Even if you don’t know it by name, you’ve probably seen the Vibram FiveFingers shoe at some point in the last five years. It’s the shoe that looks like a glove for your foot.
Beginning roughly around 2009, minimalist or barefoot running caught on in popularity. Vibram USA stepped in with its FiveFingers shoe to offer a little bit of protection for people who would otherwise be running barefoot on asphalt or gravel or some otherwise uncomfortable surface.
Over the course of five years, the company sold 70 million pairs of those shoes, and customers raved about how it helped them overcome injuries, get in better shape and enjoy running again.
The problem for Vibram USA was that it hitched its wagon to a movement promoting benefits that were not scientifically substantiated. And in 2012, a customer named Valerie Bezdek brought a class-action suit against the company on the grounds that the following claims were without scientific merit:
- The shoes strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs
- They improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes
- They stimulate neural function important to balance and agility
- They eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture
- They allow the foot and body to move naturally
In May 2014, Vibram reached a settlement agreement, without actually accepting any fault, in which it would deposit $3.75 million into an account for anyone who wanted to take part in the class-action suit. Anyone who bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers between March 21, 2009 and May 27, 2014, is entitled to claim a refund here. The settlement also requires Vibram USA to walk back its claims via an online campaign and remove references to the disputed benefits, at least unless the company can prove them.
In the time since the settlement was announced, there has been renewed interest in exploring the biomechanics of barefoot running, what the expectation of believability actually is when shoe companies make bold claims about their products, and the nature of class-action lawsuits in general.
So, what have we learned from this lawsuit?
Scientific studies both confirm and refute the benefits of running in a pair of FiveFingers.
[I]n December 2013, a larger study of 99 recreational joggers preparing for a 10k found running in the Vibram FiveFinger shoe increased the likelihood of experiencing an injury, specifically increasing pain at the shin and calf when compared to a neutral shoe like the Nike Pegasus 28 or the partially minimalist Nike Free 3.0 V2. Clinicians like me were instructed to exercise great caution when recommending minimalist footwear to runners who were otherwise new to it.
It appears that study—which contradicted everything about Vibram’s marketing campaign—made winning the class-action lawsuit difficult for the company. While there’s no doubt that many have enjoyed great success with the FiveFinger running shoe, the company could no longer claim that it’s product reliably reduced running injuries.
Barefoot and barefoot inspired footwear may serve to reduce the incidence of knee injuries in runners although corresponding increases in Achilles tendon loading may induce an injury risk at this tendon.
While the research shows that runners who are able to change their form may benefit from going barefoot or wearing Vibrams, longtime runners who are doing fine may think twice about making the switch.
The evidence one would like to see — and presumably what the court would have liked to see from Vibram — is some large-scale randomized data on injuries with minimalist vs. traditional running shoes. An ideal experiment would randomly assign half of the group studied to use minimalist shoes, and half to stay with traditional shoes, and we’d follow their injury rates over time. It’s not impossible to imagine such a study, but it hasn’t taken place yet.
So no one really has a clue. Which is completely unsurprising, really. Certainly the folks selling minimalist shoes don’t actually know. Until there is good evidence of injury prevention, natural running and minimalist shoes are not much more than a fashion statement and a gamble, but that clearly isn’t stopping many people from buying it, literally and figuratively. Although humans may be born to run, we sure aren’t born to reserve judgement. We love wishful thinking and wishful believing.
Many Vibram users still support the company and back up the company’s claims with their own evidence.
The problem is, I didn’t buy these shoes for the purpose of running. It would be foolish to think that I could ask my feet to transition from the type of shoe they’ve learned how to work in for 3 decades to 3mm of vulcanized rubber without any ill-effects. I bought my VFFs for walking around the house, the park and occasionally, the hiking trails. I have a lower leg injury that has stymied my doctors for the past 3 years. I may not know exactly what it is, but I do know how to alleviate the pain.
The beginners don’t get injured because the rest of their bodies can’t handle a lot of mileage. The muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments in their feet adapt to the stresses of exercise gradually, right along with the rest of their bodies.
My recommendation for those making the switch to barefoot running, minimalist shoes or Vibram Five Fingers, is to start gradually. You don’t have to cut back your mileage. Just start by wearing your Vibrams for your warm-up mile, then switch to your old shoes for the rest of your run. A few weeks later, you can wear the Vibrams for one of your short runs during the week, while wearing your typical shoes for the rest of your runs. Add a few more miles on the Vibrams every few weeks, while reducing the mileage on your regular running shoes.
After several months, you can phase out your heavily padded shoes completely. I did.
My right calf muscle is a little sore and strained, too [after a 12-day experiment]. So it’s a learning experience breaking yourself into Vibram FiveFinger barefoot shoes. For the record, I don’t blame this on the FiveFinger KSOs. They’re just a little bit of protection against the dirt.
The real experience here is shifting to a barefoot walking dynamic, and the feet and lower legs (at the very least) have to work VERY differently than in regular shoes.
It’s a process. Take your time and break into it slowly!
In light of the dilemma, we asked DealNews readers, who have been very interested in FiveFingers shoes over the years, what they thought. As it turns out, a full 70% of respondents who own Vibram shoes will continue to wear them, despite the hubbub about false claims.
So am I going to retire my Vibrams and try to get money out of it? Nope. Although the company made a stupid mistake I still think that VFF is a good product for many people.
