Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is courtesy of Smashley, from Mad Art Lab. If you’re a runner, walker, or just a general shoe-wearer, you will enjoy this post about the pseudoscience of footwear (specifically, those funky toe shoes).
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the class-action lawsuit and subsequent settlement involving Vibram, the Italian company that makes those objectively ugly FiveFingers running shoes with the separated toes that are popular with Hawaiian shirt wearers. If you’re someone who has never bought a pair, I’m betting you grinned a little schadenfreudey grin at the news that the company had no scientific basis for claiming that its shoes could strengthen foot muscles and reduce injuries. “Of course!” you might have cried. How could anyone be so stupid as to think you wouldn’t get hurt while running if you’re wearing what is essentially a rubber foot glove? People just need to stick to regular old supportive running shoes, which have loads of actual science to back up their technology, you probably lamented. And there, you’d be wrong.
Contrary to popular belief, the science is not in on any running shoe’s ability to reduce injuries. The old wisdom is that if you have a quirk in your running form—most commonly, this includes either an excessive inward roll of your foot as it hits the ground, known as overpronation, or an outward roll, known as supination or underpronation—you’ll need a shoe that corrects it. Otherwise, you’re liable to suffer an injury. This is the basis for virtually every element in the running-shoe universe, from the stability levels offered by running-shoe manufacturers to the reason fancy running stores perform a gait analysis on new customers.
But the evidence behind this is shaky. A 2013 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that pronators aren’t at any more risk for injury than neutral runners, and study after study after study show that you can randomly assign gait-specific shoes to runners (by putting pronators in neutral shoes and neutral runners in shoes meant for pronators, for example), and it’ll have no effect on their injury rate.
A massive injury-reduction feature of the traditional running shoe is based on nebulous evidence, yet Vibram is the one getting sued. It seems unfair, if you ask me. Of course, it’s not the lack of evidence that got them in this predicament. It’s flowery language like this:
Imagine footwear that can actually help make the foot healthier, that can strengthen muscles in the feet and lower legs, improve range of motion and increase sensory reception important to balance and agility. Imagine footwear that might just make running safer and healthier, by encouraging a forefoot strike and a more natural running form that creates less impact on the knees, hips and lower back. That is what Vibram FiveFingers can offer.
I scoured the internet for one instance of a traditional shoe manufacturer even whispering the word “injury.” I found only one, on the Asics website, couched in the kind of hypothetical verbiage only a lawyer could love:
Matching a shoe’s properties with the runner’s running style will increase comfort, running efficiency, and contribute to decreasing the risk of injury.
That, my friends, is how you stay out of a courtroom. And none of the other brands I checked even said a word about injury reduction.
That’s because they don’t have to. The traditional running shoe dominates the conversation to such an extent that they can just leave the health claims to the magazines and websites. It’s hard for a newcomer in an industry like that to waltz in and convince people of its own flavor of shaky evidence without risking a lawsuit. So, sorry Vibram, you got nailed. But you’re really no more pseudoscientific than any other brand.
But for runners, this leaves us with the question of what shoe to wear. A study performed by Danish researchers in 2001 found that if you let people choose the shoes (or in this case, shoe inserts) that are most comfortable for them, they’re less likely to be injured. That is to say, regardless of high-tech features and scientific claims, the shoe that keeps injury at bay is the shoe that feels good to wear. Whether that’s a minimalist Vibram, a maximalist Hoka, a top-of-the-line traditional model, or a pair of cross-trainers you bought on the clearance rack, if it’s comfortable to run in, it’s worth buying.
Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) lives in Chicago where she plays jazz saxophone, writes stuff, and does a lot of skeptickin’. She is currently recovering from being raised in the wooiest city in California and then living in Megachurch Texas, USA. Her tenor saxophone’s name is Ladybird.