Recently, Florida resident Valerie Bezdek filed a complaint against Vibram Five Fingers charging that, had she known beforehand that their advertising is deceptive and fraudulent, and that their “barefoot shoes” are being sold at a premium— $85 to $100— she wouldn’t have bought them. She’s enlisted the law firm of Berman DeValerio, known for class action litigation, which has crafted a document that doesn’t seek recompense for physical damages, rather it aims to establish that Vibram Five Fingers is intentionally lying to the public so as to unjustly enrich themselves, ultimately taking advantage of unwitting runners’ hopes and dreams of improving their health, fitness, and well-being. Perhaps with designs on serving themselves a slice of the nearly two billion dollar minimalist shoe industry pie, the attorneys are poking at the crust to find out just how sweet this scam could be.
Maybe it’s different in the Sunshine State, but the last time I was in a running shoe store— which was yesterday— Vibram Five Fingers represented the low to mid range of shoe prices, slightly below the $110 average. Premium? Hardly. Next.
I don’t begrudge attorneys earning their money, but I do take issue with persecution of truth and reality. But since truth is partisan, and reality is subjective, I’ll reference fact. The fact being that humans naturally run barefooted, and that “traditional” running shoes are inherently dangerous, and that Vibram Five Fingers, while not “barefoot” per se effectively mimic the barefoot condition.
Don’t believe it? Read this:
There is evidence that evolutionary pressure selected for endurance running ability for around 2 million years before the development of the modern running shoe in the 1970s. It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that natural, habitually barefoot (BF) running is adaptive in ways that habitually shod running is not. If natural selection acted on running, then one would predict BF running to be both efficient and safe. […]
This thesis presents evidence that…modern distance runners use a maladaptive strike pattern, specifically heel strike running, which is promoted by running in modern, viscoelastic cushioned running shoes. Reverse strike running, in which the forefoot lands before the heel, may be an evolutionarily normal and more optimal running gait for several reasons. Compared to heel strike running, reverse strike running is predicted to attenuate impact forces, increase running economy, and reduce the likelihood of injury by increasing lower limb compliance while utilizing adaptations of the lower limb to increase damping and augment the storage and release of elastic strain energy.
— “One Strike and You’re Out: Kinematics and Impact Forces in Reverse Strike Running versus Heel Strike Running,” by Adam Daoud, Thesis presented to Department of Anthropology, Harvard University, March, 2009.
From infancy on, most of the hundreds of millions of shoeless people of the world habitually stand and walk not on soft, yielding turf (a persistent myth among medical practitioners) but mostly on unyielding ground surfaces. Most shoeless children are raised in such environments in cities like Bombay, Manila, Mexico City, Calcutta, Jakarta, Bogotá, etc. where the streets are either cobble-stoned or paved or with hard-packed turf. Those uncovered, “unsupported” feet grow with strong, normal arches. A century ago, the rickshaw, which originated in Japan, was the common means of transportation in many Asian cities. In 1910, some 18,000 rickshaws and 27,000 rickshaw men were registered in Shanghai alone. The rickshaw men, most of whom began their occupations in their late teens, averaged 20-25 miles daily, trotting barefoot, mostly on cobbled or paved streets and roads. Many stayed at this occupation for 40 or 50 years. The feet and arches of almost all were healthy and exceptionally strong.
— “Children’s Footwear: Launching Site for Adult Foot Ills,” by William Rossi, DPM, Podiatry Management, October, 2002.
The relative lengths of the foot and its component parts are practically the same in barefooted and shoe-wearing races. It’s form, functions and range of voluntary and passive motion are the same in both, up to the time of shoe wearing, after which progressive characteristic deformation and inhibition of function ensue. Here, as in other instances, acquired characteristics are not transmitted. The children of shoe-wearers inherent the same type of foot as do those of barefooted races, and this type is changed only in so far as footwear modifies it.
It is very significant that in the one hundred eighty six pairs of primitive feet examined, I did not find a single foot associated with the symptoms of weakness so characteristic and common in adult shoe-wearing feet, which are weakened by the restraint the shoe exerts over function…I made careful inquiry in regard to this, especially whenever I found an arch that was exceptionally low.
— “Conclusions Drawn from a Comparative Study of the Feet of Barefooted and Shoe-wearing Peoples,” by Phil. Hoffman, M.D. The American Journal of Orthopedic Surgery, October, 1905.
