Camp Julian in Kabul, in 2009. He also was a U.S. Army soldier taking fitness seriously. A few months later a smooth salesman, again a U.S. Army paratrooper, talked me into buying my first pair at the Arlington HTO. I immediately started training with them. Then, in that Herzliya gym, I almost felt like the fat kid who can’t keep up in school sports: the real guys and gals were doing muscle-ups at the rings, snatching 32kg kettlebells, and multiple sets of ten pistols (that’s a one-legged squat). — And: practically everybody was wearing VFFs. The fact that I wore a pair myself made me feel somewhat less inferior in that moment.
Now, serious running is an altogether different matter than playing in the gym, you might say. But that’s precisely where the minimalist philosophy comes from. Here’s the gist of it: humans have been running long-distances as hunters for hundreds of thousands of years. In fact they can out-run most animals because we run on two legs, thus disconnecting our breathing rhythm from our pace rhythm, and because we have sweat glands. After about five hours in heat running in a pack, we beat about any other creature with fur. Then, some time in the 1970s, came Nike an invented the cushioned running shoe, enabling larger strides and heel-strikes, thus bringing a sure-fire recipe for running injuries to mass market.
Think this is nonsense? Read Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. Not scientific enough? To understand the biomechanics of running, start with the “Barefoot Professor” on YouTube or read Daniel Lieberman’s full article in Nature. And there’s lots more. Serious runners, of course, have been debating the pros and cons of minimalist running shoes for a while. We can’t even scratch the surface here. As a starting point, I recommend Runners World‘s must-read article published in November last year.
But the bottom line is simple: however you look at the subject, banning FiveFingers for their looks is like banning kettlebells because they appear old-fashioned. What’s next? The U.S. Army banning serious strength training because it doesn’t pump up the pecs enough for the good looks?