Today, I’m answering one hot-topic question for this week’s Dear Mark . It concerns an issue that’s inspired several dozen emails from readers: the Vibram FiveFingers  lawsuit and settlement. If you want to skip ahead to the take home point, it’s that I’m not getting rid of my Vibram FiveFingers anytime soon. Heck, I’m wearing a pair as I type this. I may even be typing with my FiveFinger-clad toes. (It could happen…) If you want my more extensive take on it, read on.
I would love to hear your comments on the FiveFingers lawsuit . I suspect many of your readers and listeners would be interested too. Possible blog post or podcast topic?
It seems to me that the “science” used to drive the lawsuit was a bit questionable. Is this real, or just a shakedown for money?
Sorry, George. Reading the Deadspin link  makes it pretty clear. Any benefits you thought you had experienced since donning the FiveFingers are just that: a thought, a flight of fancy conjured up from your brain in an attempt to justify the hundreds of dollars spent on a faulty product. Your knee does hurt. That’s not your shoelace you keep stepping on. It’s your Achilles tendon dangling uselessly like a five year-old rubber band.
In fact, I’d wager that this Vibram lawsuit will whisk away the veil of collective placebo  currently conning millions of Vibram-wearing readers across the globe. The knee pain that’s actually always been simmering beneath your consciousness held at bay by delusion will pick back up any minute now. Your false foot musculature will begin atrophying presently. The sheer raw joy of feeling the cracks and stones and leaves of grass beneath your minimally-clad feet will turn to ash and blunt numbness. They were all a dream. You were tricked and bamboozled. Thanks for playing. The honeymoon is over. The bone marrow edema is coming. Fluid pools accumulate and drown you. Time to die.
Jokes aside, what’s this Vibram lawsuit saying, anyway?
Ignore the astute thinkers in comment sections. Vibram isn’t being sued for making shoes that hurt your feet. Vibram is being sued for making unsupported claims that using FiveFingers could reduce foot injuries and improve the strength of foot musculature. That’s it. Nothing else.
To win the case (or get the company to settle), the plaintiff doesn’t even have to prove that these claims are false and that the opposite is true (the shoes cause damage). They just have to prove that the claims are not supported by the available evidence. And for the most part, that’s true. They aren’t.
Anecdotes  on message boards (however true) aren’t admissible in court. Appeals to the evolution of human biomechanics (however valid) will fall on deaf ears. Clinical research is required to prove a benefit, and what little research exists is ambivalent, showing mixed results.
This isn’t a conviction of minimalist footwear, as I’ve mentioned previously . Clinical trials on minimalist running  are notoriously difficult to do properly. The transition period from regular shoes to minimalist shoes alone requires far more than the dozen or so weeks most studies lend it. This makes the few trials we have to go on fatally flawed, but not useless. They show what not to do. They suggest that the importance of the transition should not be understated or taken lightly.
It may seem like a “no true Scotsman” defense. But it’s true. Running in minimalist shoes takes a lot of preparation, training, and skill – especially if you’ve worn Nike-branded casts on your feet for years – and I don’t think the studies we’ve seen up until now demonstrate sufficient preparation. It’s like when you broke your arm as a kid and sat in a cast for ten weeks. Remember when they finally took it off with that weirdly discriminating saw blade and your arm smelled funny and looked really small and skinny? Remember how you tried to sign your name in class and it felt like you had to learn how to write all over again? Remember how useless Han Solo was when Leia snuck into Jabba’s palace to dissolve the carbonite he’d been stuck inside for months?
That’s what trying to use your feet after a lifetime of keeping them encased in leather and raised rubber is like. You have to learn all over again. Your feet are to shoes as Han Solo is to carbonite.
And “experienced” runners – often the subjects of these minimalist running studies – switching over have it even harder, believe it or not. They’ve been running one way in one type of shoe for many hundreds of miles. Their feet have molded themselves to run in the shoes. Their unused muscles have atrophied. Their neuromuscular circuitry is wired for protective shoes. You can’t undo that in a few weeks. You can’t just switch over and continue to log the same amount of miles. Heck, you may not even be able to log a fifth of the miles you were doing. You probably shouldn’t do anything but walk to start .
