menu-spacer.pngShoes Get Their Day in Court

If a company advertises that a product produces a health benefit and cannot prove it does, the company may be accused of false and deceptive advertising  by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or by a class action suit.  If there isn’t strong evidence to support their claims, the company may have to pay millions to settle the case. 

Shoes that Tone or Not?

Two years ago I wrote an article about shoes from Skechers and Reebok with a rocker bottom design that were claimed to tone the body just by walking or running in them. 

According to the Federal Trade Commission complaint, Reebok made unsupported claims in ads that walking in its EasyTone shoes and running in its RunTone running shoes strengthen and tone key leg and buttock muscles more than regular shoes.  The FTC’s complaint also alleges that Reebok falsely claimed that walking in EasyTone footwear had been proven to lead to 28% more strength and tone in the buttock muscles, 11% more strength and tone in the hamstring muscles, and 11% more strength and tone in the calf muscles than regular walking shoes.

Reebok settled with the Federal Trade Commission on the charges of deceptive advertising and agreed to pay $25 million as part of the settlement agreement.

Skechers advertised its Shape-Ups as a fitness tool designed to promote weight loss and tone muscles with the shoe’s curved rocker bottom providing natural instability and causing the wearer to “use more energy with every step.”  Ads for the Resistance Runner shoes claimed people who wear them could increase “muscle activation” by up to 85% for posture-related muscles and 71% for one of the muscles in the buttocks.  A federal judge tentatively approved a $40 million settlement on August 13th.     

Shoes for Barefoot Runners

In July 2011 I wrote a lengthy article on the risks and possible benefits of barefoot running.  If you are thinking about trying running barefoot or buying some flashy “minimalist” shoes, I strongly recommend you read the article.  To be successful running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, you have to completely relearn how to run, switching from the heel-strike that comes naturally after a lifetime in shoes to a fore-foot strike, and strengthening your muscles and tendons to absorb the impact forces of 90 strides per minute (5400 strides per hour) without the help of the shock absorbing foam of a conventional running shoe.

The marketplace is full of companies who want to sell you minimalist shoes so you can run like you’re barefoot.  The advertising of some shoe companies for barefoot running appears to skate close to the thin ice of misleading or false claims.  Here’s an example in part from an e-mail ad for VIVOBAREFOOT shoes I received last week:

Recent Harvard research suggests that runners with a heel-strike technique are 2x more likely to be injured than those who forefoot strike, which is a characteristic of a skilled barefoot runner.

Buried down in a FAQ at the VIVOBAREFOOT website, I found this more cautious statement of the Harvard research led by Daniel Lieberman (note especially the text I have highlighted):

Lieberman was able to hypothesize and find anecdotal evidence that forefoot or midfoot striking can help avoid and/or mitigate repetitive stress injuries, especially stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, and runner's knee. We emphasize, however, that this hypothesis on injury has yet to be tested and that there have been no direct studies on the efficacy of forefoot strike running or barefoot running on injury.

A market leader in the barefoot/minimalist market segment has been Vibram with its FiveFingers shoes.  Contrast the caveat above about the lack of direct studies of barefoot running with Vibram’s unqualified claims below:

The benefits of running barefoot have long been supported by scientific research. And there is ample evidence that training without shoes allows you to run faster and farther with fewer injuries.

So, with significant FiveFingers profits, it is no surprise that Vibram is being sued in a class action lawsuit filed in the US District Court in Massachusetts.  The suit charges that Vibram made deceptive statements about the benefits of running barefoot.  Will the suit be dismissed?  Will Vibram settle to make the case go away?  It’s too soon to tell.

Note:  If you are considering trying barefoot running (with or without shoes), you should read what the scientists at the Sports Scientists blog have to say about the challenges of switching to forefoot landing and the extreme risks of continuing to heel strike while barefoot.