Boosted by best-selling book “Born To Run,” the barefoot running shoe business has grown dramatically in recent years. Seen as a more natural way to build muscles in the feet, which some say have been compromised by the support built into today’s running shoes, many consumers have flocked to the trend in hopes that these shoes would simulate the effects of running barefoot.
But much like the toning business, which plummeted after Skechers and Reebok settled with FTC over claims that the shoes would work your body in ways no shoes ever had before, the merits of minimalist shoes are being attacked.
Late last week, a consumer named Joseph Rocco sued adidas for overpromising on the benefits of its minimalist show, the adiPURE training shoe. Rocco alleges that the reduced padding in the shoe decreases protection of the foot and therefore makes it easier to get hurt.
He says after a few months of use, his foot pain led to an examination where he claims he found out he sustained compound fractures. An adidas spokesperson declined to comment on the merits of the suit.
While adidas marketing cited in the lawsuit says that “restriction free movement from your heel to your toes” helps “increase your strength, agility and balance,” that is open to interpretation.
The American Podiatric Medical Association has issued a similar warning, while admitting that the organization hasn’t yet found conclusive evidence “on the immediate and long term effects” of this type of running.
Sports podiatrist Dr. Howard Liebeskind says the jury is really out on minimalist footwear, but he says he believes that the consumer has some measure of responsibility when choosing the shoes they wear.
“Experienced runners are ultimately the individuals that are responsible for making the shoe selection of their choice,” Liebeskind said. “When you buy athletic footwear, it’s assumed that you have a knowledge base of how you run, what surfaces you are running on and that your biomechanics are sound.”
Liebeskind says he hasn’t seen a disproportionate amount of patients who have come in to his office complaining of pain or injury after using these types of shoes. He says he has no problem recommending the shoes for enjoyment, but does not advocate using the shoes as primary shoes.
The minimalist footwear market, counting only the foot glove type shoes with no support, makes up four percent of the overall US running shoe business, according to Matt Powell, an analyst for SportsOneSource, a market retail tracking firm. That makes this segment a $260 million business.
“My gut tells me that this case is going to be hard to prove,” Powell said. “But no matter what happens, I don’t expect this to kill the category. These shoes haven’t been overhyped and oversold like the toning shoes, so there won’t be the same type of crash.”
Vibram FiveFingers is the leader with 60 percent of the business, followed by Merril (22 percent), Fila (12 percent) and adidas and New Balance (3 percent each), according to SportsOneSource data.
Vibram was sued in March for making deceptive statements about the barefoot shoe they make. However, unlike the adidas shoes, Vibram does have a hangtag on the shoe and a brochure inside the box with a warning about the possibility of a long transition to these types of shoes. The company has said it will defend its claims.
In what appears to be an unrelated move, Vibram USA’s CEO Tony Post announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down from the job on July 7. The company said that it had grown its revenue 50 fold during Post’s 11 year tenure.
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