Those Vibram Shoe Refunds? I'm Not Claiming One

Think that these odd finger-shoes are "bullshit"? Think again.
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I gather that there is much gleeful stomping on the grave image of Vibram and the weirdo/chic "finger shoes" it has popularized, because the company has settled a suit claiming the shoes offered no health benefits. That's me and one of my sons, modeling Vibram shoes, in the picture above. I'll let you figure out the extremities. 

That picture comes from four years ago. I'd been running regularly for many decades before that, but since the early 2000s I'd been vexed by one wear-and-tear problem after another. Never involving the knees, miraculously; most frequently afflicting the Achilles tendons.

Then, as I shifted to Vibram shoes, I also shifted to what has been (again miraculously) a multi-year stint of injury-free running. True, my change of footwear coincided with some other injury-buffering changes: Always taking at least a day off between runs. Opting for rubberized tracks rather than hard paved roads. Stopping as soon as something started to hurt, rather than "running through" the distress; and generally acting like a senior-status wimp.

All of these amounted to a blow to the pride, perhapsone of many as the years roll on. But, for now, through the Vibram age nothing has gone physically wrong with my running infrastructure. Whether merely coincident with or perhaps helped by these same funny-looking shoes, I scored my memorable success in the "Haynesworth Test" a few years back and kept on going.

So what about this new Vibram debunking? I say: Pshaw. What I reported when I first tried them is what I still think now. If you already run in the way these shoes favor, or if you're able to shift your gait to a "forefoot-strike" style, they're great. And if not, not.

For instance, a (fair-minded) Washington Post writer noted:

I tried the FiveFingers in 2009 and knew within a quarter mile that they were not for me. Yes, they forced me up onto the balls of my feet, where running coaches want you, because smacking your heels on asphalt roads without any padding to protect them will [make you] do that.... 

Running that way didn't make sense for the writer. For me, it was the way I'd always runin part because the primitive, unpadded shoes available in the 1960s, when I started, strongly discouraged any runner from landing on the heels. So the shoes wereareright for some people, including me, and wrong for others. It's a big world.

What the shoes are not, is "bullshit," which was the churlish judgment of the proudly "data-driven" (and generally admirable) but in this case snarkily hyperbolic Vox, with this headline: 

If they're wrong for you, then wear something else! For its part, Vibram shouldn't claim they're right for everybody. Andsuch are the wonders of our legal systemif people actually bought these shoes for promised health benefits, then perhaps it's fair for them to get their $94-per-pair back. (What does this augur for the Belly Burner Weight Loss Belt? Or for Axe? You mean, thousands of bikinied women are not going to mass around any man who buys a can? Zounds!)

But Vibram shoes are right for some people, and bullshit they are not. I would send a picture of my current pair, here with me in Mississippi, but they are too battered and use-worn, most recently today, to be presentable.

Update: Thanks to those who pointed out that The Wire, which is affiliated with the Atlantic, had a microscopically-less-snarky report on the finger-shoes controversy. Eg, "In the event that you had a temporary lapse of judgement and bought these heinous toe shoes, you can get your money back (just not your dignity.)" Again, if you're a heel-strike runner, as many people who learned in the era of fatly padded shoes are destined to be, these are not the footwear for you. But for people who run the way these shoes are designed for, or can learn, they're neither bullshit nor heinous but very good. 

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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