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May 15, 2014

On the Run: FiveFingers fallout: Don't believe the hype

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks for the minimalist running movement.

Chronicled in 2009 by Christopher McDougall’s book ‘Born to Run,’ minimalist running has been touted as a more natural way to run. The most visible sign of that movement was the Vibram FiveFingers shoe: you know, those goofy-looking rubber ‘toe shoes’ that encouraged users to land on the balls of their feet.

Starting in ‘09, minimalist shoes became all the rage for a few years, with Vibrams leading the way. Larger shoe companies like Nike, Adidas and New Balance introduced their own thin-soled shoes designed to give runners a minimalist running experience by cutting back on the cushioning that had become standard practice.

But last week, Vibram announced that it was proposing a settlement to a class-action lawsuit that alleged the company falsely claimed its shoes would prevent running injuries and strengthen muscles. The U.S. District Court in Boston will rule on the proposed settlement, which would pay out a $3.75 million settlement to customers who purchased Vibrams after March 21, 2009 (customers can claim up to two pairs of shoes for a maximum refund of $94).

Even before the settlement was announced, minimalist running was on the downswing. According to The Wall Street Journal, sales of minimalist shoes had dropped 47 percent so far this year, and in 2013 the minimalist footwear category dropped by a third to $220 million, even as the total running shoe market grew to $7 billion. This decline came after minimalist shoe sales grew exponentially earlier in this decade.

The bloom was off the minimalist rose in terms of injury prevention; in fact, many runners were sustaining injuries after switching to the shoes. This may be a case of runners jumping right into minimalist shoes from their traditional footwear without a proper transition period; runners may not have properly prepared for the different running style, landing on the ball of the foot instead of the heel and putting more pressure on the calves, shins and arches. That’s not to say minimalist running doesn’t work for some people; I know runners who have seen marked improvement in their running since switching to minimalist shoes and swear by their Vibrams, instead of at them.

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