My thoughts on the Vibram lawsuit

So it turns out I couldn’t have picked a better week to take a break from Facebook and Twitter.

Yesterday’s headlines:

Vibram Agrees to Settle Class Action Lawsuit. Suit claimed company deceived consumers.

People who bought these Vibram FiveFinger shoes may be entitled to a refund.

FiveFingers Maker Vibram Moves to Settle Suit Over Health Claims.

Etc.

The good news is, I don’t even have to be online any more, because you geniuses are savvy enough to essentially do my job for me.

Picture 31

Picture 32

As Julie and Kristine took the time to explain above, the results one gets from minimal footwear have less to do with the “shoes” themselves and everything to do with how you use them.

This case is interesting to me not only because I write on minimal footwear all the time, but because I’ve served as an expert witness in cases on footwear and health claims. Prepare to be shocked, but I feel like the hullabaloo around the lawsuit is misrepresenting the details. The actual news articles seem to be OK, but there are also a lot of “too bad you people were suckered into wearing those f-ing ugly shoes cuz now the data is in and your body is f-cked.” But let me be clear, Vibram isn’t being sued for making shoes that damage feet. I didn’t even realize that this is how people would be interpreting the story it until I read this note in my inbox:

Picture 33

It’s OK, I still love their shoes too and there’s no reason not to. But, keep reading peeps.

So, if the class action suit isn’t about physiology, what is Vibram being sued for? Answer: The way they advertised their shoes.

In this article The Vibram Lawsuit, Explained, there is a great breakdown of the claim,

“[The Plantiff] alleges that she purchased a pair of Vibram FiveFingers running shoes in April of 2011. Her complaint further alleges that Vibram deceived consumers by claiming in advertising that FiveFingers shoes can deliver various health benefits to runners who use them, including, for example, reduced risk of foot injury and strengthened foot and leg muscles.”

In the claim–which you can download and read from the article linked above–there is no mention that the Plantiff had measures of her foot strength or level of injury before and after wearing them (i.e. is suing them for damaging her feet or not making them stronger as measured objectively).

To me, the lawsuit appears (I’m saying appears because I’m no lawyer, y’all) to state that the research on barefoot running isn’t adequate enough (no quantification on the term adequate), that Vibram is assuming that their minimal shoe is similar to barefoot running (and therefore one can reap the benefits similar to those found in the inadequate barefoot studies), that people might have purchased these shoes without realizing that they would have to change their gait in order to receive certain benefits, and that Vibram was able to charge a significant price premium (i.e. people valued these benefits more than what they would have paid for a standard foot covering) because of the implied data that they, according to the Plantiff, did not have.

“Not only is there no reliable data demonstrating that running in FiveFingers will yield the health benefits Defendants say they will yield, but 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.”

Within the claim is verbiage obtained From the Vibram website:

“For some, it is a matter of weeks, for others months, and for a few it could be a year or more. Much is dependent on your foot type, the activities you’re using Vibram FiveFingers for, and the amount of pronation you experience. The progression will ultimately be worth the wait, and your foot and body will be stronger and better off for it. The answer lies in your inherent foot and body biomechanics and the condition of your muscles. Just remember, improving the skill of those muscles then practicing and using those muscles in Vibram FiveFingers will increase both endurance and strength. This will have profound beneficial effects on your body and wellbeing. Listen to your body.”

Semantically, it appears that the Plantiff is suing because she believes the message created by the company was that running in Vibrams (as in, put shoes on and let them work their magic) would provide “all the health benefits of barefoot running.” And alleges that that by advertising their shoes as instantly transforming the body into something with stronger muscles and less injury, the “Defendants have been able to charge a significant price premium for FiveFingers over other conventional running shoes.”

(I’m not sure how many runners were logging miles in conventional running shoes that cost less than $90 bucks. Even when I was running in college and shopping at the no-so-expensive Big Five, I paid $75.oo for a pair of Asics every 250 miles. What’s the cost of this conventional shoe mentioned in the claim? I’d love to know to determine just how swindled people were.)

I’m slowly becoming obsessed with semantics — which seems like a totally different field than health and biomechanics, right? Only you can’t do one well without the other. Actions based on words are entirely useless unless everyone agrees to what the words mean, exactly. For example, who thinks a shoe can make you healthier? If you say, YES!, absolutely, then put your assumption to the test: If you lie in bed all day wearing the shoes will that make you better than a day spent in bed without them?

WARNING: THIS NEXT PART MIGHT PISS OFF RUNNERS, BUT I HOPE IT DOESN’T PREVENT YOU FROM HEARING THE FOLLOWING MESSAGE.

