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Adventure : Footwear

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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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