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Friday, October 28, 2011

Fan Friday: Eric Kenney, the barefoot soldier

Happy Friday citizens! It's Fan Friday time again! This week's contributor is my friend Eric Kenney. I got to know Eric from running the Honolulu Marathon in 2010. He's a real down to earth guy, and made good company for the first 6 miles until we got separated. Then the dude ended up beating me by about 15 minutes even though his longest training run was around 9 miles. Yeah...I'm awesome like that.

Anyway, Eric is a soldier in the US Army. He's a happily married man of 4 years, and just celebrated the birth of his first child two weeks ago. He is stationed at the military base in Honolulu, Hawaii, but is currently deployed to eastern Afganistan. He's also an active member of the Barefoot Runners Society, and blogs about barefoot running at the site Free Your Toes Today.

I asked Eric to come and talk about his experiences being a barefoot runner in the military. My comments are in bold.

What is your fitness background?

I like to try many different methods when it comes to fitness. The current unit I am with is huge on Crossfit; so much so that they paid for me to take the Level 1 Crossfit class so that I could come back to our unit and teach soldiers how to employ Crossfit workouts safely and effectively. When it comes to running I have tried the Maffetone Method, a run/walk method, a run till you throw up method and interval training.

I like to try out a bunch of different styles so that I can find one that is best suited to my current situation. For example when I was in Iraq my missions required me to be physically stronger so I spent more time lifting heavy, traditional bodybuilding style. Now in Afghanistan it is more important to be able to walk up and down mountains with all of gear on for hours at a time so I don’t focus on raw strength so much as I do leg and cardio endurance.

When did you develop an interest in running?

I ran track and cross country in high school but I never really liked it. Then when I turned 19 I joined the Army and running became part of my everyday life. For about the first year or so I still did not enjoy running but I was able to turn out 6:30 miles for miles on end. I ended up running only when I had to and eventually I got hurt. I stopped running for a couple months. I really started to get into running when I returned from Iraq. It was just something that was so freeing. Being able to just get where I needed to go using my own two feet.

What about barefoot and minimlist running?

I actually started walking barefoot first. In the Army we do what is called "ruck marching". You put anywhere between 40-70lbs in a rucksack (heavy duty backpack) and you walk. The goal for us was to be able to maintain a 15 min per mile pace for 12 miles (finish in under 3 hours). Ruck marching can lead to a lot of injuries if you are not used to the stresses its puts on your body. Blisters, shin splints, pain in your knees are all common ailments that you see. I was talking to some old school soldiers who used to walk barefoot to help toughen the skin on your feet and strengthen the muscles. My love for walking barefoot turned into trying barefoot running. From there it opened my eyes to joyful, pain free running.

What is it like for you to be a barefoot runner in the military?

I think I have been pretty lucky when it comes to my experiences being a barefoot/ minimalist runner. The big guy who runs the 25th Infantry Division actually allowed soldiers to run in Vibram Five Fingers/minimalist footwear as long as they took a free run form analysis class. My chain of command has been very accepting, allowing me to take the class and also get other soldiers who were interested in minimalist running to take the class. It was nice for awhile. I could participate in our morning physical training in my Vibrams Five Fingers and at night I would get to run barefoot. Then the rules changed.

Yeah, it's my understanding that Vibram Five Fingers are currently banned by the Army?

Yes. The Army has outright banned Vibram Five Fingers from wear in the PT (physical training) uniform. I know of a lot of soldiers who spent the money when they were in the gray area (some commands allowed them to wear them for PT) and then when the Army decided that they looked unprofessional they were out the $100 they had spent.

But, when one door shuts, another opens. They banned Five Fingers, but allowed other minimalist shoes to be worn. So it was a small success because it showed that the higher ups were paying attention to the sweeping movement towards minimalist/proper form running.

So considering that small victory, is it fair to say that your views about barefoot and minimalist running are common in the military?

My attitude is similar to others in the military that I have encountered. They understand the benefits of minimalist running and proper run form, but they seem to frown away from barefoot running and prefer minimalist shoes. I have tried to convert a few of my close friends to run barefoot, one of them has tried barefoot on a treadmill, but I can't seem to get anyone to run barefoot down the road with me.

What about the higher-ups responsible for making the decision to ban Vibram Five Fingers?

