On May 6th, Runner’s World reported that Italian footwear company Vibram, makers of the “Five Fingers” running shoe, had agreed to a settle a class-action lawsuit alleging that the company engaged in deceptive advertising when it claimed its shoes strengthened muscle and reduced foot injuries. In the settlement, Vibram agreed to pay $3.75 million to be distributed to customers who purchased the Five Fingers shoes, and also agreed to discontinue the beneficial claims for its shoes in its marketing and advertising campaigns. However, the company expressly denied any wrongdoing or liability for its claims. In other words, they still believe in the benefits of running in the Five Fingers, even if there’s currently no compelling scientific evidence to back them up.
The news of Vibram’s apparent fall from grace proved irresistible to journalists, and the story was picked up everyone from the BBC and the Christian Science Monitor to Slate and Deadspin. The latter summarized the case thus:
“In penance for its crimes against fashion and humanity, Vibram has placed $3.75 million into escrow. Those funds will go to the fitness idiots who purchased a pair after March 21, 2009, with up to $94 for each in an effort to help your friends and family not shudder when looking at your feet.”
Simply mocking the appearance of the Five Fingers was a little too easy. So in the days that followed, other articles tried to grapple with the actual state of the research on barefoot running. A week after one of its columnists had called the Five Fingers “the favorite toe-shoe of vegan restaurant servers and 55-year-old men with ponytails,” Deadspin ran a second article by a medical clinician summarized several studies that had shown injury risk when transitioning to the shoes.
While I have no love for Vibram or its products, and while I agree that they should stop making unsubstantiated health claims, I don’t blame them for jumping on the barefoot bandwagon and making a lot of money selling $94 shoes. I don’t even blame the bandwagon.
I think of the whole barefoot movement as a huge experiment. Perhaps there was a wing of the movement that held an irrational quasi-religious hope that “natural” running would be the cure for all the ills of the modern world, but many others have been motivated to test barefoot running on themselves, or study it among runners. is anyone really surprised that some people benefit from ditching their traditional cushioned running shoes and others get hurt? This is the fundamental truth about running, whether its done barefoot or in army boots. Some people survive the adaptation phase and never look back, while others sit by the side of the road with ice bags pressed against their injured knees, shins, ankles, and IT bands.
As with barefoot running, so too with nutritional supplements, specialized diets, the latest exercise machine, Crossfit (or any other trendy fitness method), and new technology. In their own ways, they all promise results with less effort or less risk. They’re all selling something for nothing.
Don’t blame Vibram, blame us. We bought the hype before we bought the shoes.