Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Message from the Army's Sergeant Major on Minimalist Shoes

Prior to entering the Army as a young, know-nothing but motivated Second Lieutenant ten years ago, one of the best pieces of advice I received was to create my own philosophy and do my best to stick to it.  It was proposed to me that this kind of technique would keep me focused when having to make difficult decisions and would also help me stay consistent and avoid being one of those bipolar leaders that confuses and irritates their subordinates.  It was great advice, and I have used it to great effect over the years.

One of the philosophies I developed was that an American soldier, read: volunteer soldier, is a very different type of animal than many others.  Yes, we're motivated but often there are a variety of different reasons for that motivation.  Nearly all are valid ones: service, honor, education, a job, tradition, etc.  Regardless of the reason though, the line that passes through each is the notion that an American soldier really wants to know the "why" of what they're being asked to do.  Let's be real for a moment.  Even a soldier who joined out of a desire to serve, might be married and HIS WIFE is going to need to know the "why" of it.  That's valid.  That's reality.

Many in the Army, I'm here to tell you, do not believe in this philosophy.  Instead they cling to the idea that long ago you signed on the dotted line and forfeited your right to ask, to question, to reconsider and to examine what you might be asked to do.  Personally I believe that these types of leaders are missing a real opportunity to, well . .. ...lead.  In short, you miss an opportunity to explain the rationale behind your decision.  I can't count the number of times I've explained the logic of a major decision (not in every case, but certainly when it mattered, e.g. about to get shot at, etc.) and then asked, "Anyone got a better idea?" only to have it meet with shaking heads, a serious of "nopes" and a few troops who now no longer believed that I made a decision with my head firmly rooted in my ass.  Of course, you have to actually THINK THROUGH decisions and expose your logic; this can be scary for those that don't do their own due diligence.  It keeps you honest, and keeps you from making the "because I'm your Dad, that's why" type of decision/explanation.

Which is why I was so impressed with the most recent statement made by the Sergeant Major of the Army, Raymond Chandler, in reference to the Army's recent ban on Vibram Fivefinger shoes.  The statement below comes from an internal Army forum that you must be in the Army in order to access.  (Nothing secret or sneaky here, just kind of an unfortunate reality that I can't publish the link for you.  Below the text is a screenshot, not that I think anyone really cares to dispute this.)

From SGM Chandler:

Running shoes have been undergoing a metamorphosis in the last few years.  Sure, you can still find your traditional running shoes with their cushioned heels and midsoles.  You can still get your favorite brand in motion control, stability, or cushioned types.  However, there is also an emergence of something called the minimalist running shoe (MRS).  These shoes have little to no cushioning, are extremely lightweight and flexible, and they have a flat profile from the heel to the toe. 
There are many styles and flavors of minimalist running shoes (MRS).  Currently the Army has banned the use of the Vibram© FiveFinger’s (shoes that have five separate individual compartments for the toes) while in formation, or while wearing the Improved Physical Fitness Uniform (IPFU).  All other minimalist type shoes are currently allowed.  (Refer to ALARACT Message 239/2011.) A survey of your Soldiers will likely reveal that a good number of them are wearing the Vibram© FiveFingers or any of the other MRS types to workout and run.  While there are anecdotal stories of these MRS reducing injury and improving performance, there are still no conclusive research studies that confirm these claims.  What does seem clear is that switching from a traditional running shoe to a MRS requires a proper transition period to avoid potential overuse injuries.  Our Soldiers are going to use these shoes and, as NCO leaders, we need to ensure that our Soldiers are equipped with information that will help them with a proper and safe transition.
There is no one right way to make the transition to MRS, but most transition programs require a period of about 8-12 weeks.  Running with MRS encourages a forefoot or mid-foot strike when running.  This type of foot strike means that rather than landing on your heel, you will land on the toes or mid part of the foot.  This landing may lead to a reduced initial impact force on landing and relies on strong foot and leg muscles.  A good transition program will focus on learning how to land on your forefoot or mid-foot and will include strength exercises specifically for the foot and leg.  Another important aspect of the transition is that you start with very short distances using the MRS – and build gradually over several weeks.  This might be more easily said than done.  Young, healthy Soldiers will probably be eager to get running quickly in their new MRS.  As NCO’s we need to make sure that we monitor how our Soldiers are transitioning.
In the near future, we will provide a transition program.  It will focus on a gradual shift from traditional running shoes to MRS, strengthening the foot and leg muscles, and developing proper running and landing form.  Not all Soldiers will want to use MRS., therefore, developing company or platoon-wide transition programs is not the recommended approach.  Small transition groups are likely better.  Most importantly --- as NCO’s we should provide the proper guidance or direction to our Soldiers that are using the MRS.  Our goal is to make sure that our Soldiers stay healthy and physically fit, whether using traditional running shoes or the MRS.
I encourage you to use this forum to provide your feedback or thoughts on the MRS.  If you don’t know much about them or have never heard of them, stay tuned.