People who have never worn shoes acquire very few foot defects, most of which are painless and non-debilitating. The range of their foot motions are remarkably great, allowing for full foot activity. Shoes are not necessary for healthy feet and are true cause of most foot troubles.
— “Survey in China and India of Feet That Have Never Worn Shoes,” by Samuel Shulman, Pod.D., The Journal of the National Asociation of Chiropodists, 1949.
Reports from countries where both barefoot and shod population co-exist, as in Haiti, indicate high rates of lower extremity injury only in the shod population. […]
The modern running shoe and footwear in general have successfully diminished sensory feedback without diminishing the injury inducing impact, a dangerous situation. […]
The solution to the problem of running-related injuries could be as simple as promoting barefoot activity, but this is not a practical solution for most. There are social restraints. […]
The ultimate solution may well be shoe modifications, which induce intrinsic foot shock absorption and avoidance behavior.
— “Running-related injury prevention through barefoot adaptations,” by Steven Robbins and Adel Hanna, Human Performance Group, Concordia University Civil Engineering Department, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1987.
RESULTS: Compared to the standard shod condition when running barefoot the athletes landed in more plantarflexion at the ankle. This caused reduced impact forces and changes in stride kinematics. In particular, significantly shorter stride length and contact times and higher stride frequency were observed. Compared to standard shod condition, V.O(2) and peak impact forces were significantly lower with Fivefingers (P<0.05) and much closer to barefoot running. Lower limb kinematics with Fivefingers was similar to barefoot running with a foot position which was significantly more plantarflexed than in control shoe.
CONCLUSIONS: The data of this study support the assumption that changes in the foot-ground interface led to changes in running pattern in a group of experienced barefoot runners. The Fivefingers model seems to be effective in imitating the barefoot conditions while providing a small amount of protection.
— “Biomechanical and physiological comparison of barefoot and two shod conditions in experienced barefoot runners.” by Squadrone R, Gallozzi C., Institute of Sport Medicine and Sport Science, Italian Olympic National Committee, Rome, Italy, Journal of Sports Medicine Physical Fitness March, 2009.
Despite research spanning more than a hundred years, and the self-evident health and performance of modern-day primitive cultures and a rapidly growing number of unshod outliers, the Plaintiff’s suit demands that Vibram reinvent the wheel by conducting peer reviewed, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies. This to show specifically and quantifiably just what benefits there are in allowing the feet to enjoy a greater freedom of movement, their fully natural alignment, and an improved sensory communication with the running surface versus what’s experienced in the confined, insulated shod condition, and how the several millimeters of rubber underfoot might offer protection from abrasion or puncture wounds compared to running barefooted.
The words of sociologist, William Bruce Cameron, put such demands in proper context:
Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.
Of course, objective research is essential to learn how things work. But, science lags behind the revelatory experience of practitioners, and ancillary agendas often accompany acceptance or rejection of new ideas and implements. The observations of Nicholas Copernicus come to mind. His helio-centric planetary orbits, which were at odds with the prevailing, blindly accepted— and completely wrong— church doctrine of geo-centricity were, at that time, radical, but right. For most of his lifetime the smart Pole kept a lid on his findings because in the 16th Century there was scant tolerance of competing world views. Maintaining the status quo is one such imperative for those with a survival instinct, and those with subjugating interests. Another is making a buck by leveraging conventional belief and twisting logic.
Yet, the Plaintiff, who’s suffered no physical damages, seeks to save the world, reimbursing those who fell prey to Vibram FiveFinger’s marketing, however happy they may be with their purchases. There’s a certain irony in all this, of course, since “traditional” (running) shoe manufacturers have been hawking their recreational orthotic devices for decades, making their own outrageous claims regarding health, fitness, and well-being even in the midst of an escalating epidemic of running injury!
The lawsuit would have you believe that these advertising claims made for the Vibram Five Fingers are false—
5 Reasons to Wear Vibram FiveFingers:
- Strengthens Muscles in the Feet and Lower Legs— Wearing Vibram FiveFingers will stimulate and strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs, improving general foot health and reducing the risk of injury.
- Improves Range of Motion in Ankles, Feet and Toes— No longer ‘cast’ in a shoe, the foot and toes move more naturally.
- Stimulates Neural Function Important to Balance and Agility— When wearing Vibram FiveFingers, thousands of neurological receptors in the feet send valuable information to the brain, improving balance and agility.
