These popular athletic shoes can cause foot injuries

I often warn against excessive exercise, like high endurance running. It can eventually lead to irregular heartbeats, degenerative osteoarthritis, and a lifetime of orthopedic problems. Of course, even recreational runners commonly experience foot issues. And trying to “keep up” with running shoe fads can increase these problems. In fact, in one small but revealing study, runners who wore a certain type of trendy athletic “footwear” experienced more bone injuries than runners who wore regular shoes.

I’ll tell you all about that study in a moment. But first, let’s back up.

Without a doubt, the shoe industry is like every other apparel or fashion industry in America and Europe–full of profitable but meaningless gimmicks.

And consumers seem to enjoy bouncing from one footwear craze to the next. During the Bush Administration, everyone swore wearing “crocs”–those colorful rubber sandals–solved their back and orthopedic problems. But both the shoe and its stock turned out to be–well–a “croc.”

Then, a few years ago, came another trend–helped along by the book Born to Run–called “natural running” or “barefoot running.” Proponents tried to argue that regular, high-arch running shoes, which actually provide support when on artificial surfaces, hinder a runner’s natural stride. They say regular running shoes allow you to strike with your heel first, instead of keeping on the “balls” of your feet. And they claim this change in natural stride leads to pain and injuries, such as plantar fasciitis.

As this philosophy gained traction in the running world, a company called Vibram figured out that most runners, even if they bought into the natural running concept, sensibly wouldn’t want to run barefoot around town. Or even around the park. So Vibram invented their “Five Finger” running shoes, which are “natural,” zero-arch footwear. They look like gloves you wear on your feet.

I was introduced to a woman wearing these “Five Finger” shoes last winter in Florida. And it looked to me like she had just come down out of the local banyan tree. (By the time we finished our conversation, I was convinced.)

Soon after Vibram originated the trend, Nike and others “jumped” on the bandwagon. And today, according to one estimate, “minimalist footwear” actually makes up the largest market share of running shoe sales in this country.

Now, don’t get me wrong…I happily adopt a “minimalist” approach in many things. It’s a good policy for preserving the environment, for example. And the “less is more” approach certainly makes sense when it comes to government spending and prescribing drugs.

But it doesn’t make sense for your feet. These minimalist shoes simply don’t protect your feet on pavement and man-made surfaces.

In fact, a recent small, but important study shows the real dangers of wearing these shoes…

In this study, researchers recruited 36 experienced, recreational runners. At the study’s outset, they took MRI scans of the runners’ feet. Then, they divided the runners into two groups. The first group trained wearing their regular shoes for 10 weeks. The second group transitioned gradually to Vibram FiveFinger shoes.

After 10 weeks, 10 out of the 19 participants who wore the FiveFinger shoes showed increases in bone marrow edema in at least one bone. That’s a serious injury for more than 50 percent of the runners…in less than three months!

In another study, researchers divided 103 runners into three random groups. The first group wore a neutral shoe (with regular arches). The second group wore a partially minimalist shoe. And the third group wore the Vibram FiveFinger shoe.

Again, at the study’s outset all the runners underwent baseline testing to record training and injury history. Then, they began a 12-week training program to prepare for a 10 km event. After 12 weeks, runners who wore the neutral shoe reported the fewest injuries. The partial minimalist shoe had a “significantly” higher injury rate. And the FiveFinger group reported greater shin and calf pain.

In March 2012, Vibram settled a class action lawsuit filed against them. According to an article in Runner’s World, “Vibram illegally obtained an economic windfall…because it was only by making false health claims that Vibram induced consumers to buy FiveFinger shoes, and to pay more for them than they would have otherwise.”

Vibram will have to refund $3.75 million to customers who bought shoes after March 21, 2009. Plus, it must discontinue claims that their footwear strengthens muscles.

Although Vibram settled the lawsuit, they claim they didn’t mislead consumers stating, “Vibram expressly denied and continues to deny any wrongdoing…and neither admits nor concedes any actual or potential fault, wrongdoing or liability.”

Does that sound like legalistic gibberish to you? Well, did you hear the joke, “How many lawyers does it take to sell a pair of shoes?”

The answer?

“Lawyers can’t sell shoes. They don’t have any soles.”

Kind of like Vibram’s FiveFinger shoes.

Ah, yes. The road to corporate profit is paved by getting consumers to pay more for less. But remember, on the real road, you need real shoes. Whether you’re running or walking.

And if you regularly read my Daily Dispatch, you know I recommend regular walking over running for just about everyone. It’s excellent for your health. It even improves your longevity.  And if you want to take a more “natural” approach, try going “off road” and taking a walk on grass or a natural dirt surface. It’s better for your feet and joints. It’s more challenging. And it’s a lot more interesting, “to boot.”


1. “Foot bone marrow edema after a 10-wk transition to minimalist running shoes,” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2013 Jul;45(7):1363-8

2. “Examining injury risk and pain perception in runners using minimalist footwear,” Br J Sports Med published online December 19, 2013