Back in the middle of the last decade, someone at the Vibram company had a brainstorm, the kind of once-in-a-career inspiration that undoubtedly is studied at business schools across the land. What if, this person must have mused, instead of marketing our FiveFingers shoe to the small community of boaters who use them to secure their footing on wet, slippery surfaces, we could convince tens of millions of people that they should run the streets in them? That running in flat, cushionless shoes with individual pockets for each toe is, in fact, better for your health than protecting your feet with all that soft, high-tech razzmatazz?
Even if you're not a runner, you probably know what happened next. The brilliant book "Born to Run," which celebrated a band of Mexican ultra-runners who lived in a hidden canyon and ran huge distances in sandals made from old tires, came out about the same time. A Harvard anthropologist, among others, launched a rigorous study of "barefoot running," concluding that the way people have been locomoting for hundreds of thousands of years is better for you than the raised sole of the modern running shoe.
The "barefoot" or "minimalist" boom was off and running, so to speak. Nike, Brooks and other major shoe companies jumped in with both feet, and soon you had an enormous choice of barefoot running shoes, with soles that ranged from totally flat to a few millimeters high at the all-important heel. Last time I checked, such footwear made up 10 percent of the $588 million U.S. running shoe market and had grown by 303 percent between November 2010 and November 2012, compared with 19 percent for running shoe sales overall.
Well on Wednesday we learned that Vibram has moved to settle a class-action lawsuit brought by a woman who claimed that the company deceived consumers when it claimed, without any scientific backup, that its shoes could decrease foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. The company agreed to put aside $3.75 million to pay refunds of as much as $94 to anyone who had bought a pair since March 21, 2009, according to Runner's World.
Or as Deadspin put it in a snotty post Wednesday, Vibram acknowledged that the FiveFingers is nothing more than a "
shoe foot-condom." (I'm sorry, that was unnecessary. "Deadspin" and "snotty" are redundant.)
Technically, Vibram has admitted nothing, "expressly" denying "any wrongdoing" or conceding "any actual or potential fault...or liability," according to court papers. This is like Rosie Ruiz refusing to admit that she took the subway to her victory at the 1980 Boston Marathon, but agreeing to let someone else be declared the winner so we can all move on.
It's not like this hasn't happened before. In 2012, Skechers agreed to pay a whopping $40 million in refunds to people who had spent $60 to $100 for a pair of their Shape-ups, swayed by the claim that they would promote weight loss and cardiovascular health better than other brands. Not long before that, Reebok agreed to pay $25 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misled people about the benefits of its toning shoes.
I tried the FiveFingers in 2009 and knew within a quarter mile that they were not for me. Yes, they forced me up onto the balls of my feet, where running coaches want you, because smacking your heels on asphalt roads without any padding to protect them will do that. That's the idea. It's self-preservation.
Does Vibram being caught flat-footed mean there's no merit to barefoot running? Absolutely not. There is conflicting research on the subject, but I've met dozens of people who gave up the sport because of leg injuries suffered in traditional running shoes, only to have their exercise regimens revived by the minimalist variety. In fact, I'm married to one. There's a niche for flatter-soled running gear, just as there's a market for people who prefer to drive Maseratis instead of Mazdas.
Any shoe that gets you moving is a good thing, even if it doesn't strengthen your feet, firm your butt or tone your legs. You can do that all on your own.