By Daniel J. DeNoon
Do the popular barefoot-style Vibram FiveFingers shoes injure runners by making deceptive claims of health benefits?
That’s what Valerie Bezdek of Pinellas County, Fla., says in a class-action lawsuit filed in the Massachusetts U.S. District Court. Five law firms represent Bezdek and “others similarly situated.”
In its advertising, Vibram says its FiveFingers products provide “all the health benefits of barefoot running.” The ads specifically claim that the five-toed, low-heeled shoes:
- Strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs
- Improve range of motion in ankles, feet, and toes
- Stimulate neural function, improving balance and agility
- Align the spine and improve posture
“Unbeknownst to consumers, [Vibram's] health-benefit claims are deceptive because FiveFingers are not proven to provide any of the health benefits beyond what conventional running shoes provide,” the lawsuit alleges. “Indeed, running in FiveFingers may increase injury risk as compared to running in conventional running shoes, and even when compared to running barefoot.”
In a statement, Vibram says it will fight the lawsuit, but that the company “has decided not to litigate the case in the press at this time” and will not comment on the allegations.
“As with any innovation that ignores conventional thinking, there will always be some skepticism. Vibram’s FiveFingers is no different,” the Vibram statement says.
The Vibram web site offers a step-by-step guide to learning to run in FiveFingers shoes. The guide warns runners that they may have to radically change their gait, as most runners land on their heels while barefoot-style running requires runners to land softly on the balls of their feet.
The FiveFingers guide warns users to start slowly with foot-stretching exercises, and only gradually to work up to longer and longer runs wearing the shoes. The guide says it will take at least 13 weeks, and perhaps a year or more, to learn to run safely in FiveFingers.
The guide also carries a disclaimer, warning that there is an inherent risk in running and that “such training initiatives may be dangerous if performed incorrectly and may not be appropriate for everyone.”
Nevertheless, as the lawsuit correctly states, Vibram advertising strongly encourages runners to adopt the FiveFingers products.
The lawsuit points to a September 2011 study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) in which 16 women ages 19 to 25 were fitted with Vibram FiveFingers Bikila shoes. The women spent two weeks getting used to running in the FiveFingers shoes. Then they underwent motion impact-force analyses wearing the Vibram shoes, barefoot, and wearing a neutral pair of running shoes (New Balance 625).
About half the runners were able to change their gait to land on the balls of their feet when running barefoot and in FiveFingers. These women experienced much less impact stress when running in FiveFingers than in running shoes, although running barefoot decreased the impact stress even more.
But the women who were unable to switch and who kept landing on their heels experienced much more impact stress when wearing FiveFingers than they did wearing running shoes.
“Just because you put the Vibrams on your feet doesn’t mean you’ll automatically adopt the correct running stride,” study researcher John P. Porcari, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, said in an article reporting the study findings.
The lawsuit also points to this statement from the American Podiatric Medical Association: “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.”
Claiming that Vibram cannot back up its claims of health benefits with scientific research, the lawsuit asks the court to order Vibram to stop its “deceptive” advertising, to publish “corrective” advertising, to give its customers back the “premium price” they paid for FiveFingers shoes, and to pay all attorney fees.
In this lawsuit, Bezdek is not seeking compensation for any personal injury she or other plaintiffs may have suffered.