The people who make the rules have been in the Army for 20-30 years. They are very set in their ways and their beliefs. Unfortunately a new idea that comes around is going to get very scrutinized by them. So when they have been running in thickly cushioned shoes for 20 years and you tell them that they have been doing it the wrong way, they will not be very accepting of your views even if you are correct.

Then again, I have meet and worked with soldiers who have been in the Army for 20 years who embrace the minimalist movement. The difference is that they interact with younger soldiers on a daily basis. Those who are out there conducting PT with the younger soldiers, working at a smaller level in the chain of command and get to talk to them and have conversations.

The “older” soldiers that make the rules do not interact with the younger generation of soldiers in the same way. They could be described as the ones siting behind a desk all day. This also plays hand in hand with other aspects of the military, such as training. Our soldiers are constantly learning and adapting to the new and various situations they get exposed to and there are those “older” soldiers who think that the way they learned is the best and only way it regardless of the variables. A lot of the times in the military there is a “my way or the high way” mentality. That’s not to say that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, you can find those “older” soldiers who are willing to listen to and employ new ways to do things.

Why do you think minimal shoes have been so readily embraced by the military?

I think the biggest factor that lead to military members embracing minimalist running is Crossfit. Some of the first people I ever seen wear Vibram Five Fingers on a military instillation were using them for performing Crossfit exercises. Eventually they just kept wearing and learning their abilities in them and they became part of their everyday fitness routine working their way into running.

Why hasn't barefoot running taken off in the same way that mininal shoes have?

I think the same applies to why most runners prefer to run in shoes rather than barefoot. Our society has this idea ingrained in them that bare feet are unsanitary, dangerous, and illegal and if you run down the road barefoot you WILL step in dog poop, a needle and broken glass. Our society is constantly told by the shoe industry that you need to have running shoes to run and our military service members are not immune to their advertising.

What do you think it will take for barefoot and minimalist running to gain broad acceptance in the military?

I think three things are going to have to happen for the military to completely embrace minimalist running. The first is a standardized class on proper running form. I have received classes on everything you can think of, but how to run properly and safely was never mandatory to learn. We force soldiers to run but we never show them how to do it properly. Dr. Mark Cucuzzella is doing great things for the Air Force. He was recently granted permission and funds to train Airmen on how to run properly. Hopefully his classes will become accepted among the other branches of the military and they initiate their own classes.

Second, there will have to be definitive evidence that minimalist/natural run form will help reduce injuries. A huge amount of soldiers who get injured are due to running injuries. Everything from a rolled ankle to serious hip injuries. If you can prove that minimalist running will reduce the amount of injuries, more soldiers will be fit for duty which will greatly impact how the chain of command views minimalist running.

Third, these younger soldiers who are in the know about the benefits and proper utilization of minimalist footwear, climb through the ranks over the course of their careers and take control of positions who have the power to make big the big choices. When those soldiers who know are in the position to spread the word and be respected for what they are trying to convey, that’s when minimalism will be widely accepted.

Well thanks for sharing Eric, and thanks for representing us barefooters well in the armed forces!

Happy Halloween MGBG nation!


  1. Great Q&A and thanks for tuning me in to Eric's blog. Cheers!

  2. Thanks for your time Eric and I wish you the best! I got out of the Army 6 yrs ago and was stationed at Schofield for the majority of that time. I spent a year in Afghanistan so I understand very well what kind of shape you need to be in cardio wise.

    Anyways, glad to hear the higher ups are at least recognizing that minimalism may have its place in the military. I had rolled ankles and an IT band problem constantly while in. I was an 11B though, so we rucked and ran constantly. Never heard of barefoot rucking though.

  3. It's the younger generation like Eric that are going to lead the charge on this barefoot movement, for sure. Old dinosaurs like in my generation aren't going to understand the benefit, hence the decision to ban shoes like the vibrams in formations

    Hopefully with enough of us in the Army doing it, and showing that the injury rates are lower (I've been running for two years at 50+ miles per week in this fashion) we'll lay the foundation for change. We'll see :)

  4. @Nick- Its just plain walking around on asphalt barefoot, I can't imagine rucking barefoot. That would be a feat. What unit where you with? I am 11B with 2-35

  5. You would think that with the Taliban outrunning the US Military in the mountains of Afghanistan whilst wearing slippers or those crappy fake adidas zero drop 'plimsoles' you buy in Peshawar, that they would be onto something good - even 10 years later...



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