Vibram Lawsuit: An End To Minimalist Running?

The fitness world is, sadly, influenced to an extreme degree by fads. Supplements appear that will dissolve your fat and coat you in bulging muscles. Exercises shove their way to the forefront by provide insanely powerful, and previously unknown, muscle contractions. And, of course, there’s the ever-changing market of workout gear.

Several years ago, barefoot running took the fitness industry by storm. While many adventurous runners were choosing to go totally barefoot, the prospect of running without any protection scared many athletes away from the trend. Enter minimalist running shoes, with Vibram’s line of FiveFingers leading the charge.

Despite their odd, glove-like appearance, these shoes really didn’t take long to catch on. The claims, made both by the manufacturer and by other expert sources, stated that these FiverFinger shoes allowed you to adopt a more natural gait. Specifically, the thinking was that the light, “barefoot” nature of the shoes would teach runners to shift to a forefoot strike and avoid injuries associated with high-impact exercises.

Personally, I bought my first FiveFingers in early 2010. Since then, I have had nothing but positive experiences with them. But some other runners were not as satisfied and, recently, a class-action lawsuit has been filed against Vibram on the basis that the company made unsubstantiated claims and used false advertising to sell the shoes.

Although Vibram maintains that the charges are untrue, the company settled.

So, the big question is: Should you stop using your FiveFingers or another similar shoes? Are the products a waste of money?


Existing Research, Evidence and Just Plain Logic

Among the claims that the lawsuit labeled as false were the following:

(1) Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs

(2) Improve range of motion in the ankles, feet, and toes

(3) Stimulate neural function important to balance and agility

(4) Eliminate heel lift to align the spine and improve posture

(5) Allow the foot and body to move naturally

It is true that there isn’t an overwhelming amount of research regarding this type of footwear but, a huge amount of information can be gleaned from one existing study. The research in question – which played an important role in the lawsuit – was sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, an independent organization.

The study looked at several effects of running in Vibrams, including impact forces, strike style and knee flexion. The idea was to determine the likelihood of injury associated with Vibrams when compare to more traditional running shoes.

When running in standard shoes, all of the 16 female subjects had a heel-strike. Once they put on the Vibram’s, though, only half of them switched to the appropriate forefoot strike pattern. This is the first point worth considering because making this change is vital to barefoot running. Without the padding of traditional running shoes, a heel strike in minimalist shoes can dramatically increase your risk of injury. Clearly, not everyone will find it easy to make this change. In fact, the subjects had two weeks to get themselves accustomed to running in the Vibrams  and still only half adopted properly.

The few runners who did successfully change their gait in the Vibrams also developed a great range of plantar flexion on contact with the ground. This allowed them to absorb the impact better, an adaption that is associated with a lower risk of injury. All of the subjects, regardless of their gait, showed less knee flexion while wearing the Vibrams. This is also a beneficial change that can lower injury rates.

Essentially, the researchers concluded that Vibrams (and similar shoes) do have distinct benefits if they are used properly. Unfortunately, the changes required to make proper use of the minimalist shoes can be pretty difficult to achieve without proper coaching and time to acclimate. One of the leaders of the study, John Porcari, Ph.D said “People may need very explicit instruction and time spent practicing how to land on the ball of the foot. Otherwise, they may be doing themselves more harm. Simply switching to Vibrams doesn’t guarantee that a person is not going to experience more injuries.” (Emphasis ours.)


The Takeaway

So, will I stop using my Vibrams? No.

Will I participate in the lawsuit? No.

Granted, some of the claims made by Vibram were not explicitly backed up by the research but they were inferred. Sure, the manufacturer may have taken some things out of context to sell their product, which is an extremely common marketing practice. Ultimately, though, the fact remains that the end-user is responsible for the way that they chose to use the product.

Beyond that, if you haven’t experience problems with your current shoes or strike, there’s probably no reason to change. As we’ve seen, that’s a very difficult – and potentially risky- swap to attempt. On the other hand, if you’ve been using Vibrams and had a good experience, why stop now?

What are your thoughts on the Vibram lawsuit? Please share them in the comments.