Since the 1970s, runners have been looking for any way to improve their times and do anything they can to speed up. With that in mind, running fads have come and gone. The most recent of which, the minimalist “barefoot” running shoe and specifically the Vibram FiveFingers shoe, may be coming to an end.
Last week Vibram agreed to settle a class action lawsuit claiming that they misrepresented their FiveFingers shoes by saying they would strengthen and prevent injury in the foot. The shoe, most noticeable by their tight grip around the toes and foot, has gained popularity over the last few years along with the overall minimalist trend in running. In theory, the shoes are supposed to help strengthen the foot by allowing it to be used in a more natural way. However, Foot and Ankle Orthopedic Surgeon at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush Dr. Simon Lee said there is absolutely no science backing these claims up, and the settlement seems to agree.
“I don’t think there is a medical basis or reason to use a shoe like that,” Lee said. “I don’t think there is any doctor out there who would say •with your specific foot, you should be in a minimalist shoe.”
Unfortunately for many runners who have decided to use the FiveFingers shoes, the problem goes beyond the shoe simply not giving any benefit to the user. Lee said he usually handles two or three cases a year where the patient is suffering from a stress fracture in the foot that can be directly connected to when they started using these barefoot shoes. The injury comes as a result of removing all of the extra padding most shoes offer and forcing the foot to hit the ground nearly bare. It is the equivalent of driving without any shocks on a car, Lee said, and it causes the user to feel every bump and change in terrain. The technology that goes in to the making of the most popular running shoes often goes overlooked, Lee said, so to go from a technologically advanced shoe to one that actively ignores it can cause a number of problems for the user.
Lee, whose specialty is all things foot and ankle, has worked hands on with a number of sports related injuries and consultations. He has worked with both the Chicago Bulls, White Sox and DePaul University.
These stress fractures were originally known as a “march fracture” because it became a common injury for new recruits in the armed services. The new soldiers would be marching, walking and running great distances, often with additional weight, and wound up with similar stress fractures in their feet to the ones runners are now experiencing. The heart of the problem, Lee said, comes from the quick change from a regular shoe to a minimalist.
Even runners who still believe in the barefoot running trend advise avoiding these shoes. Chicago Area Barefoot Running, a group of runners who train exclusively completely bare feet which Lee also advised against, recommended runners to avoid using the FiveFingers shoes. On their website, founder Owen McCall said they advise runners to simply run without any shoes. Doing this will slow down the pace of runs until the runner is fully acclimated to the new style.
On their website, Vibram advises all runners to gradually make the transition to the FiveFingers shoes. The site says that while most runners take only a few weeks to get used to the new feel, some could take months or even north of a year before they are fully prepared for the barefoot shoe. They advise to pay close attention to any pain or new feeling in their feet and to always have a spare pair of shoes ready in case a switch is needed. The website also gives a series of exercises that can be done either in the shoes or barefoot that will help to strengthen the foot and help the transition. These stretches and exercises are meant to build the same muscles used in the barefoot running.
While the company was not immediately available for any comment on their FiveFingers shoes or the state of the company going forward, the website still states in multiple locations that the shoe helps with stronger, healthier running. The website says that the FiveFingers shoes are specifically designed to promote better foot mechanics naturally and help the user become healthier.
“We believe that moving and running in FiveFingers can make us healthier, happier, and more connected to our bodies*.” The website goes on to say in another are that “Wearing FiveFingers for running, fitness training, water sports or just for fun will make your feet stronger and healthier — naturally.”
There are a couple of areas that both Vibram and Lee agree on, however the overall importance are stark contrasts. The company and the orthopedic surgeon both agree that it is important to very gradually make the switch from regular shoes to FiveFingers. Lee said that with all of the different options there are now not only different subsets of running shoes, but even subsets of minimalist shoes. Using these different subsets to gradually transition to the FiveFingers, which Lee called the extreme end of running shoes, can help to make the transition easier. Lee also said that a long history of running still doesn’t make up for transition time between shoes. One of his patients who came in with a stress fracture after switching quickly to FiveFingers shoes was an active marathon and ultramarathon runner who Lee said would run 30 to 50 miles a week. Lee said this patient would be able to return to these shoes if he wanted, but was advised to keep the runs to a shorter distance and use different running shoes for long runs.
Even with the lawsuit and lack of medical support, a number of runners still support the shoes and what they have done for their health. Many runners posted on Facebook that the shoes have helped their arch stability, form and overall posture. While all said that the shoes need to be eased in to and a few said that they can’t be used in all situations, most plan on continued use of the FiveFingers shoes.
Josh Hogan, of Mundelein, said it was medical problems that originally drove him to use FiveFingers in the first place. Hogan said that he continued to injure himself using traditional shoes and after reading Born to Run in 2009 he made the switch to FiveFingers. Initially the transition was difficult, Hogan said. When he first used them for a run he felt his calves burning and was reluctant to use them again. However after continued injuries, he began using the FiveFingers on short runs following his regular training run, gradually increasing the mileage. Hogan said he no longer uses the shoes, but not because of any medical problems. Instead, he has switched to a pair of Mizzunos that he said are lighter than the FiveFingers.
The switch wasn’t all-for-not. Hogan said that using FiveFingers forced him to run with better form, shortening his gait and getting him off his heels with less impact on the foot. However, Hogan said that is the extent of the help. “I don’t think there is any miracle in them or that they strengthen your feet, I don’t buy into that,” he said. “It just changed my form.”
On May 12, the Hon. Douglas P. Woodlock of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts approved the class action settlement over FiveFingers. As reported by Legal Newsline, the lawsuit stated that Vibram’s ads were deceptive and “may increase injury risks as compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to running barefoot.” As a result of the decision, Vibram will deposit $3.75 million into an escrow and members of the class will receive a refund up to $94 for as many as two pairs of FiveFingers shoes. Additionally, Vibram has agreed to discontinue some aspects of their advertising and will no longer make statements conscerning health benefits without verifiable scientific evidence, the Legal Newsline story said.
While one lawsuit is still open, Vibram has begun the process towards giving refunds to runners. They have launched the website fivefingerssettlement.com where they will update and post new information concerning the refunds. The website will include any important dates, deadlines or notices.
The scientific research is clearly the sticking point for many, including Lee. While all sides seem to agree that running in FiveFingers shoes may not cause injury if properly transitioned, Lee said the risk far outweighs any potential benefits.
“Most people that discuss the minimalist shoes would say your feet are meant to be barefoot, it should make your foot the strongest it can be,” Lee said, however when asked if this is true the doctor disagreed. “Nope, there’s never been any documentation or studies that can prove that. They are basically making a scientific statement that couldn’t be substantiated.”
*Emphasis added was by Vibram on their website, not Chicago Athlete