- Eliminate Heel Lift to Align the Spine and Improve Posture— By lowering the heel, your bodyweight becomes evenly distributed across the footbed, promoting proper posture and spinal alignment.
- Allow the Foot and Body to Move Naturally— Which just FEELS GOOD.
For those interested in running in Vibram FiveFingers, please go to our Barefoot Running page for further information.
Based on feel, however, it seems unlikely that anyone who has pulled their feet from ordinary running shoes and put them into a pair of Five Fingers could have much quarrel with these five points, but the lawsuit continues:
Plaintiff cannot, without discovery, know the details of the bases for Defendants’ deceptive claims concerning running in FiveFingers. However, Plaintiff is informed and believes and thereon alleges that each statement regarding the above-mentioned health benefits was not and is not based on any sound scientific studies subject to traditional scientific scrutiny in that none of the studies (to the extent there were any) was performed by impartial parties who conducted appropriately powered double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, and none of the studies was subjected to peer review or other methods traditionally used by the scientific community to ensure accurate results.
But, There’s Incentive to Maintain the Status Quo—
The late runner and physician George Sheehan said that…
A protocol that will satisfy entrenched skeptics is hard to come by.
American novelist, Upton Sinclair wrote…
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
And, the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Corporation produced an internal document called “Smoking and Health Proposal” in the summer of 1969. In it they said…
Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also a means of establishing a controversy.
That Vibram is enjoying tremendous sales of their “barefoot shoes” puts them in the sights of opportunists who seek to shake whatever money tree they can. And those affiliated with the mainstream, medical/shoe industry complex who continue attempting to table the discussion or vehemently denounce barefoot running as risky behavior might just be revealing their self-serving collusion. This could indicate that barefoot represents as much threat to their world view as it does to the revenue stream created by their defective and ineffective products— medicinal running shoes and similar nostrums.
Oddly, and more to the point, is that even in the lawsuit the potentially lengthy adjustment process of transitioning from shod to barefoot is emphasized, and the twenty-page how-to that’s posted on the Vibram website is cited, too. Not some hidden, buyer beware, fine-print disclaimer, mind you, but a detailed, good faith effort by the manufacturer to provide a leg up for runners interested in reacquainting themselves with their primal grace. Vibram says, straight-up, adjustment takes time and a bit of work.
I detail this, too, in the Runnin’ Nekkid chapter of my book. As members of the same species we share an identical physiological structure— we’re more alike that we are different. Happily, we’re hardwired to run in harmony with Nature and the physics that modeled our bodies and prescribed our movements, except we’ve forgotten how. In fact, through running— a defining element of our humanity— about half of all runners will be injured by their sport this year, next year, the year after, etc.! But, it’s only through egregious error that we could so consistently damage the most resilient structures of our bodies— our feet and legs.
Yes, shoes are inherently problematic, but since most people will probably stop short of throwing their shoes away for good and running exclusively barefooted, learning how to run like we’re barefooted is our first logical step toward reclaiming our inherent physical fluencies. Because of its foot-friendly design, and minimal sensory interference, Vibram Five Fingers facilitates the transition toward correct running, mostly by default. Of course, you will more quickly develop the correct skills set of “barefoot” by working with a Pose Method running coach, like me.
And the suit goes on—
The attorneys quote the American Council on Exercise:
…compared with barefoot runners, shod runners and those in Vibrams showed more pronation, which is the natural side-to-side movement of the foot during running. Excessive pronation is associated with more injuries.
Except that last statement, reflecting conventional belief, is inaccurate!
Dudley Morton, author of the medical text, The Human Foot: Its Evolution, Physiology and Functional Disorders, and the physician whose description of the physical condition that bears his name, “Morton’s Toe” says this, regarding pronation:
…the metatarsal is the only structure mechanically located and qualified to prevent pronated posture; and, laxity is the only kind of mechanical fault, other than shortness, that could directly impair the effectiveness of its support…It should be emphasized at this point that the mechanical defect is not itself a direct cause of symptoms, it constitutes merely a structural predisposition to clinical disorder.
Noted orthopedist and physical therapist, Robert Donatelli, in an oft cited 1999 study, found this regarding pronation:
RESULTS: The forefoot varus and calcaneal valgus in standing was significantly associated with the maximum pronation during the stance phase of gait. Of the 65 players who demonstrated excessive pronation (> 8 degrees), 28 (43%) also reported a previous lower extremity injury. No statistically significant difference occurred, however, between injured and uninjured players with respect to the mean values of static or dynamic foot posture. In addition, foot postures were not associated with a player’s position.
