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Run in Peace, Micah True

Posted by | Posted in Barefoot Running, Tarahumara running | Posted on 31-03-2012

Micah True, ultrarunner

There’s no way to adequately thank one of the great inspirations in the running world, Micah True, also known as Caballo Blanco (“White Horse”), who was found dead just hours ago. Micah, arguably the “star” of Christopher McDougall’s best seller, Born To Run, went out for a run on Tuesday and did not return. There’s no news at this moment about a cause of death.

As Micah would often say in signing off, “Run Free!”

Run In Peace, Micah.

p.s. If you feel moved to support the cause Micah worked so hard on, go to http://www.norawas.org/

Vibram FiveFingers Class Action Lawsuit — Does It Have Merit?

Posted by | Posted in Barefoot Running Shoes, Minimalist Running Shoes | Posted on 30-03-2012

BIG news in the barefoot running shoe world today. Vibram has been named as the defendant in a class action lawsuit seeking $5,000,000 in damages for the use of deceptive statements about the health benefits of Vibram FiveFingers.

Is there anything to the case?

Well, I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on TV.

But I read the case (posted here), and have some thoughts (and I’m looking forward to yours).

My first few thoughts, having nothing to do with the merits of the case, are:

a) I like Vibram. Even though the products don’t work for me, and as you know I’ve teased them (about smell and the primate styling), if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here. The popularity of FiveFingers and their marketing in the last few years has lifted the tide of the entire barefoot/minimalist footwear market, and I’ve been a beneficiary. A year and a half ago, I said to Vibram CEO Tony Post, “Thanks for doing the heavy lifting!”

b) This case could be the best thing that happens to the barefoot/minimalist shoe world, regardless of the outcome. How? Because it could help clear up the way language is used in marketing minimalist products, change unrealistic expectations of certain customers, and inspire even more research into the benefits (or lack thereof) of various “barefoot inspired” products.

It’s no secret that I’ve had my hackles raised when any number of the big shoe companies pull out a “lightweight” sneaker (6-12 ounces) with an inch of heel lift, massive toe spring, and a healthy dose of foam padding, and claimed it was “just like barefoot.” And here I sit with a 3.4 ounce, 4mm thick piece of flexible rubber, thinking, “Uh… really?”

Perhaps this case, or merely the conversation around it, will add a much-needed dose of clarity.

Quick aside: Let me play Uri Geller and give you my prediction about the outcome of this case: a semi-expensive settlement (which, for all I know is the reason the suit was filed in the first place).

Okay, onto the case.

In essence this case is similar to those against Skechers Shape-ups (ongoing) and Reebok “toning shoes” (Reebok settled for $25 million), where the plaintiffs argued that there was no scientific basis for certain claims that the shoe companies were making, that they sometimes inaccurately stated there was such a scientific basis, and that they enticed customers to pay a premium for the product based on the idea that they (the customers) would get various claimed benefits.

This suit describes how Vibram has claimed that running in VFFs will provide the following benefits:

  • Improved foot health
  • Reduced risk of injury
  • Strengthened muscles in feet and lower legs
  • Stimulated neural function improving balance, agility and range of motion
  • Improved spine alignment
  • Improved posture
  • Reduced lower back pain
  • Improved proprioception and body awareness

Here as well, the plaintiffs say there is no scientific backing for these claims; that claims there is are untrue; that if any of the claims are true there’s no evidence that VFFs do these any better than regular running shoes and, therefore; these claims are fraudulent and deceptive and that Vibram has profited by enticing customers to pay a premium price to receive benefits that Vibram cannot reliably deliver.

The case adds that Vibram’s fundamental claim — that VFFs simulate being barefoot — has no proof to support it, either. In fact, the action quotes the ACE study which showed that runners in Vibrams pronate more than when they’re barefoot as an example of how that claim is false.

Now, I can guess what many of you are thinking: How is this different than my box of Cheerios, that says “supports colon health” or my vitamin that says “promotes strong bones”?

Good question.

In the food and supplement world, those kinds of claims are called “structure/function claims.” The FDA uses very specific language to tell companies how to use very non-specific language about their products. The law is designed, at one level, to prevent supplement and food companies from making “drug-like” claims, like “cures cancer AND baldness.” On the other hand, it allows companies to make it sound like taking 3 Mega-Ultra-Men’s Formula capsules every day will make you healthy, wealthy, and able to bend steel with your mind.

I think it’s a poorly designed law (sponsored by congress-people who, wouldn’t you know it, come from states with a lot of nutritional supplement companies), but it is a law and it does have specific guidelines and rules.

I don’t know if there’s something similar for footwear. But few would argue that if you make a specific claim, you have to be able to back it up.

