Sometimes, A Shoe Is Just A Shoe
It started last week, when Vibram FiveFingers – the company behind ubiquitous and controversial barefoot running shoes – announced it was putting aside several million dollars for customers duped by claims that its shoes were better for you than regular running shoes. Critics chortled with absolute glee at the humbling of Vibram and its customers. Of course, the company’s had critics forever, but here was a legal outcome finally putting proof to the years of jeers.
Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast got in its potshots this morning. The three hosts described the shoes’ primary advocate, Christopher McDougall, as a snakeoil salesman and barefoot runners as hopelessly naive suckers who got caught up in a fad. In fact, this was something implied in much of the coverage of Vibram’s settlement. If you click on that second link, you’ll find a headline that reads, “FiveFingers Maker Will Pay Millions To Suckers Who Bought Its Shoes.”
Suckers, see? People that listened to a company’s claims about a product’s alleged health benefits are suckers. All of them. To believe it, there was no other reason to buy the shoe. Anybody wearing them anywhere had read those claims and fallen for them hook, line, and sinker.
To recap, those claims were compelling. The benefits of barefoot running are supposed to involve some version of history and a return to it. It goes like this:
-Human beings didn’t wear shoes for thousands of years, and when they started to, they wore very simple shoes with very thin soles.
-They continued to do this right up until shoe companies realized they could sell specialized running shoes to newly-minted runners.
-The shoes that they sold were built with soles designed to “help” the runner by being thicker and simultaneously softer, to basically make the repetitive impact of footstrikes easier on the human body.
-But at the same time thicker soled shoes flooded the market, running injuries skyrocketed.
-That’s because those shoes were training runners to run badly, masking their mistakes until their mistakes caught up to them in the form of injuries.
-The way to fix it? Stop running in thick-soled shoes. And guess who has a pair they’d like to sell you?
That’s the story that companies like Vibram and advocates like McDougall were happily telling. But there’s a difference between creating a theory and claiming it’s true. When Vibram went from advocating its product to claiming its supposed benefits, it stepped over the line, and now, it is setting aside money to buy a guiltfree conscience. And fewer lawsuits.
Vibram’s critics want to claim this as a victory for thicker-soled shoes. That’s not what it is though. It’s a victory for the idea that companies can’t claim a benefit that hasn’t actually been proven. The debate between thicker and thinner soled shoes rages on. Which is where I come in. Because I didn’t buy into Vibrams planning to derive some sort of definite health benefit. I bought into them because I always liked them, ugliness and all.
I’m not often proud to admit this, considering its obvious clash with my general outlook on the world, but I am a golfer. However, as with most things, I’ve eschewed lessons in the pursuit of a game that is my own, one built upon a foundation of solutions that I have generated through practice and research. I’m also a fan of the game’s lore, and in particular one specific story that I’ve heard a thousand times: that the game’s great Sam Snead (a claimed West Virginian although Virginian by birth, one of the game’s greatest ever player, and the name on the clubs that were the first I ever used) used to practice barefoot when things went wonky for him. Several years ago, sick of wearing golf shoes that make my enormous feet (fifteen wides) look somehow even larger, I started playing in flip-flops. Because they’re not exactly known for their built in traction, playing in flip-flops forced me to be very careful about my balance, which in turn forced me into a more controlled approach to my swing, which in turned forced me into a more repeatable action, which in turn helped me to regulate scores within the constraint of not being able to regularly practice owing to two and now three children.
“You’re a madman,” you’re saying, and trust me, I get it. I got it every day I went to the course wearing them. People were horrified that I’d play that way, although generally tolerant of the explanation I gave them, one very similar to the one I wrote above, but informed slightly by the fact that I was able to handily beat my critics. Not all of them, mind you, but enough of them so they couldn’t easily say that I was hurting myself playing the game in that fashion.
