Sneaker Nonsense: Straight Talk From a Runner

Comparison of the soles of four shoes - same person, all different wear patterns

The class-action lawsuit verdict against Vibram earlier this year really steams me. Vibram was found guilty of misleading advertising, and was compelled to issue refunds to customers who thought their “FiveFingers” shoes would cure cancer, or something like that. Most people acknowledge lawsuits like these are garbage, benefitting nobody except lawyers (on both sides). But plenty have seen the headlines and now assume Vibram makes a dangerous product. Ultimately, it’s a triumph of marketing – I have my suspicions about who really brought the suit against Vibram. (Follow the money.)

The sneaker industry has been running a scam on the public ever since Bill Bowerman ruined his wife’s waffle iron. (It’s always referred to as “his wife’s waffle iron.” The Cadillac was probably his.) We buy every technology, especially the marketing, hook line and sinker. Waffle soles, air chambers, gels, levers, springs, hydraulics, innovations that cushion, return energy, increase efficiency, etc. Effulgent copy was not invented by Vibram.

What’s the first thing you do in the shoe store? You pick one up, feel the inside. “Ooooh, this has good support.” Of course you do – I’ve done it, too. But the idea of needing “support” has been sold to us. Most sneaker places will follow a similar methodology. They want to know the wear pattern on your current shoes. This is supposed to reveal if you are a “pronator,” a “supinator,” or have a neutral stride. (They might also have you make a wet footprint.) Here’s a crazy idea – the wear pattern on your sneakers indicates nothing except how THAT PAIR HAS WORN. The picture above is my left shoe from a pair of FiveFingers, a pair of casual shoes I wear every day, a model of Asics sneakers I’ve been using for 12 years (the one pictured was new in May), and a pair of month-old Nikes. I circled the areas showing the most wear. None of the shoes has worn the same way.

I know a sneaker store that pushes Brooks sneakers – their first attempt is ALWAYS Brooks. I’ve overheard salespeople at that store discouraging shoppers from trying FiveFingers: “They don’t provide any cushion or support, and you’re more likely to get injured in them.” (And by the way, have you heard about the lawsuit?) Another local store stopped selling FiveFingers right after the verdict. I was told, “We didn’t sell enough of them to make it worthwhile.” Buyer beware: If you don’t already have a good idea of what you want, prepare to be misguided.

I like FiveFingers, a lot. Essentially, they are just a piece of rubber under the foot, to protect from stones, etc. I started out wearing them for walks, then a short run every third day. My stride instinctively shortened, so I wasn’t landing on my heel. It’s how we learn to walk – short strides, center of gravity over the midfoot. The toes are engaged on push-off. The entire motion is efficient and helps balance. I trained in FiveFingers for three months and then ran the Boilermaker 15K. I had my second-fastest time ever, for less effort than expected.

I don’t prefer FiveFingers on longer runs; after a certain point, I feel those stones. I used Asics Gel Cumulus forever, because they came in extra wide and because I didn’t otherwise think about them. Here’s another scam – most sneakers don’t come in extra widths, and salespeople tell you “just get a half size up.” It’s never worked for me, and makes little sense if you think about it. (Still, I spent a bunch of money learning my lesson and proving salespeople wrong. Or they proved me gullible.)

On the left, a dance shoe.  On the right, a bare foot.  It's clear the shoe is not the same shape as the foot.

I like wide shoes because I have fat feet. (I don’t need wide FiveFingers because the top is all mesh, and the bottoms provide enough coverage.) Even if regular widths are fine at the start, after ten miles my feet swell and I’m in trouble. Think about the crazy, narrow shapes we force our feet into. In the picture above, notice the shape of my dancing shoe – it’s nothing like my foot. And notice that foot. The third toe is basically crooked from being jammed sideways into a point (in all kinds of shoes). And the poor pinky toe has nothing to do! Walk around barefoot for awhile – isn’t it great to let your toes wiggle, grip and move freely? To let your foot be a foot?

On recent pairs of Asics Gel Cumulus, I’ve noticed the rubber wearing much more quickly. I used to be able to get 800 miles from a pair of sneakers, but lately they’ve been wearing down after a couple hundred. So I bought a pair of (much more expensive) Asics Gel Nimbus, and quickly developed “shin splints.” (A catch-all description for pain in that region.) So here’s another wild idea: Many running “injuries” can be traced to footwear. It happens when you switch to something new and different. It might be FiveFingers, or it might be Asics, or Nike, Adidas, Brooks, etc. They all claim to do something helpful (just like FiveFingers). MANY of those companies owe me a refund.

Next time, we can talk about other running nonsense, like the idea that treadmills should always be at a slight incline to make them equivalent to road running (but it puts the achilles at risk and who cares if it’s not the same effort?), and also how stretching before and after runs is essential (but promotes injury and robs energy if done before a run – I know I risk the wrath of my old gym teachers on this, which might be reason enough not to stretch.) Running is a pretty elemental activity. Do what works for you, and take the marketing with a few grains of salt.