Looking back at the claims Vibram makes, I’m sure you can see that some of these are testable, and others have a “keeps your colon happy” flavor. Some have a bit of both: Stimulates Neural Function… a bit vague, but no real problem. “Improves balance and agility”… well that’s testable and I’m not sure there’s an independent study to back that up.

“Reduced risk of injury” and “strengthened muscles” seem testable. “Improve foot health” and “promote spine alignment” are more like what you see on the bottle of every supplement at Whole Foods.

I’ll admit that I take issue with one claim Vibram makes, mentioned elsewhere in the complaint: “No footwear comes closer to recreating this natural sensation than Vibram FiveFingers.” Even though I’m 100% convinced that Invisible Shoes give a better approximation of barefoot than anything else out there, including VFFs, I don’t have the science to prove my case and so I can’t state it as a fact.

I’ll also admit that it’s tricky to talk about any product without getting close to the line between something obvious-but-vague, like “can align your spine” (clearly, going to a zero-drop shoe changes your posture), and something scientifically testable like “strengthens your feet.” It gets especially hard when you have hundreds of testimonials from people talking about strengthening their feet, improving their posture, running pain-free, developing arches, and dozens of other reports that are anecdotal and not scientific.

Interestingly, while the plaintiffs argue that there are no studies to support Vibram’s claims, they present no science to dispute them either. The suit spends many pages saying, basically, “Vibrams cause injuries,” yet they offer none of the  double-blind, placebo-controlled studies they expect of Vibram to prove so. Instead, they rely on the same anecdotal “evidence” that they criticize Vibram for using. They quote a story in which a podiatrist says that 85% of her patients get injured trying to transition to minimalist shoes.

I’ve taken the logic of those types of claims to task before, but here’s the Readers Digest version:

a)    I’ll pay $100 if the podiatrist has actually kept statistics to back up the 85% claim

b)    If she’s discussing existing patients, we’re talking about people who, by definition, already had foot problems before they decided to try something minimalist

c)    She will never see patients, or non-patients, who make the transition without any need for medical care, so even if the 85% number were true, it has no relationship to the percentage of people, in total, who have problems

d)    It does not separate out people who went barefoot, in VFFs, in Nike Frees or any other of the myriad footwear options

e)    It does not account for whether the patients simply overtrained

f)      I’ll pay another $100 if she checked to see if form was the problem, not footwear

g)    How soon we forget that doctors made these same claims, and errors, 40 years ago when padded running shoes became the rage

h)    And, most importantly, since surveys have shown that 80% of marathoners get injured every year… the statistic is totally meaningless!

The claim also takes Vibram to task for charging a premium price based on the idea that customers are enticed to pay more to get the promised benefits. And while VFFs are undeniably pricey, they’re no more extravagantly priced than many high-performance shoes, or any motion-stabilizing shoes (seriously, $275 for the New Balance 2040?!).

While the lawsuit criticizes Vibram for saying, without any science to back it up, that Fivefingers are essentially the same as barefoot, some of the arguments of this case require accepting the position that VFFs are the same as barefoot. The claim quotes the American Podiatric Medical Association which says there isn’t enough research to know what the long- and short-term effects of barefoot running are. Okay, but since your argument is that VFFs aren’t barefoot, then some comment about whether barefoot running is good or bad is moot.

When I first read the claim, one thing stuck out in my mind above all others. The plaintiffs claim that Vibram created FiveFingers in 2006 to capitalize on the barefoot running trend. History wasn’t my best subject in high school, but I know that:

a)    Vibram didn’t design the FiveFingers as a running shoe

b)    The barefoot running boom started in 2009

Not a big point, I’ll admit, but if they missed something as simple as that, it gives me pause.

Another thought that keeps popping up:

Why Vibram? Some of the comments on Facebook and Twitter suggest that this case is completely without merit. Given everything above, I disagree. But, if you’ve been around the minimalist world for any amount of time, you’ll know there are a LOT of other companies who’ve made some or all of the same claims that are described in the suit.

The question “Why Vibram?” also prompts us to look at the bigger picture. And by “bigger,” I mean, “the rest of the running shoe world,” not just the minimalist “barefoot” shoe world.

Leaving out the “toning shoe” lawsuits, we know that running shoe companies have been making many of these same claims for decades without a hitch. As Phil Maffetone pointed out on Zero-Drop.com, running shoe companies aren’t required to demonstrate the same level of safety as ice-packs. In fact, unlike Vibram where there aren’t studies proving or disproving whether they “reduce injuries”, studies have existed for 60 years showing how padded running shoes can be injurious.

While Vibram may have made claims without proof, it seems that “traditional running shoe” companies (I put it in quotes to highlight how funny it is that many people call them “traditional” when they’ve only been around for 40 years) may have been engaged in behavior similar to the tobacco companies: selling a product that they know causes problems.

Why do they get a free ride?