The term wearing doesn’t even begin to encompass the process that occurs when one bears weight in different types of footwear, so a different term needs to be selected when talking seriously — certainly legally — about health outcomes. Walking in Vibrams. Standing in Vibrams. Running in Vibrams. Walking 1 mile in Vibrams. Walking 10 miles in Vibrams. Doing squats in Vibrams. Walking on grass in Vibrams. Walking on concrete in Vibrams. Each of these scenarios are entirely different and can only be measured (for comparison’s sake) on the same person, on moment-to-moment basis. If you think there is any “thing” that is good, all of the time, in every scenario, then you’re not thinking very hard.

A famous example of what I’m trying to say here is the “is water dangerous” test, where the 10th grade teacher points out that even innocuous ol’ water can kill you if you inhale it. And yes, while we could all choke to death by shoving minimal footwear down our wind pipes, I’m not talking about death by minimal shoe, but harm by use.

Most of you who read my blog regularly and have read my book on feet, minimal footwear, and transitioning safely know that not only do I think you walk in minimals for, oh, I don’t know, YEARS before you start running, I don’t think you should be running much at all and never for a prolonged time on man-made surfaces. You can’t hinge your reason for using minimal shoes on SHOES ARE UNNATURAL if you can’t look the POSSIBLE EFFECTS OF THE UNNATURAL SURFACE or YOU BODY IS NOT THE SAME VERSION OF YOU, HAD YOU BEEN IN NATURE THROUGHOUT A LIFETIME arguments in the eye. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t run on concrete with bare feet and do just fine (depending on whatever your definition of “just fine” is) but that it’s problematic to construct your mental arguments in this fashion. If you’re running on concrete in minimal shoes it has to be for some other reason you might have like, “I just want to and I feel OK doing so.”

I’m going to end this post with stuff I’ve written already, because, um, I’ve already written this already. I don’t need to write it again, people just need to read it. From my book (yes, for men too) Every Woman’s Guide to Foot Pain Relief: The New Science of Healthy Feet:

We Westerners have a habit of picking a “natural” habit and jamming it into our unnatural lives, such as barefoot running for long distances on cements and asphalt. This takes a good thing (natural foot movement) and potentially creates a vibrational load that can lead to fractures in over-loaded foot bones and injuries of the soft tissue. Train smart. Be logical. If you want natural foot movements for optimal health, walk in natural environments. Shoes have been protecting us from our over-rigid environment for some time, and it takes time (years, even) to restore function. To get those feet healthier quicker, I strongly suggest a plan for increasing range of motion and function of the intrinsic foot musculature, and restoring appropriate length to extrinsic foot, lower leg, and thigh muscles.

I regularly see people excite themselves over the next training fad, run out and buy the new barefoot-simulating shoes, so they can run in a way that is “better for their health.” I see these same people take feet that have no motor skill or strength, slap on their new shoes and take a long run on the paved streets in their neighborhood, their upper body falling out in front of them, increasing the G-forces of their landing with every step. Slap! Slap! Slap!

This is a couple of paragraphs from my upcoming book Move Your DNA:

I am a super-huge fan of the minimal-footwear movement, but I am completely surprised at the failure of the barefoot/minimal-footwear community to regularly produce sound physiological guidelines on how to transition out of conventional footwear—as though the tissues in our feet were somehow different from those found in the rest of our bodies when it comes to adaptation.

When you decide you want to run a marathon, you don’t jump off your couch and start with a twenty-mile run. I mean, most people wouldn’t even consider jumping out of bed to sleep on the floor; they’d be so worried about their back or neck throbbing the next day. Yet people everywhere have gotten rid of their shoes despite decades of wearing them, and they’ve started running in minimal footwear without doing a lick of foot-training.

Of course, many have transitioned just fine. Unfortunately, many haven’t; even more unfortunately, it’s only the injured folks that have taken their fractured bones and inflamed fascia to the podiatrist’s office—reinforcing much of the medical community’s data set with respect to minimal footwear and injury.

Move-Your-DNA-Apr15

I think this case against Vibram is a great way to start (or, in my case continue) the dialog regarding how under-nuanced our consideration of movement has become. Why is Vibram positioned as a running shoe? How many hours a day do you want to get the giant wedge out from under your heel (then ankle, then knee, then spine), an hour a day or ten? Why do we prize and promote form, mindful movement, and natural health for this isolated thing that happens four times a week (running, if I’ve lost you) but not see the value in the application of the tenets to the 95% of our life that surrounds our exercise session?