It’s definitely a good product for me. As a person who likes to move barefoot (and that includes yoga, kettlebell lifting and doing the dishes) VFF shoes with their foot-glove-every-toe-gets-a-compartment-structure are the closest thing to being barefoot which will allow you to walk the streets of Hong Kong without fearing gunk and shards.
Who’s going to pay Vibram back when they are justified by research?
There is an even bigger issue here regarding footwear and running.
How one runs probably is more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs.
The trouble is, there is no partial solution. It’s a catch-22. The protective benefit of wearing minimalist shoes (as opposed to going barefoot) is precisely the quality which most undermines our long-term health and safety.
Minimal shoes can be great for some people. They seem to have done me a lot of good (although I don’t run in them, nor do I run, period). I walk in them and work in them. I exercise in them, and I even hike in them. I have worn them for over four years, and things are going great.
For others, they can be great eventually. Given time, and a gradual transition, they can be a part of these people’s footwear collection. It took me several months, and a pair of transition shoes (Nike Free 5.0), which I wore for a while before finally wearing my daily (and all day) Vibram Five Fingers/New Balance Minimus shoes.
For others, whose feet are very adapted to modern footwear, minimal shoes can be bad. Yes, for some people, some support is necessary, simply because they don’t currently have the feet for them. Can this change? Maybe. Probably. Given time, exercise, and work. But today is not that day.
Don’t blame a shoe company for getting injured. We didn’t have running shoes with cushioned heels and motion control before the 70s, and people still ran. Shoes are not the answer, and I think Vibram was trying to make that point. Wearing FiveFingers doesn’t make the foot stronger. Not relying on support or motion control shoes is what makes the foot stronger. It just so happens that Vibram came up with a product that allowed this to occur.
Part of the problem is the shoe industry as a whole does a really horrible job of matching footwear to feet. … All the methods used to fit feet to shoes don’t really hold up as valid ways to classify runners and to match shoes.
A change in footwear can affect the amount of impact the body absorbs during running, but it doesn’t change the fundamental stress of the activity. If you put all your faith in the idea that either barefoot running or running with highly cushioned shoes will enable you to run long distances without injuries, you’ll likely be disillusioned. …
Confronted with the baffling array of running shoes, the prevailing wisdom seems to be to pick a shoe that fits your running style, not to hope a shoe will change you.
Vibram maintains it did nothing wrong.
[E]ven if Valerie Bezdeck, who brought the suit against Vibram, sustained injuries after wearing her VFFs, that’s not the issue. The issue is: Can a company make unsubstantiated claims about a product? And while the answer is, ‘No,’ Vibram didn’t have a day in court to argue this point.
Technically, Vibram has admitted nothing, ‘expressly’ denying ‘any wrongdoing’ or conceding ‘any actual or potential fault…or liability,’ according to court papers. This is like Rosie Ruiz refusing to admit that she took the subway to her victory at the 1980 Boston Marathon, but agreeing to let someone else be declared the winner so we can all move on.
It is important to realize that this settlement was not a victory for either side; the plaintiffs did not have to prove any of their claims and VFF did not have to refute any of these same claims. It would have been interesting to see the evidence presented by both sides, but the possible decisions of juries are always unknown and legal costs can mount very quickly.
It has opened up further debate about litigiousness and consumer protection.
I think most people in the position of the plaintiff would, if disappointed by their purchase, try to obtain a refund rather than sue. So at the individual level one might think that a lawsuit is an over-the-top response to a disappointing product purchase. Perhaps plaintiff sought a refund and it was denied?
Whether a lawyer or team of lawyers should be able to bring a claim on behalf of thousands or millions of consumers is even more controversial. Defenders of class actions say it is the only way to keep big companies honest. Critics contend that these kinds of lawsuits merely enrich lawyers. That’s a large and complicated debate that has been going on for decades.
Deep down, we want to believe in magic. Human beings always have. Thanks to the spectacular increase in innovation, from smartphones to self-driving cars, there’s proof that products can do seemingly magical, miraculous things. But the existence of amazing gadgets isn’t an excuse to lose grasp with reality. Smart shoppers temper hope, optimism, and awe with critical reasoning. It seems like a downer, but it’s never been more important.
According to the agreement, Vibram entered the deal to avoid the burden and expense of continued litigation, not because it did anything wrong.
The plaintiffs’ class counsel would share as much as one-quarter of the settlement, or $937,000, and would receive up to $70,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
However, I felt the whole lawsuit was harsh, and the settlement places the blame on Vibram, and does little to acknowledge that people, quite frankly, showed a real lack of common sense in their uptake of this new way to run. I wonder, for instance, how Vibram is different to say, that deodorant company that promises me that a quick spray before work will have a horde of beautiful women chasing me down the street? Or whether drinking that sports drink will really give me never-felt-before powers of endurance that would make Lance Armstrong blush?
It’s up to us, as individuals, to determine the validity of claims made about whatever. … Yes, there’s a spectrum of how different claims affect whether or not someone is justifiably duped/conned/had/whatever. Individuals are responsible for themselves; it’s a starting point.
But there’s more to this idea than the legal merits of claims about products. When it comes to our own bodies, we owe it to ourselves to pay attention. Therein lies perhaps the biggest benefit of minimalist footwear: they dial up the feedback we get from our feet just as much as they dial down the dampening from the soles of shoes.