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The new label on trainers: British army

>>16 September 2004

Military hopes to make millions by selling the ultimate sports shoes.

Oi! Chicken breath," a sergeant barks from the barrack gym. Groups of squaddies are being put through their paces at the army school of physical training in Aldershot. It hurts just to look.

As he hurtles up the steep folds of the beech woods near Aldershot, in Hampshire, the entirely sweat-free Sergeant Paddy Paton calmly discusses how he is required to do 77 press-ups in two minutes, 72 sit-ups and then go for two 45-minute runs every day. Fast.

It is these images of uncompromising endurance that the army hopes will bring victory in its first ever foray into the tough terrain of global capitalism. With UK Gear, a tiny sportswear manufacturer from the Midlands, the army yesterday launched the PT-03, a running shoe that is named after its "physical training" and proudly bears the insignia of the British army on its tongue.

More than 65m pairs of trainers are sold in Britain every year. Rather than buy trainers endorsed by Michael Jordan, the army and UK Gear hope that serious runners will buy the army-endorsed PT-03, which has been tested to destruction by the army's 450 full-time physical training instructors as they pounded up and down the land during the past eight months.

Staggering through the woods next to the physical training school, the gentlemen of Fleet Street fared less well than the PT-03s they were testing. Sergeant Paton has run 80 miles a week in the trainers for the last four months.

"Do you know what we call HILLS?" he barked cheerily as we struggled up a gentle incline in our PT-03s. "Hi, I Love Little Inclines."

Bringing up the rear, the man from the Times turned beetroot and, while the light, bouncy shoes felt comfortable, they hardly turned your distinctly under-muscled correspondent into the new Kelly Holmes, let alone a man fit for combat.

The army is pitching its brand into a uniquely competitive market. The push to design the perfect trainer, and sell it by the shed-load, is the global sportswear manufacturer's arms race.

Year zero was 1979, when Nike started the revolution by putting air in its soles. It set the tone for ever-more sophisticated shoes, boasting "energy return systems" or ultra-light absorbing gels. Brands such as Adidas were then adopted by new trendsetters in hip-hop, turning serious sports shoes into mainstream fashion accessories.

Nike and Adidas led the way in volume of sales, but serious runners remained notoriously conservative, unimpressed by endorsements and advertising campaigns. The low-profile Asics are the leading "serious" brand, with some 40% of athletes wearing their trainers at races.

According to Colonel Robin Clifford, director of international defence training in the army, the army has been actively seeking to "exploit" its "image and reputation" since the government unveiled the concept of "wider markets" in 1998. A Treasury-led initiative, it urged all government departments to generate extra income from "spare capacity", including real estate and, crucially, intellectual property rights such as images and brands.

"It became apparent that a number of people were using and exploiting the army image for commercial gain," said Col Clifford. "This [trainer] was exactly the sort of thing we were looking for to act as a pilot and use the army's expertise practically."

Col Clifford accepts the PT-03 is a risky venture. While the army has not invested any money in the shoes, it will gain a "normal royalty" from the sale of every pair.

However, it would be deeply embarrassed if its fledgling attempt to market its brand ended in commercial failure. UK Gear, best known for making cricket kit for the West Indies, is a minnow. The firm recruited designers from bigger brands in the PT-03's "six figure" design process, but employs just seven people.

The trainers are not, however, a model of military grit. The manufacturers insist they are not made in a sweatshop but they are produced in Vietnam. And while the PT-03s are being tested for their suitability for army procurement, they will not yet be an official piece of kit issued to all soldiers.

Lieutenant Colonel Phil Watkins, the army's most senior physical training instructor, is convinced they will be a success. He first wore the shoes six months ago for a double mountain marathon. "I took them out of the box, put them on and whilst they are not designed for fell running, they performed well. Cross-country, they were superb. I didn't get a single blister." He has been training in them ever since.

Other soldiers also approve. "They are better than our Hi-Tech Silver Shadows," said one sergeant - although that is hardly a ringing endorsement given that the army-issue Hi-Techs date from the 1980s and sell for just £20.

While the PT-03 boasts the usual range of baffling, apparently pseudo-scientific features, from the royal air mesh to the "2nd density EVA compound for enhanced medial motion control" in its heel, experts suggest it is a respectable competitor in an increasingly scientific field.

"There is a huge amount of science behind running shoes now," said Andy Barber, deputy editor of Running Fitness magazine. "If you go into any of the global HQs of the major sports manufacturers you are looking at something like a laboratory. It is a mix of science and art."

Although the PT-03 does not propel unfit journalists up hills, its success, according to Mr Barber, will depend on whether the army's brand is enough to persuade naturally conservative runners to switch from their tried-and-trusted trainers. "It is not a shoe you would wear in a nightclub, but then core runners will like it because they are averse to gimmicks and gadgetry."