This is an excellent example of a leader doing a great job of taking care of troops.  SGM Chandler recognizes the reality that soldiers may just resort to doing their own thing and "taking care of soldiers" means acknowledging this reality.  He's asking Non-commissioned officers to take a leadership role in  teaching the fundamental principles of minimal running and if they don't know what this is, then they need to find out.  

The one consistent truth among individuals on both sides of the "barefoot/form change" debate is that there is no true panacea.  One must take it slow, and be smart about the goals and expectations involved.  He also didn't back down on the decision to ban VFF's, instead proffering a well reasoned plan to help soldiers make a transition to a more minimal style of running.  

The more I think about it, the more I believe he had an intelligent plan in mind for attacking this issue of transition which could have disaster written all over it if not undertaken in the right way.

Hubba Hubba SGM Chandler, well done.

What do you think of the CSA's comments?

By Marcus with 6 comments


Glad to see the SGM comment on the issue. Very pragmatic too. Still haven't seen any guidance one way or the other from the USMC.

USMC and Air Force have approved Vibrams with local commanders having final say so. Check out the link from Sit Rep.

Love the post! Think you are spot on about the "why" motivation necessary in the military. Been doing some motivation research myself, and it falls in line with what you are saying.

Regarding the shoes - I haven't yet made the transition to MRS type shoes for runs because I normally have a heavy heel-strike, so I actually really appreciated the SGM's comments. This makes complete sense and is valid because it illustrates how the Army is not against the evolving trends in running, but also does have a decorum - uniform - standard. Good to see that there remain straight thinking leaders in the Army's high levels whose concerns are well though through, and able and willing to be expressed.

Rob, thanks for the compliment. As for your heel striking, the only way to change it is to actually spend some time barefoot. In small increments, say one or two laps around a track, go jogging. You'll feel a difference and want to do more, but don't. Keep that muscle memory, slide on some minimal shoes and do MAYBE two more laps. Leave it at that. Do that twice a week and when you have zero soreness afterward (your calves will be smoked) and then add 1-2 laps in the same fashion. Six months of that and you'll be straight.

Oh I have not seen this article yet! I'm glad he posted something relating to the reasoning for this ban, because frankly, it upset me quite a bit, even if I don't wear the five fingers often, and the reason it upset me is that it seemed silly. I still don't like that the Army is banning those shoes because they're worried soldiers won't properly transition, because they will do what they want on their own time.... BUT I like the fact that CSA Chandler provided a reasoning for the ban beyond just saying that they look unprofessional and is providing guidance on actually helping soldiers transition rather than just saying "No, not allowed!"

I have news for you. A lot of people will use professional photographers like marathon to get the cheapest photo package possible and then get additional reprints at fedex or walgreens and not at marathon. That is copyright infringement. That is why the elevated price of prints.

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