I wonder if this is a situation like when a bunch of cars are all speeding and only one gets pulled over… or is it a foreshadowing of future events where the whole industry – minimalist and non-minimalist — is subject to actual scrutiny and as a result, is held to a higher advertising standard than they have been so far.

Some say this looks like a case that’s more about 5 law firms making money than it is about whether Vibram has scientific proof of their claims. I don’t know. Frankly, if it were, I’m surprised the suit is only asking for $5,000,000. Even if money is the motivator that doesn’t mean there’s no “there” there in some of the plaintiffs arguments.

I know that there are many companies much larger than mine who are waiting to see how this plays out with the anticipation a runner feels in between “On your marks!” and “GO!” Or maybe with the sphincter tightening that comes with opening your front door and hearing, “We’re from 60 Minutes and we’d like to talk to you.”

What do you think?

University of Colorado Barefoot Running Study

Posted by | Posted in Barefoot Running, Barefoot Running Shoes, Minimalist Running Shoes | Posted on 27-03-2012

 

The media is having an anti-barefoot running field day thanks to a study published by some people right up the street from me at the University of Colorado (BTW, I’ve been living in Boulder for 19 years and nobody has been able to explain why they call the university CU instead of UC.).

Each of the dozens of articles about the study has a distinct flavor of elementary school playground taunting, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, boo, boo… barefoot running isn’t good for you!” 

I mean, check out some of the headlines:

Debunking the Barefoot Running Myth – Sydney Morning Herald (barefoot running isn’t like bigfoot!)

Here’s Proof Barefoot Isn’t Better — Running Times (Ha! So there!)

It almost feels like the press is enjoying creating a backlash to all the “pro” barefoot articles of the last two years, even though in every barefoot article I’ve read the media insists on publishing “both sides of the story,” and includes some doctor who’s never run a meter in bare feet and wouldn’t know decent barefoot running form if it ran him over, claiming that running without shoes will hurt you, bring shame on your family, and accelerate the coming apocalypse.

So, let’s take a deep belly breath or two and have a chat about the study. In fact, let’s start by talking about studies, in general:

Designing a biomechanics study is not easy. Aside from deciding exactly what you want to explore and the best design of the study itself (how you can test it), finding enough of the right kind of participants is often tricky, if not impossible.

It’s even more difficult to design a study that isn’t artificial in some way. That is, it’s showing effects in a lab that may not be relevant in the real world.

And, even more, many studies, while interesting, may not be relevant to the broader population. (Whenever someone quotes a study, or even just the habits, of elite marathoners, I respond “Unless you’re 5’5″ and weigh 105 pounds and run at 13 miles per hour for two hours… WHO CARES what those guys do?)

Finally, the way the media picks up a study — this one or any of the previous barefoot studies — often adds some spin that isn’t in the actual study.

All of the issues I just raised are relevant as we take a gander at the CU study. BTW, if you want to see a lively and cogent critical look at the study, you can’t go wrong with reading the comments on the New York Times article about it. Frankly, this post probably won’t be as lucid as some of the comments there.

Okay, let’s jump into it… The gist of the study:

“In the study, 12 subjects with substantial barefoot running experience ran at 7.5 MPH with a mid-foot strike pattern on a motorized treadmill, both barefoot and in lightweight cushioned shoes (~150 g/shoe, 5.4 oz). In additional trials, they attached small lead strips to each foot/shoe (~150, ~300, ~450 g). For each condition, they measured the subjects’ rates of oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production as an index of metabolic cost.”

And the results:

a) For every 100g (3.5oz) (the average weight of a deck of playing cards) added per foot, energy cost increases by approximately 1% whether running barefoot or shod.

b) Running barefoot and in lightweight shoes do not significantly differ in energy cost.

c) When controlling for shoe/foot mass, running in lightweight shoes requires ~3-4% less energy than running barefoot.”

Now, let the fun begin. Can you find the “confounds” (the factors in the study that might affect the results, or the interpretation of the results)?

I’ll start. Let me know if you find more.

1) How did they determine that the 12 subjects had “substantial barefoot experience?” Well, the study says, “8 km/week barefoot or in minimal running footwear (e.g. Vibram Five Fingers) for at least 3 months out of the last year.”

Does 3 months out of the last 12 really equal “substantial?” I’ve been barefoot for 3 years, and I’m STILL improving my form.

And if that three months was wearing VFFs or minimalist shoes, that counts as “barefoot experience” Uh…

As I’ve commented, and as the American Council on Exercise showed, and as Pete Larsen from www.runblogger.com captured on video: VFFs are not the same as barefoot.

Now the researchers did verify that the subjects all ran with a “midfoot or forefoot” landing. I know that Lee Saxby, the spokesman and coach from Vivobarefoot would have an issue with that. He doesn’t think midfoot is proper barefoot form (there’s some debate about that, but it’s besides the point at the moment).

