Several people have asked me what I think of the recent Vibram FiveFingers lawsuit, so here is my brief response. First, a disclaimer: I am not privy to the details of the suit. All I know is that someone has initiated a class-action lawsuit against Vibram over “deceptive and misleading health benefit claims” and injuries. So, here is what I think.
While I hold no love for FiveFingers or Vibram (as a company they are arrogant and aloof), I think the lawsuit is absolutely baseless. The complaint states that Vibram’s claims of “health benefits are false and deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide” and “FiveFingers may increase injury risk compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to barefoot running.” Thus, the complaint has two major allegations: 1/ Vibram has not proven that their shoes are healthier to use than conventional running shoes, and 2/ FiveFingers cause injuries.
Beyond what conventional running shoes provide?
The first allegation is laughable since consumers have spent billions of dollars on traditional running shoes in the past five decades and received untold numbers of injuries in exchange. The conventional shoe makers have spent virtually zero dollars on any research beyond marketing, and the independent scientists actually investigating the relationship between your body and running shoes have solid evidence that those traditional running shoes are the cause of many running injuries. Certainly, no major running shoe company has ever demonstrated scientifically that their shoes are “proven to provide health benefits,” so why is Vibram now being held to a higher standard? (In fact, there’s not even a single orthotic that has been proven to live up to its claims; podiatrists be warned). The filing continues: “false and misleading advertising campaign has allowed them to reap millions of dollars of profit at the expense of consumers they misled.” Again, laughable in light of the half-century of reaping by motion-controlled, ultra-padded, microchip-embedded shoe makers.
FiveFingers cause injuries
The second allegation has some merit in that FiveFingers can lead to injury, but Vibram has been careful to warn people of the risks so I doubt they can be held culpable. Experienced barefoot runners have from the beginning also cautioned people about the potential injures from using Vibram FiveFingers and other minimalist shoes:
“I recommend all runners learn to run barefoot prior to adding minimalist shoes to their training routine. Learning to run barefoot first will allow you to learn good form and strenghthen yoru feet, legs, and other anatomy to help prevent injuries. While it is possible to learn to run in minimalist shoes first, the lack of tactile sensation with the ground will interfere with the process.”[emphasis added]. – Jason Robillad, The Barefoot Running Book
“The biggest challenge with FiveFingers is that you still don’t feel the ground nearly as much as you do when barefoot, so it’s easy to overdo it.” [emphasis added]. – Michael Sandler, Barefoot Running
“The Vibram FiveFingers is praised by many runners tired of traditional athletic trainers… However, some barefoot running experts warn that minimalist shoes may cause overuse injuries in new barefoot runners since they encourage a barefoot-type gait but reduce biofeedback from the foot sole.” [emphasis added]. – Daniel Howell, The Barefoot Book
In the above statement I was referring primarily to Barefoot Ken Bob, who says it saliently in his book, Barefoot Running Step-by-Step:
“Vibram FiveFingers… can be dangerous if not used properly. I am not totally against Vibrams… but beginning barefoot runners should simply not use them.” [emphasis in original]. – Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, Barefoot Running Step-by-Step
Again, Vibram has always concurred with these experts and cautioned new FiveFingers users accordingly, so I can’t see how Vibram is liable. So, the way I see it, shoes companies that have for decades promised the moon to runners with high-tech devices that alter gait and cause injuries are guiltless, while the company that tries to keep runners moving naturally and clearly warned customers of the hazards is culpable.
The most common injury I've seen from FiveFingers (and barefoot running), is TOFP ("Top Of Foot Pain"), or metatarsalgia. The pain seems to originate from microfractures in metatarsal bones and, if you keep running, can lead to a full-blown metatarsal break. Ironically, I do not blame Vibram (or barefoot running) on this injury, but the traditional shoe we've been wearing since childhood that has weakened our bones nearly to the point of debilitation. It takes years for those bones to strengthen after adopting barefoot or minimalist running. Not coincidentally, TOFP and metatarsal breaks usually occur after 1-2 years of barefoot running.
Hopefully, the end result of this lawsuit will be a more educated public with respect to their feet.