Ever since Vibram settled it’s lawsuit, a slew of critics have emerged from the woodwork to express their glee at the fall of an icon in the barefoot running world.
For example deadspin had this article:
Some of my friends, have more or less quoted this article in full – perhaps forgetting that I am a barefoot runner myself…
Notice those barefoot shoes …
Or maybe they wanted to make sure I got my share of the 3.2 million dollars given that I have bought 5-8 pairs over the last few years. Do as much running as I do with my weight and you go through a pair every three months.
To be fair, Vibram did get sued for making absurd marketing claims that were unsubstantiated. And it is true that advocates of barefoot running have made claims about barefoot running curing global warming ..
But the delight, and mockery and sheer gleefulness in pointing out that this whole barefoot running thing was nonsense is surprising.
Because it’s complicated.
We should be applauding Vibram for breaking the stranglehold on running shoes that Nike had created. Nike had created the modern running shoe. The modern running shoe with it’s excessive cushion, tight toe box and padded high heel is perfect for people who want to start running without learning how to run. It allows a crappy technique that evolves from walking to be somewhat less painful until the faulty mechanics that Nike promotes cause real knee and back pain.
Here’s the sordid story. Basically Jogging was popularized by Bill Bowerman. He then had the idea of making the sport less painful with the invention of shoes with cushioning. Phil Knight and him hit on a brilliant product that took off. Soon engineering teams competed to make the shoes have more and better cushioning promising to make running less painful. And the truth is that they never did.
Because, we are designed to run. Our bodies are designed for running. If they weren’t we would have died off as a species. The idea that space age engineering is required to make running less painful is silly.
But why does running barefoot hurt?
1. Because running is different than walking.
Your muscles work differently. And if you have a shoe that doesn’t force you to run like you walk, then you have this wonderful experience of muscles hurting as they get used in new ways and because they hurt, they don’t support your body as well, and guess what that causes knee and tendon pain. Apparently if you do a new sport, and your muscles hurt and joints hurt, people are not surprised, but when this happens with running, we are.
Nike convinced you that running shouldn’t hurt, so we are surprised to discover that it does when you start.
This marketing triumph is staggering.
2. Because it turns out running on raw pavement barefoot does hurt.
This is actually a true statement. Having padding on your soles is good.
This marketing triumph is also staggering.
The barefoot looney tune advocates actually managed to convince people that running on cement hurts but it’s good for you.
When you read the frustration of podiatrists, their major concern was the idea of running barefoot on cement AND the unwillingness of their patients to slowly transition to using the shoes.
As for myself, I bought vibram’s because there weren’t that many alternatives when I started to Nike shoes. And for a while, I believed in the marketing nonsense.
And now back to Vibram
Vibram pioneered three fundamental changes in running shoes through their sheer popularity. Let there be no doubt, Vibram posed an existential crisis to the running industry. They were the dominant sole vendor, and if barefoot running dominated the market they could be bigger than any running shoe vendor ever.
They popularized big toe boxes, zero drop – aka no heel, and no padding.
It turns out, in retrospect, that the big toe boxes and zero drop were the key to better running. The no padding thing… well that was unnecessary. If you like to run on pavement barefoot, feel free, but those of over 40 and overweight prefer to have some padding.
In fact, when I finally dropped Vibram in favor of padded zero drop shoes with big toe boxes, a bunch of poor mechanics in my run actually improved.
Vibram’s position in the market eroded when more and more people figured out that they need zero drop and big toe box and could get that with padding.
Why is zero drop important?
The zero drop actually let’s your foot supinate and pronate and let’s your calf and glutes get involved with your running.
The zero drop makes it possible to have good posture while running. Something most of us who sit in front of computers and slouch don’t have.
Why is the big toe box important?
The big toe box allows your foot to have significantly more balance as you run. Try standing with one foot with your toes tight together, and one with your toes splayed and tell me what is easier to balance on. Running is a series of moments where you balance yourself on one foot at a time. And so better balance improves mechanics.
Look, the mockery of Vibram’s marketing claims is well done and justified. However, the mockery of the claims should be made in context. This is an example of a vendor making unsubstantiated medical claims getting told to stop doing that. And we should punish vendors who do that.
But that doesn’t mean that we should run to the warm embrace of Phil Knight.
Running shoes improved because of Vibram and that is a good thing.
And if the mockery of Vibram results in some of these journalists and bloggers being motivated to spend time ridiculing the non-medicine industry (aka alternative medical industry) then that will be awesome.