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Skiing and Snowboarding : Running

Does the Vibram Lawsuit Mark the End of the Minimalist Fad?

There’s been a certain gleefulness in response to the news that Vibram has settled a class-action lawsuit over its FiveFingers running shoes for $3.75 million.

The FiveFingers have always been ridiculous looking, but now (finally!) there’s proof that they’re not even good for you. At least that’s how news of the settlement is playing in the media, from Deadspin to The Washington Post to The Wall Street Journal.

The lawsuit actually alleges something narrower. In advertisements, Vibram has claimed that the shoes offer health benefits to wearers, namely in the form of stronger feet and fewer running injuries. As I wrote when the suit was filed in 2012, there’s just no clear scientific evidence that FiveFingers, barefoot running, or any other minimalist shoe will lower your risk of getting injured, which made this a pretty clear case of false advertising. That was true in 2012 and it remains true today.

What’s different now is that the market for minimalist shoes has bottomed out. According to the Journal, sales in that category are down 47 percent this year even as the rest of the shoe industry has grown. What for several years looked like a trend with staying power now looks pretty clearly like a fad.

That’s unfortunate, because I’m mostly convinced that minimalist shoes are in fact better than normal shoes. Why? Even though the evidence for minimalism is weak and contradictory, it’s no weaker than the evidence for traditional shoes, which are probably over-cushioned and over-supported.

I run in an ultra-light model from New Balance, and I agree with most of the arguments in favor of “good form” running, even though I think the benefits of practicing good form are modest. The settlement means the number of minimalist options on the market will continue to shrink, and that leaves runners in worse shape.

But this was a lawsuit about an advertising campaign, not a style of running shoes. If you enjoy looking like a lizard while you run, there’s no reason to stop wearing the FiveFingers, although you might want to temper some of your minimalist boosterism, if only as a matter of good epistemology. And if you fly into a rage when you see people wear Vibram shoes, well, now you’ve got the United States District Court in Massachusetts on your side. 

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Is Skechers the New Nike—or Just a Repeat of L.A. Gear?

Meb Keflezighi sporting a pair of Skechers at this year’s Boston Marathon was like Nicole Kidman showing up at the 1997 Oscars in her John Galliano dress—only better. 

Whereas Galliano’s profile went global (while Kidman went home empty-handed), for Keflezighi and Skechers, Boston proved to be an all-out win-win: Keflezighi, 39, unexpectedly won the marathon (in his GoMeb Speed 3s), and Skechers even more unexpectedly rebranded itself as a performance-shoe up-and-comer. In fact, not even five years ago, it would’ve made just as much sense (not!) if Kidman had worn a pair of Skechers to the Oscars. After all, Skechers’ most famous endorsers ‘till recently were Kim Kardashian and Joe Montana.

And then came the news earlier this week—while Nike and Adidas were still busy eating their respective hearts out—that two-time Olympic long-distance runner Kara Goucher, 35, signed on with the 22-year-old Manhattan Beach, California-based shoe company. “Between the people at Skechers’ Performance Elite Team, the shoes they’re working on, and the fact that they’d support me without any strings attached,” says Goucher, “it really was a no-brainer.”

Prior to 2010, Skechers was a casual-shoe company. But then it started seeing room for growth in the $7 billion performance-shoe industry. That helps explain why it brought in Kurt Stockbridge (formerly of Nike) and David Raysse (who designed the Grant Hill II for FILA back in 1996 and who debuted his own shoe company, Brandblack, last year) as part of its design team. It’s also probably the reason behind Skechers’ exploration into buying the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise. Once the company had the designers, and enough ideas for a performance-shoe line, it could start bringing in athletes. Athletes who could endorse and also contribute to product development.

{%{"quote":"For Keflezighi and Skechers, Boston proved to be a win-win: Keflezighi, 39, unexpectedly won the marathon (in his GoMeb Speed 3s), and Skechers even more unexpectedly rebranded itself as a performance-shoe up-and-comer."}%}

“We had a strong point of view on our mid-foot strike technology, and how it could help Meb with his form—the rest is history now,” say Skechers’ Public Relations Director Jolene Abbott. So when Keflezighi chose not to renew his Nike contract in 2010, thinking they weren’t offering him enough money, he signed a six-figure deal with Skechers in 2011, then re-upped in 2013. As for Goucher, who’s been running in the GoRunRide3s, the new partnership just made sense. “We met with her as she was looking for new partners, and we all had the same goals in mind. It’s definitely a two-way street,” says Abbot.

That “two-way street” would be the fact that neither Keflezighi’s nor Goucher’s contract features the dreaded “reduction clause.” If Keflezighi or Goucher don’t perform well in races, Skechers doesn’t dock them any pay. Even better—and here’s the other contract watershed—Skechers allows them to wear logos of other corporate sponsors. In track and field especially, this demand of exclusivity is de rigeur and it’s long hindered the incomes of the athletes. No more. 

“My arrangement is highly unusual as I have two major sponsors,” says Goucher, who in March signed with Oiselle, the upstart Seattle-based women’s running-apparel company. “I’m proud to be the first professional runner to have such an arrangement and I genuinely hope it brings about a change in our sport and opens up more opportunities for track and field athletes. I’m very proud to have signed with two companies that were willing to think outside the box and do things in an unconventional way. I hope this is the beginning of a change in the running industry.” 

So while their athletic footwear may not be what revolutionizes the performance-shoe industry, Skechers’ contracts could certainly change the way the game is played.  

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The Top 10 Towns for High-Altitude Running

Want to breathe with unconstrained lungs, cruise over hills as if they were pesky speed bumps, and shave down your PR? Then you'll need to spend some time huffing and puffing in thin mountain air. Although there's no conclusive sweet spot for optimal elevation training, USA Track & Field has recommended that athletes live between 7,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. Sparse oxygen at such altitude forces your body to increase its number of red blood cells, thus increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to muscles during exercise and improving performance.

Lately, some of the best runners in the country have been traveling abroad for their stints at altitude. Nick Symmonds said he trained for a month at around 6,000 feet in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, leading up to the 2014 indoor track national championships. Ryan Hall and his wife, Sara, flew to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to run at 7,000 feet in preparation for this year's Boston Marathon. Desi Linden trained in Iten, Kenya (elevation 7,900), for the same race.

But there are plenty of high altitude destinations stateside. Flatlanders ought to be cautious when traveling any of these places—and not just because of the lack of oxygen. Visitors often become residents. Marathoner Frank Shorter moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 1970 to prepare for the 1972 Munich Olympics, and Boulderites still see him on area trails.

Here are ten of our favorite places to run at altitude, from high to higher:

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