Barefoot Running Hits A Wall

Vibram has settled a lawsuit over its barefoot shoes:

The company will put $3.75 million into an escrow account to pay out settlements to class vibrammembers and will remove all claims that its products either strengthen muscles or reduce injuries—unless it comes up with proof. … Whether running barefoot is actually superior to using normal running shoes has been increasingly called into question over the last few years. While early studies showed that the barefoot style could reduce impact in areas like knees that are prone to strain, later studies found that the strain simply shifted to other parts of the leg and foot. Barefoot running is not necessarily better—just different. In response, Valerie Bezdek filed her class-action suit against Vibram in Massachusetts in March 2012.

Sarah Kliff explains the science:

Vibram has attached a laundry list of health claims to its shoes, detailed in a February 2013 legal complaint:

(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,
and (5) allow the foot and body to move naturally. At various
times, defendants’ website added that wearing FiveFingers would
improve proprioception and body awareness, reduce lower back pain
and injury, and generally improve foot health.

Podiatrists beg to differ. The American Podiatric Medicine Association put out a policy statement back in November 2009 — which they still stand by today — saying that “research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long-term effects of this practice.”

But Fallows won’t be claiming his refund:

[A]s I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than “running through” the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.

All of these amounted to a blow to the pride, perhaps—one of many as the years roll on. But, for now, through the Vibram age nothing has gone physically wrong with my running infrastructure.

Nevertheless, Peter Vigneron thinks “the market for minimalist shoes has bottomed out”:

According to the Journal, sales in that category are down 47 percent this year even as the rest of the shoe industry has grown. What for several years looked like a trend with staying power now looks pretty clearly like a fad.

That’s unfortunate, because I’m mostly convinced that minimalist shoes are in fact better than normal shoes. Why? Even though the evidence for minimalism is weak and contradictory, it’s no weaker than the evidence for traditional shoes, which are probably over-cushioned and over-supported.