Do I plan on continuing to wear my Vibrams? Sure. Including this lawsuit, there is nothing I’ve read (all the most recent research and point of views on the human foot, foot disease, and minimal footwear included) that indicate I shouldn’t be wearing them as I do (all damn day) and as I’ve recommended. The key here is to note the difference between using our feet for all-day living and using them for running. Not the same thing. As Eric Clapton says, “It’s in the way that you use it.”

(And yes, I just subtly released the cover image of Move Your DNA in case you missed it. You likey this post, you’re going to lovey the book.)

Are you still interested in learning more on this?

Are You Ready to Move?

Find products and instruction to get you started right now.

right pointing arrow visit the store left pointing arrow

27 thoughts on “My thoughts on the Vibram lawsuit

  1. Yes I’m a huge nerd and a huge smile came across my face at the cover peek.. I knew it would be a squat!!! Tee hee

  2. Love it, and basically what I said to my husband when he showed me an article about this last night (he already knew what my answer would be).

    My preferred spelling is “fuct.” 😉

  3. Great post Katy. No need for knee-jerk reactions. Lawsuits are commonly nuanced and one needs a deeper look at the facts. I appreciate your comments concerning our responsibility to manage our own bodies with respect and move more intelligently. It’s that kind of thinking that keeps me coming back to you.

  4. It was fascinating reading Professor Goldberg’s break down of the Plaintiff’s lawsuit and the legal processes involved. (What an excellent translation from Legalese into English!). It will be interesting to see how the Plaintiff’s lawyers plan to prove “false advertising and therefore ill gotten financial gains”. Since you can’t bring a personal injury into such a claim (as the US courts have made it clear that it prevents a class action suit being raised) how do you prove that the shoes haven’t delivered or can’t deliver the “advertised” health benefits. Surely, she says naively, you would have to have some sort of an objective “before” and “after” measure? I think though my favourite comment from Professor Goldberg is that this may well be dropped IF the court will not authorize a class action, because essentially it won’t worth the plaintiff’s lawyers time to do so. So regardless of the whether the plaintiff has a good claim or not, if there’s not enough money it in it for lawyers then no lawsuit. So a modern lesson in cost:benefit ratio to (minimalist) boot.

  5. Good stuff Katy. I pretty much agree with everything except where you say we shouldn’t be running on man made surfaces (concrete/asphalt) barefoot or in FiveFingers. Just like the body has an amazing ability to adapt to slouching at a desk, in a car, and in front of the TV, the human body can also adapt to running and doing anything else including running on hard surfaces. I’ve logged thousands of miles and done many 20+ mile runs and marathons on roads wearing my FiveFingers and always felt great. The body can adapt, but like you say, it just takes time and listening to the body. Thanks again Katy and keep up the great work helping teach and show people how beautiful our bodies are if we treat them well. -Matt

  6. Ugh. The verbage and nuances involved. No personal responsibility. What about the pictures we see in adverts all the time? Are those not false as well?

  7. Your assertion that the barefoot community hasn’t come up with a cohesive plan for transition belies your lack of research. I have two books on the subject, “Barefoot Running Step by Step” by Barefoot Ken Bob (barefootrunning.com) and “Barefoot Running” by Michael Sandler- both books have been out for several years now and both are nationally known, perhaps internationally…Both books give explicit, step by step, plans for transitioning. I can’t imagine that a simple amazon search doesn’t yield several, if not, dozens more…

  8. Hi Katy,

    I am looking forward to that book of yours… Anyway, after reading that,

    “…there is nothing I’ve read (all the most recent research and point of views on the human foot, foot disease, and minimal footwear included) that indicate I shouldn’t be wearing them…,”

    it sparked my memory about the work of Dr. Steven Robbins, a barefoot-advocating MD, whom has thoroughly critiqued “minimalist” footwear. Have you read any of his work? I would think you would be interested.

    His site: http://www.stevenrobbinsmd.com

    Hope to hear from you. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thaks for that link.
      So he says go ahead and walk/run even on manufactured surfaces. But don’t wear shoes-minimal or not period

  9. Katy, if I can be a J.D. who has become obsessed with biomechanics, you can surely be a biomechanist obsessed with legal semantics.

    Great post, and thanks for taking the time to write it during your screen fast.

  10. I think i should sue Nike, i was wearing their trainers when i broke my foot. Nothing to do with the fact that i’m overweight and totally unagile so i went over on my ankle. This lawsuit shows i don’t need to use my commonsense Or Take personal responsibility for anything.

