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The Science (And Pseudoscience) Behind The FiveFinger Shoes Lawsuit

By / 05.09.14

As you may have heard, Vibram, makers of both shoes a sane person would actually be seen in and FiveFinger shoes, just lost $3.75 million in a class action lawsuit over said shoes. Was it a fashion crime they were accused of? No, actually, it turns out wearing boat shoes to go on a run is scientifically a bad idea.

The Fad And The Pseudoscience Behind It

This whole thing can actually be traced back to one book, Born To Run by Christopher McDougall. In it, McDougall profiles the Tarahumara people, who are famed long-distance runners and do it barefoot. So we should all do it. That’s it. That’s pretty much all he offers.

McDougall, it should be noted, is not a scientist. He’s a journalist, and a pretty good one. But, knowingly or unknowingly, he catered right to a very specific segment of people, essentially Brian from Family Guy, except human. In fact the book is practically engineered to stroke every deep-seated bias this group has: Giant corporate “science” is completely wrong and dangerous, because corporations are evil, and the gentle noble savage instead has the right idea.

Still, the root of the book is that it’s not shoes or the lack thereof that injures you, but technique; the idea is that if you run just right, you can magically run forever, or at least run longer and with less injury. Run barefoot, and you’ll run on the balls of your feet, a technique that these simple people of the land have naturally mastered by the virtue of being unable to afford shoes, and also by running away from criminals trying to force them into drug trafficking thanks to McDougall’s book.

And he’s right! Technique is the most important thing. Unfortunately for Vibram, it turns out that science proves you should use the exact opposite technique.

Heel-Toe, Heel-Toe

This stuff is incredibly boring but it essentially boils down to this; the barefoot running movement insists that you need to run on the balls of your feet, and those making running shoes insist leading with your heel is more efficient. Shockingly, the people who have spent millions of dollars over decades studying human movement and sports medicine have turned out to be right, both about the overall efficiency of heel-first running and about the fact that running around barefoot or the next thing to it might indeed injure the ever-loving hell out of your feet. Considering Vibram stated that you wouldn’t get injured and would run longer basically with no studies to back it up, that was something of a problem.

It turns out that every human being is different, and that you can’t draw any conclusions about all of humanity based on one group of people who adapted to specific circumstances. You have to experiment and see what feels comfortable, or maybe go to somebody with an expensive degree who knows what they’re talking about and see if there’s something up with your feet.

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