I am a fan of Vibram Five Fingers running shoes, as I have made clear every so often. I was wearing my trusty Vibrams when I passed the "Haynesworth Test" four years ago. I've worn them as I evolved past an uncomfortable era of Achilles tendon problems into a time of happily injury-free running. Two months ago I was among those saying that a highly publicized court settlement, in which Vibram set aside $3.75 million to compensate people who felt they'd been misled about health benefits of the shoes, showed more about our legal system than it did about this footwear.
The point about these shoes has always been: they're exactly right for some people, and wrong for others. It all depends on running style. If you naturally run with a "forefoot strike"—that is, landing on the front part of your foot, as nearly everyone does when running barefoot—or if you can adjust to run that way, the shoes are great. If you run with a "heel strike," landing on the back of your foot, which is the style that heavily padded modern running shoes encourage and which some people cannot change away from, then finger shoes don't make sense. You'll feel like you're breaking your heels.
But how can you know for sure, without trying? That has been Vibram's challenge all along—or so I know after an out-of-the-blue conversation with the company's U.S. CEO, Mike Gionfriddo, and his associates. (Vibram is based in Italy; its overall CEO is Antonio Dus. Readers with experience in the U.S. military will know the Vibram name in another context, since it produces outersoles for U.S. combat boots.)
Gionfriddo and his Vibram team pointed out that the company dominates its category, that of minimalist shoes, but the category itself is perhaps 1% of all sports-shoes sales. Their aim is to get more people to give finger shoes a try.
So they said they had a new plan. For the rest of this year, all shoe sales via their web site will come with an unconditional full-refund offer, if for any reason you turn out not to like running in them. To quote a message I got from the company:
We believe in our product and think that those who try the minimalist approach will become believers as well. To show our commitment, we’re making a guarantee: for anyone who purchases a pair of FiveFingers from July 22 until the end of the year through the website (VibramFiveFingers.com) and aren’t satisfied after six weeks with the experience – for any reason – we’ll take the shoe back and return a full refund.
I asked what they'd do with returned shoes. They said they would clean them up and donate them to organizations that might use them. Then I asked how and when they planned to publicize the offer. They said, "Well, we are making the announcement to you now."
And I, in turn, am making the announcement to any interested readers: If you'd been tempted by the idea of these odd-looking finger shoes, you now have a way to try them at no economic risk. Over to the Vibram web site for more.
For the record: I have no connection with the company whatsoever except as a satisfied repeat customer. I'm passing on the information not as an advertisement, though obviously I like my shoes, but because it's a significant development in controversies about this type of shoe. Also, no matter the subject, reporters always enjoy having a little scoop.
Update Broader perspective on the whole "minimalist shoe" question at Runner's World.