CONCLUSIONS: Selected measures of static rearfoot and forefoot postures may have value in predicting dynamic rearfoot movement during the stance phase of gait. Excessive pronation in the baseball players we studied was not found to be a significant contributing factor in the development of overuse injuries.
Eminent Podiatrist, William Rossi concurs:
Pronation has become one of the holy words in podiatric scripture. But as with most nebulous terms it defies tangible form. While we commonly speak of “excessive” pronation, there is still no established or measurable standard for normal versus abnormal pronation. Pronation therapy thus becomes largely opinion or judgment therapy.
On The Science of Running blog, Steve Magness, MS, posts:
Even one of Nike’s top researchers, Gordon Valiant, the head of biomechanics at the Nike Sport Research Laboratory, says “despite over 20 years of stability elements being incorporated in running footwear there is, as yet, no established clinically based evidence for their provision.” Specifically, every runner in the highly pronated group [studied] who wore a motion control shoe reported an injury. In other words, all runners (yes, 100%) who were supposed to be wearing a motion control shoe based on their degree of pronation got injured. It’s a small sample, but this is simply astonishing. In fact, highly pronated runners actually fared better in neutral shoes!
And, Benno Nigg, Director of the Human Performance Laboratory at the University of Calgary, who happens also to be cited by the Plaintiff’s attorneys says that:
If we assume that most people have an alignment that is bad, one would think that shoes should be used to align the locomotor system appropriately. The facts are that most people have an alignment that is fine. Shoes and orthotics do not align the locomotor system in a major way.
It gets deeper still—
The complaint cites the American Podiatric Medical Association’s position on running barefoot, as though they are somehow objective and unbiased. But these bureaucrats have a horse in the race and are loathe to change, in no small way because they profit from the status quo.
So it’s no surprise that…
The American Podiatric Medical Association’s position on barefoot running demonstrates how Defendants’ uniform statements are false and deceptive. That position is as follows: “While anecdotal evidence and testimonials proliferate on the Internet and in the media about the possible health benefits of barefoot running, research has not yet adequately shed light on the immediate and long term effects of this practice. Barefoot running has been touted as improving strength and balance, while promoting a more natural running style. However, risks of barefoot running include a lack of protection— which may lead to injuries such as puncture wounds— and increased stress on the lower extremities.”
It’s easier to grasp the APMA’s reluctance to accept the mountain of evidence indicating that the barefoot condition is beneficial since they have historically endorsed heavily medicating and/or foot-disfiguring footwear for children. Even as orthopedists and pediatricians, parents and teachers expressed outrage and the national media published convincing research during the 1960s and 1980s, instead of taking a stand for public health the APMA officially bit its tongue. (Rossi, 2002.) Since tacit industry collusion and questionable motives destroy their credibility as guardians of public health, the APMA’s cautionary admonitions against running barefoot must be summarily dismissed.
This shopworn playbook’s been used before.
Back in 1972, Fred Panzer, a VP of the Tobacco Institute decided to go beyond the smoking industry’s holding strategy of merely creating doubt. In the infamous The Roper Proposal he hatches a scheme to promote competing hypotheses, experts, and reports designed to directly challenge the negative convictions proliferating in the medical community and in the media.
As the recent history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam demonstrated, it is impossible to hold the public on a middle course for any length of time. There seems to be no way that mass public opinion can engage in a controversy and choose an answer that goes beyond the range of either/or.
In the cigarette controversy, the public— especially those who are present and potential supporters (e.g. tobacco state congressmen and heavy smokers)— must perceive, understand, and believe in evidence to sustain their opinions that smoking may not be the causal factor.
As things stand, we supply them with too little in the way of ready-made credible alternatives.
Two such credible alternatives exist:
The Constitutional Hypothesis, i.e. people who smoke tend to differ importantly from people who do not, in their heredity, in constitutional makeup, in patterns of life, and in the pressure under which they live.
- The Multi-factorial Hypothesis, i.e. as science advances, more and more factors come under suspicion as contributing to the illnesses for which smoking is blamed— air pollution, viruses, food additives, occupational hazards and stresses.