“Land on the balls of your feet,” they say. Just take off your shoes and let instinct take over. A forefoot landing is important, but it’s not everything. It’s not enough. A lot of beginning minimalist runners misinterpret the “forefoot landing” advice. You’ll see them around town, bouncing up and down on their toes, prancing along. This is very wrong. It’s not enough to merely land on the midfoot/forefoot. You have to gliiiide. Your head should remain fairly stable with minimal vertical movement.
Which tissues are most impacted by bouncing up and down on your toes? Your calves and feet. Look, try it. Take your shoes off and bounce in place from left foot to right. Get some air. Land on your toes. Do it for a minute. How do you feel? It’s no wonder that foot and calf issues are probably the most common injuries in new Vibram users.
So I’m not surprised that Vibram wearers showed increased levels of bone marrow  edema, a marker of inflammation  and harbinger of fracture, in the recent study (PDF ) that often accompanied the lawsuit reports.
Reports of the study make it sound like the authors set out to reveal the danger posed by VFFs. Reports make it sound like they were successful in this non-existent quest. Really, study authors were just exploring the phenomenon of new minimalist runners hurting themselves during the transition. They conclude not that “runners interested in transitioning to minimalist running shoes should stick to their old shoes” but that “runners interested in transitioning to minimalist running shoes… should transition very slowly and gradually in order to avoid potential stress injury in the foot.”
I totally agree with them. Don’t you?
Running for extended periods of time at a fast pace is inherently dangerous . I’m sorry. It is. It can make you incredibly fit and fast, but running as a voluntary, daily, constant behavior is problematic. I’ve always said that traditional shoes mask the damage running does to our bodies. Going barefoot or minimalist reveals it. VFFs reveal your weaknesses, your technique deficiencies. They make you realize how dangerous running can be if you do it wrong.
That they lay bare the ramifications of chronic cardio  is one of the main benefits (although some may not see it that way) of minimalist/barefoot shoes. They enhance the feedback  we get from the environment. If we’re hurting ourselves, we feel it. If we’re placing too much stress  on on our feet, calves, or Achilles tendons, we know it.
Running incorrectly in minimalist shoes is harder on your body than running incorrectly in padded shoes. Heel striking in minimalist shoes is harder on your body than heel striking in padded shoes. There’s far less room for error. That’s why they’re such powerful tools, but it’s also why short-term studies in longterm running shoe-wearers show mixed results.
Whenever I write about barefooting  or minimalist footwear , I end up repeating myself. But the same criticisms keep appearing in the media, and I always get emails about them from worried readers, so I’m going to keep at it:
- Your transition into minimalist footwear should take longer than you think. The group of experienced runners in the study took ten weeks to do it, slowly adding in mileage in the Vibrams a mile at a time the first two weeks, then as much as they felt comfortable running, and a bunch of them developed evidence of early bone damage. Ten weeks wasn’t enough.
- Don’t run the first week. Not even a little bit. You’re not ready. Even if you feel ready, you’re probably not. Bones and connective tissue take a lot longer to adapt to stress than muscles. The runners in the study felt fine running and it turns out they weren’t.
- Running shouldn’t be jarring or bouncy. Glide forward, don’t bob up and down. Don’t run for distance until you grasp this.
- Consider just being barefoot or minimalist. Walk , hike , squat , jump , climb , play , stand . You don’t have to run to get the benefits.
- Be smart about it. If you get weird pain, stop doing it. If you feel a funny twinge in your Achille’s tendon, stop. If your calves are killing you from finally doing something with them, maybe just walk  the next couple days until the DOMS  subsides.
Yeah, you may have read similar stuff from me before, but that person who just stumbled on this page searching for “Vibram lawsuit” probably hasn’t. And he or she may actually try those weird looking shoes the right way, with due diligence, rather than blunder into a foot injury from overzealousness or listen to the naysayers and avoid a way of locomotion that can potentially revitalize their body.
Thanks for reading, all. Take care.