in Running, Running Shoes

Who bought Vibram FiveFingers for the health claims?

The rubbered, uncomfortable tale of Vibram FiveFingers comes to a close.

Vibram FiveFingersThe maker of the funny minimalist shoe is settling a class action lawsuit brought on a couple of years ago over claims that the shoe decreased injuries and strengthened the foot. Ends up that you’ve got to have scientific backup for claims like that if you’re using them to sell stuff. There’s a lot of reporting on the matter, namely Washington Post, Runner’s World, and, where I first learned about the announcement, 0n The Dallas Morning News‘ Health Blog.

Way back in October 2009, I blogged about receiving a pair of the digit-y foot coverings. I said in the post that I’d report back on my thoughts after giving them a go, am I’m just now realizing that I never did. I’m trying to remember why. I think that I tried them, hated them, tried to find redeeming qualities about them. I likely decided to let some time pass and allow a few more tries help me discover a reason not to completely pan them. Then next thing I knew, this particular personal assignment simply slipped through my fingers. Now, years later, here’s what I remember.

I was excited about the barefoot and minimalist shoe thing enveloping running culture. I tried barefoot running and wrote about the phenomenon, and I decided that I loved the idea of it more than the practice. Also, that book Born to Run had recently come out. It set the running world on fire for a time and further fueled interest. The Tarahumara Indians are beastmode personified, and we were all right to be inspired by their story.

I tried the FiveFingers. Well, first I had to successfully cram each and every little bitty toe into its corresponding toe pocket. That was my first clue: If I can’t quickly throw on whatever it is I’m wearing for a run, you’ve lost me.

I went running in them. It’s easy to see how a runner would think the shoes aided in muscle strengthening. A day later, my calves screamed at me. But they screamed at me a day after my first try at barefoot running, too. It wasn’t the shoes themselves delivering that benefit; they were simply along for the ride while I tried running in a way my body had yet to become conditioned.

I even went out socially in them. Later they became something of a symbol of slight douchebaggery, but they hadn’t just yet. They were still a curiosity in 2009, and I enjoyed the stares they received.

Have you ever worn a pair of socks with toes in them? At first they seem fun, even cute. Then you wear them around the house and think, This is one of the most bizarre-feeling, uncomfortable things I’ve ever done to my feet. This totally blows. Bottom line, that’s what FiveFingers felt like on. I couldn’t ever get used to feeling each of my toes cradled in its own lonely compartment.

Basically, you had to already love barefoot running itself to care for wearing FiveFingers. For all practical purposes, it mimicked being barefoot but offered a layer of protection against gravel, stickers, gum and other scary detritus. That was the real value they offered. I ended up appreciating how the shoe influenced major shoemakers to offer lighter, pared-down options. I’ve bought just one pair of heavy, cushioned and overly structured shoes since then, and the rest have been fairly minimal. The lighter shoes have performed well in a variety of activities.

I don’t know of anyone who owned a pair of FiveFingers who thought they would give them health benefits. If foot strengthening and injury avoidance were their motivation, it was the barefoot/minimalist running aspect they believed would deliver, not the Vibram FiveFingers.

Still, I appreciate that a company isn’t allowed to use empty claims to play a huckster game. Be straight-up with your fellow human beings. “If you like barefoot running, you’ll enjoy our minimal FiveFinger foot coverings even more” would have done just fine for the target audience.

One thing I’m not going to miss is forcing all 10 individual toes into 10 individual, teeny weeny rubbery spaces.