  11. Oops posted too soon. I am currently in the rehab stage of recovery. Reading this article makes me realise i should probably be stretching my foot, ankle and calves better than i am. Any recommendations for a book / dvd that could guide me.

  12. I’ve seen some comments from people about taking the $20 per pair and reinvesting it into a new pair of Vibrams. I just might partake in that.

  13. Yes! I said this the minute people started linking on my FB wall about the lawsuit. “How many of those with injuries ran in their Vibrams the RIGHT way!?!?!?”

    Loved this and linked it on FB as a response to all the concerned people in my life. 🙂

  14. Thank you for this clarification. I have been using Vibram shoes for 3 years now and got good results. I recently saw a post of the lawsuit on Facebook and did quite a research on this lawsuit to see if it was a fake or not (first saw this lawsuit based on huffing post haha). Either way people do need to understand that wearing these shoes requires training. I was walking in these shoes for 6 months before I even began my first 1/4 mile run with this shoes. My feet, ankles, and knees all had to adapt to a non supported construction I’ve always had with shoes. Though one thing I never really thought about was the type of environment we run in. Didn’t really consider pavement as unnatural walking or running conditions. I really will be pondering on this for a bit haha. Thank you for this post. I knew from the start there was something wrong with the interpretation of this case. I know so many people who buy these shoes then run 4-6 miles. That’s how injuries happen. I still recommend these shoes, but I always tell them don’t just run on them right away. Know your body conditions and limits. Thank you for clearing this up.

  15. So if I’m running on concrete I should use the soured up running shoes to avoid the slap slap ? Then minimalist other times?

  16. This blog content was so unfocused, seemed like just writing a stream of thoughts that go here + there + everywhere. Very difficult to follow, absorb. Suggest drnicksrunningblog.com for clear concise info on minimalist running shoes and how to transition correctly. He’s a podiatrist who has been an advocate of minimalist footwear ( and never prescribes orthotics) for years.

  17. Not to say this is what the lawsuit is really about, but as a former legal secretary, I can tell you that some lawyers make a living drumming up class action suits. They have to get a certain number of people to agree to join as plaintiffs, then essentially both sides’ lawyers and the judge figure out how much money all the lawyers get. For example, a class action suit over a type of bolt required me to call hardware stores all over the area and plead with the owners to join the class. When the lawsuit was “settled,” the hardware store owners each got about $2.00. The lawyers for the class got, um, considerably more than that!

  18. Ahhhhhhhhh! I freaking LOVE you! I was hoping you would blog about this. Genius, woman. Genius.

  19. My only comment on Vibrams is that if I had not been wearing them, but rather a traditional hiking shoe, then the ligaments of my big toe joint would not have been severely damaged when I went ass over teakettle down a gully. My toe joint was the only thing hurt (like a mo’ fo’ ) in my fall that day (March 2013) and it still hurts (a LOT) to this day. The small piece of rubber material that extends from the sole to the top of the toe tripped me up. Now I can’t wear Vibrams at all. Cant tolerate top of foot or tennis ball stretching of planta fascia, so RE is not really helping me at this time. Am I planning to collect, heck no. Too much trouble.

  20. I just bought a new pair of Vibrams last week. I LOVE them, and don’t think I could live without them. I switched to vibrams about 4 years ago and went straight to wearing them all day, everyday…maybe not the smartest thing ever, but fortunately, I only reaped amazing benefits and now I cannot possibly wear anything else. I did try to go back to Nike for a bit a few months ago(the past two months before I bought my vibrams last week) and experienced almost instant foot aching. It was horrible. Wasted $90 on a pair of Nikes that I can’t even wear now. I should sue Nike for making a shoe that made my feet weaker. Great post, agree completely.

    Janette,

    In love with vibrams, forever and always

  21. So vibram purchasers apparently have two choices.

    1. don’t file a claim, and let all that money (which will inevitably be spent) go to the people who had unreasonable expectations and rushed things and got injured.

    2. file a claim and use the money to buy another pair of vibrams, thereby reducing the loss felt by vibram.

    Which do you think vibram would prefer? I already filed my claim and look forward to a new pair of goofy toe shoes.

    Just a thought. I love your blog and can’t wait to apply the ideas in your books to my studies while in PT school this fall!

    Best,
    Bryce

  22. Good article! I stopped running on pavement years ago so your statement, “I don’t think you should be running much at all and never for a prolonged time on man-made surfaces.” resonated with me!

    I will check out your books too! 🙂

  23. Hi! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website with
    us so I came to give it a look. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and
    will be tweeting this to my followers! Outstanding blog and
    outstanding design.

Comments are closed.