Cigarette smoking may not be the health hazard that the anti-smoking people say it is because other alternatives are at least probable. […]
The Roper Proposal would be a persuasive (if not strictly scientific) medium for this message… […]
And best of all, it would only have to be seen— not read— to be believed…like the Surgeon General’s report.
(Not surprisingly, the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement wasn’t signed until 1998.)
Nevertheless, it was eons of barefooted stresses that gave us the legs we run on today.
Another assertion is that…
…consumers hoping to reap the touted health benefits from FiveFingers must first change the way they have always run with conventional running shoes. With conventional running shoes, the runner runs with a heel-strike manner. But with FiveFingers, a runner must run with a forefoot strike pattern. This process, necessary with FiveFingers, can be long and painful, and can even lead to injuries. As indicated in a recent study by the University of Wisconsin — La Crosse and published by the American Council On Exercise (the “ACE Study”), ‘“If you want to run in Vibrams, you should be prepared to change your gait pattern . . . . If you run in them, give yourself time to acclimate to them and adapt.”’ Notably, some people may never change their gait.
But the suit fails to mention that “the way they have always run” is dictated by the shoes worn. Shoes in general, and especially running shoes alter our natural gait, instantly creating instability, mis-alignment and in most cases an impact transient that wouldn’t normally be there!
To that point—
Several lines of evidence suggest that, from an evolutionary perspective, heel striking is not a normal mode of foot contact during endurance running, but instead may be a recent phenomenon, brought about by the invention of the modern running shoe.
— Daoud, 2009.
Plantar sensation induces a plantar surface protective response whereby runners alter their behavior to reduce shock. The less cushioned shoe permitted increases in plantar discomfort to be sensed and moderated, a phenomenon…termed, “shock setting.” Footwear with greater cushioning apparently provokes a sharp reduction in shock moderating behavior, thus increasing impact force.
—Robbins and Hanna, 1987; Robbins et al, 1989; Robbins and Gouw, 1990.
The practitioner commonly speaks of “sensible” heels. Such a heel does not exist. Any elevated heel under a shoe automatically initiates an altered series of foot and body biomechanics. ANY shoe with an elevated heel, even a one-inch heel, automatically places the foot at a functional disadvantage. Medical practitioners extol these “sensible” shoes on the premise that they provide more “support”. But support of what? And why do the arch and instep need corseting? To the contrary, midfoot corseting denies the foot its natural exercising function and hence would tend to weaken the tissues of the midfoot, By dramatic contrast, the foot of the shoeless native, which toils for longer hours under more conditions of duress, is totally without any artificial support, yet remains strong, healthy and largely trouble-free. Much is made by the podiatric physician about the importance of “proper” size and fit. Yet, neither podiatric medicine nor the footwear industry itself has ever established any fact-based standards of “proper fit.” As to shoe sizes, they are without standards or uniformity and have been in a state of chaos for generations, both at the manufacturing and store levels (we are still using shoe sizing “standards” and methods formulated some 625 years ago!) The less a shoe does TO a foot, the better FOR the foot. To what degree possible, a shoe should stay out of the foot’s way. In its most elemental form a shoe has only two functions: as a non-intrusive, protective foot covering, and as an ornamental dressing. The moment a shoe assumes a therapeutic function for the average foot, the foot is in trouble. The modern shoe has evolved into a complex article of engineering— though, unfortunately, much of the engineering has gone awry with many negative consequences to the foot.
Barefoot training helps correct form, and reduces foot, shin, and muscle injuries.
—William Rossi, 2001, 2002.
Every [weight-bearing joint] has its normal position altered by wearing of heels…and [thus]…their normal…mode of action [is] changed.
The shoe that gives support prevents the muscles, ligaments, and tendons from doing their natural job of supporting the foot.
Shoes push us back toward four-legged posture.
— Victor Barker, MD, Posture Makes Perfect1993.
Habitual…barefooters…manage at better distributing pressures over the entire surface of the foot sole, resulting in lower (and most likely favorable) peak pressures, [so] the design of quality footwear…should not hamper the foot’s biologically normal function.
— D’Aout, Aerts, DeClercq, Pataky, 2009.
The shoe that allows your foot to act as if it’s barefoot— that’s the shoe you want.
— Bill Rodgers, Champion Marathoner
To my knowledge I’m the first to challenge this low class action with any published evidence, even if cynical and off the cuff. There’s more to say, but right now, I’ve gotta run (barefooted).