At the same time I was experimenting with flip-flops, I went to a basketball court for my regular game, only to discover that nobody was there, and because I had time to kill and wanted to exercise I went running on an indoor track. I managed three miles, punctuated by a long wheezing break between each one, and decided then that I would start running. I had a friends who’d gone head over heels for running and figured, “Why not me too?” So I started first by replicating my three miles from that day at the track and then slowly expanding into longer and longer runs. And my family, recognizing my newest obsession, gave me a gift a pair of real genuine running shoes, the kind that barefoot critics insist are the right shoes for the job.
But reality set in: in the world of running I am huge. 6’3”, 250ish generally. Beyond being both taller and wider than most of the people running, the wear and tear inherent in running at that size burns through shoes. Eventually, I abandoned any sort of belief in the power of shoes at all, not in terms of their existence, but in terms of the benefits I could derive from them. I discovered that I didn’t go faster or slower depending upon my shoes, and by virtue of what’s necessitated by running at my size – think of an old Subaru coughing up a hill, rather than a sleek Maserati racing around corners – I reached the point where I put on whatever pair of shoes was nearest the door when I headed out. This included Reebok Classics for my fastest 5k (sub-25:00) and my lawnmowing shoes for the only marathon I ever attempted (Pittsburgh, 2013, 4:54:06). To this day, I’ll still run in anything, having done a brief two miles just yesterday in basketball shoes.
Between my general disdain for golf shoes, the benefits I derived from flip-flops, my newly-minted running hobby, and a general awareness of the existence of barefoot shoes, I decided to make the switch, first for golf specifically, and then I added them to my collection of shoes to run in.
Here’s the thing: there are a lot of lunatics who aggressively believe that their approach to exercising is right. Whether it’s a deeply-held belief about that general form of exercise is best (“Crossfit is best you losers!”) or a technique within an exercise (“Barefoot is best you losers!”) there are people who simply cannot accept the notion that other people are out there doing things differently. But it shouldn’t come as any great shock that I’m not a huge fan of those who declare that one thing is necessarily better than another. We all have our preferences for things. The world would be a much nicer place if we could accept that about one another. And this includes how we each choose to exercise.
That then is a critique of both barefoot advocates and barefoot critics. Both sides are guilty of asserting rightness where none seems to exist. It isn’t universally true that barefoot running is bad for you nor is it universally true that thick-soled running is bad for you nor is it universally true that barefoot running is good for you nor is it universally true that thick-soled running is good for you. They’re all approaches to the same thing. They should be understood as such.
Which brings me to my own experience with running barefoot. After the Pittsburgh Marathon (shoes) and a subsequent local half-marathon (shoes), I took a month off because I was physically exhausted. I ran maybe once a week. And then, because I was bored, I decided to log 100 miles in a month, a large number for me (preparing for the marathon had, for various reasons including illnesses, never seen me top 75 miles in a month). So that’s what I did in July, eventually getting myself up over 120 miles for the month, a very solid average for somebody of my size. And not only that, but I spent most of the month running those miles in the aforementioned Vibram FiveFingers. Did I get injured? No. Did I look hideous? I’ll leave that to you*. And I kept up with it for the next few months, eventually learning my own limitations. Like wearing them in the cold isn’t as fun as wearing them in the not-as-cold. Like I can occasionally run at a pretty good pace (for me) in them. Like they’re really useful for doing yoga if you’re prone to sweaty feet.
People desperately want right answers in all things. There’s a reason why diet books, workout videos, and exercise equipment are such big business, and it is because all of them are predicated upon making the difficult act of being thinner/fitter easier. After all, it is easier to know what is best than to figure it out on your own. It is also, potentially, much cheaper. Vibram knew that and offered it to them, asserting that its shoes represented the right answer for runners. Vibram’s critics disagreed, believing that it was they who had the right answer. But maybe the best answer is the least satisfying one: that a right answer doesn’t exist. That fitness, as with all things, is a process, one very much informed by individual preference and discovery, one in which what is right for one person is wrong for another, one in which there is enough room for all of the possible answers.
That then is an unsatisfying conclusion, because nobody should get to come away from this feeling that they were right. Shoes are just things. How we interact with them is entirely up to each of us individually.
(Photo from Vibram’s website.)