2) They ran on a treadmill. Look, I get that testing runners on an actual track is hard and expensive, but running on a treadmill is not the same as running on the ground, end of story. It may give some useful data, but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but the duck is on a treadmill… hmmm, that analogy isn’t quite working, but you know what I mean.

I did some high-speed video analysis of my running at the Monfort Human Performance Lab. I hit 21 mph on that treadmill. I can tell you that when I’m on a treadmill, my stride is different than on the track. I overstride so I can “catch” the treadmill belt, for example.

3) To simulate a running shoe’s weight, the researchers put lead weights on the top surface of the runners’ feet. Do you think some small weights pressing down on your foot is different than having that same amount of weight distributed evenly, and mostly under your foot, thanks to the design of the shoe? I do. Does that matter? Could be. Is there a way to check… not easily.

4) The runners were at 7.5 miles per hour. That’s slow for an elite runner –  about 200 meters in a minute, a quarter mile in 2 minutes, a mile in 8 minutes — but fast for most casual runners. This raises a few questions:

a) How was that pace compared to the runners’ usual training pace?
b) Does speed make a difference?
c) What about turnover, or cadence? Were those controlled and the same when the runners were barefoot vs. shod?

Got me. But, suffice it to say, we’re seeing the artificial quality of the study.

5) Oh, this wasn’t mentioned above, but I’ll give it to you now: the runners were wearing yoga socks. ““For the duration of the experiment, subjects wore very thin, slip-resistant yoga socks for safety and hygienic purposes.”

Hygienic purposes? Uh, some 409 and a paper towel would handle any “hygiene issues.” And “safety”? If you read the study, one aspect of “safety” is “avoiding blisters.”

Boy, where to start on that one? We know that socks does not equal barefoot, and we also know that if you get blisters when you run barefoot, you’re doing something wrong. So, this brings us back to number 1 — how experienced were these runners really?

6) The study measured oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production. Okay, that’s a fine way to measure efficiency, based on the idea that using less oxygen and producing less CO2 means you’re using less effort, and that equals being more efficient.

But here’s a question: So what?

For one: does using less energy equate to faster times? It seems like it might, but that’s not a given.

Does the amount of extra energy being used by *some* of the barefoot runners have any relevance to the average runner? Someone for whom 7.5 mph is too fast… or even too slow?

7) Oh, here’s a favorite. The runners in the study wore an ultra-lighweight racing flat. Most runners wouldn’t wear those. And most runners with no barefoot experience wouldn’t find those any friendlier than being shoe-free.

8) One other thing: A hallmark of the scientific method is reproducibility. Just because one lab gets a result, that doesn’t mean the question is resolved. When a study is reproduced in independent labs and the same (or very similar) result is obtained… then you know you’ve got something.

What if the study is correct, though? What if barefoot running is less efficient than shod running?

The only answer I can come up with is: Who cares?

I don’t mean that it’s not important to know. I mean, literally, who should care?

If you never race, you’ll never notice any difference in efficiency (assuming, again that “decreased efficiency” = slower times).

Besides, there are MANY other reasons to run with bare feet than the idea that it’s more efficient… many that have barely been touched on (Dr. Michael Merzenich and I have had some interesting chats about how being barefoot could help the elderly in various ways). Personally, I didn’t make the switch for efficiency’s sake. In fact,  for me, as a sprinter, I know I’m more effective in spikes than barefoot. I switched because it helped me correct some form problems, eliminated injuries I was getting, turned running from a chore into an enthralling discovery, and, more importantly… WAS FUN.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that my Boulder neighbors are researching barefoot running. And while this is the first published study, I know they have more coming and I’m looking forward to those.

And I’m certainly not blaming them for how the media is handling the story.

My only interest is the continued exploration, conversation, and understanding of efficient movement, running for speed and/or distance, and the ways of teaching and exploring barefoot running (and walking and hiking).

No one study can perfectly address all of the open questions. But the almost combative attitude where everyone wants to jump on some one-sided “We’re better!” bandwagon certainly doesn’t help.

Suffice it to say, this study is not the death knell of barefoot running that many media outlets are portraying it to be (because, you know, controversy is more important than truth if you’re trying to sell papers).

Now, if you’ll pardon me, I have to burn off some of my frustration by putting on some yoga socks and minimalist shoes and going for a barefoot run.

p.s. (added on 4/4/2012): 

I just realized that the conclusion of the study was WAY off base!

Here’s why

The researchers think that the improved efficiency of the shoes came from the PADDING absorbing some of the stress that the muscles have to handle when you’re barefoot.

In other words, the ENTIRE efficiency effect could be ALL about the padding and have nothing to do with weight. The weight issue would only be valid if they tested multiple shoes of the same weight with different types of padded outsoles and got the same results.