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My thoughts on the Vibram FiveFingers lawsuit and why minimalist shoes do not create injuries.

Unfortunately I have to waste my time writing about something that is not productive but I must do so to answer all of the questions I keep getting. I feel the need to straighten out the way some people are thinking.

To begin with, Vibram USA was sued for making false claims about their footwear product known as FiveFingers. Their website touted benefits of many, but in particular that your foot can become stronger by wearing FiveFingers. This is a true statement, although it was not scientifically proven at the time the claims were made. The 2005 Nike Free study demonstrated a strength gain in the abductor hallucis muscle of the feet after subjects ran 6 months in the shoe. We have since seen Daniel Lieberman of Harvard publish a similar study on the New Balance Minimus and Merrell Barefoot Glove also demonstrating a strength gain in the abdcutor hallucis. My colleagues and I at the Kent State University College of Podiatric Medicine also have scientific data which we collected over the past 2 years that we are very excited to share as well. Albeit a bit too late for this legal battle, it will certainly shed some light on what happens to our feet during normal locomotion in a pair of FiveFingers.


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I have been very fortunate to interact with the Vibram USA where I spent a lot of time assisting in foot education, and with the help of Daniel Lieberman, write a transition protocol/running brochure for helping others transition to running in this manner. I was never employed by Vibram USA, nor did they influence me in any way to endorse their product. I did not sell their product and I do not represent them in anyway. I reached out to them 5 years ago when the barefoot running boom began and explained that this is a great way to protect the feet of those who are running barefoot. It ALLOWED natural running. It was a great product to wear that no one else was making. It was to our feet what gloves are to our hands. So simple, yet thought of as so “weird” looking. However, by wearing them our feet could function in the normal manner which they were intended to and yet not be considered barefoot. Many doors were opened for me through this adventure and I have encountered so many great individuals in the running community and shoe industry. I have also made some friendly enemies given the fact that I don’t recommend orthotics. I’ve had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world via Dr. Nick’s Running Blog which is growing astronomically by the second. What Vibram has done for the foot and running industry is truly a milestone. Some may not realize, but they helped change the way we look at running now, and more importantly for me, how we look at foot function.

I was able to resolve a 10 year old injury which was the result of ongoing poor biomechanics indirectly related to my motion control running shoes (read more about it here). I used FiveFingers as a tool for learning how to run. I had been running since the age of 16 and was able to PR at the ages of 37-39 in a 5k, half marathon, and marathon. Not because I was wearing FiveFingers, but because I learned how to run. I guess I shouldn’t
say I learned how to run, because that could be misleading. I realized the previous shoes I was wearing was inhibiting my ability to run naturally and was altering my gait. Altering my gait so much that I was slowing down, placing abnormal stress on my forefoot, and living with chronic pain. Eventually my injury resolved on its own as the stress to my forefoot diminished as I acquired a more natural gait by running in FiveFingers. As with many, it took time. Months in fact. But, my changes were permanent and I’ve been pain-free since 2010.

So did Vibram make false acquisitions? I do not feel they did and I will explain why. They were able to break into and industry that for over forty years made the claim that our feet needed stability, motion control, and cushion to reduce or prevent injury. This industry not only sold this philosophy to the consumer, but also to physicians who then recommended it to their patients. The idea that shoes need to be fitted according to foot type with respect to arch height was instilled into all shoe manufactures and then passed down to specialty running shoe stores, retail sporting good stores, Runner’s World and other periodicals, as well as the health care professionals. Surprisingly, there is no scientific research or evidence to support this. And for the naysayers that will respond to this post with articles and claims that there is evidence, then why has the shoe industry changed? Why has the average drop height of shoes decreased by over 20%? Why has the flexibility of shoes increased? Why have the majority of all high end running shoes companies introduced minimalist shoes (New Balance Minimus, Merrell Barefoot Glove, Nike Free, Adidas Adipure, Altra Running Company, Saucony Kinvara, Brooks Pure, Skechers GOrun and GOMeb)? If the injury rates are still as high as 70% in traditional running shoes, then did these companies not make false claims as well? Are you getting it? It’s not the shoes that are the problem. It’s the training patterns and the way people run that create injuries. The traditional running shoes with high cushioned heels and motion control midsoles are severely inhibiting natural running form so bad that a high percentage of runners are getting injured. Pronation has nothing to do with overuse injuries. I can list countless articles that demonstrate this (and will do so in a blog post that is being drafted as you read this). Vibram made no more claims then did the rest of the industry over the past forty years. Look how many individuals bought shoes because they had a gel pad or air in the sole. Have you ever cut open an ASICS gel shoe to see the gel pad in it? There’s more cushion in the case I store my iPad in. And, If this gel is so crucial, then consider this- they sell you a shoe with gel in the heel for “X” amount of dollars, and if you spend a few extra dollars, you can get gel in the forefoot too. Are they not liable than for injuries to those who could not afford a shoe with gel in both the forefoot and the heel? The same goes for the Nike shoes and all shoe companies. Consider a physician who recommends a running shoe to a patient and they buy the “less expensive” model from the same brand. If this patient buys the $80 shoe instead if the $180 shoe who is responsible for the injury? The shoe company or the physician? Meaning if the $180 shoe with more motion control and stability propaganda is needed why do they sale the $80 shoe? Shouldn’t they be responsible for the injuries the $80 shoes created?

Listen, I’m not trying to cover for the claims that Vibram made. Although at the end if the day the claims are more than likely true. Shoes do not create stress fractures, overuse and osteoporosis does. Running in FiveFingers does not create plantar fasciitis, overuse and weak abdcutor hallucis, abductor digiti minimi, and flexor hallucis brevis muscles do. Walking barefoot does improve posture so it’s pretty safe to assume that wearing a FiveFingers would improve posture. Ankle equinus is a pathologic condition that podiatrist claim many foot injuries and disorders are the result of. It refers to the ankle joint not being able to obtain more then 10° of dorsiflexion or upward motion. Well guess what happens when you put on a traditional running shoe with a 14mm drop height? Ankle joint motion is restricted and the foot is in equinus. Should we sue the shoe company?

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Barefoot at moment of impact demonstrating the approximate degree of angle before heel is lowered to ground.

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Foot in traditional running shoe depicting heel height.

 

Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run has sold over a half of million copies world wide, was in the New York Times best seller list for over 200 consecutive weeks, and was coined by Amazon as one of the 100 books to read in a lifetime. Should we sue him as well?

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Running creates injuries. As we continue to run, we will continue to have injuries. Don’t blame a shoe company for getting injured. We didn’t have running shoes with cushioned heels and motion control before the 70’s and people still ran. Shoes are not the answer and I think Vibram was trying to make that point. Wearing FiveFingers doesn’t make the foot stronger. Not relying on support or motion control shoes is what makes the foot stronger. It just so happens that Vibram came up with a product that allowed this to occur.

Thanks for reading and we can’t wait to share the results of our findings very soon!

-Dr. Nick

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