The most popular running craze that I never heard of or saw much of while a University Student has apparently come to a sordid end. The Fitness media darling Vibram, has chosen to settle a class action law suit against the company for a mere 3.75 million in response to evidence that their advertising claims were misleading. Those who purchased the “glove line” running shoe model will be entitled to receive approximately $94.00 dollars per pair of shoes as compensation.
The case against Vibram centered on their statement that the glove line running shoe would reduce foot injuries and strengthen foot muscles. In brief, a class action suit was initiated against the Italian shoe maker in 2009. After numerous consumers joined the suit, the company quietly agreed to the 3.75 million dollar settlement.
As fate has it, the science Vibram cited when making it’s claims is a bit murky. I was not able to locate any of the studies utilized by Vibram to support their claims. The long and short of the tsunami of doubt that slowly gained strength however began innocently enough with a handful of small studies that I believe would be classified as a Type II error due to sample size.
Briefly, In research studies you work with a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a statement that makes a prediction based on previously observed phenomena. For a hypothesis to be a scientific hypothesis, you must be able to test it, which is why when a hypothesis is constructed for research purposes it makes a prediction. A scientific hypothesis is one that has yet to be tested. In contrast a scientific theory has undergone rigorous testing and is typically thought to be a sound explanation of observed phenomena. When doing research you begin with a Null Hypothesis. This is a statement that presumes there is no relationship between two given variables or that a medical treatment has no effect. Research generally recognizes two types of errors in research testing. Type I error is the false rejection of a true hypothesis i.e. false positive. Type II error is a failure to reject a false hypothesis i.e. false negative.
The initial research studies examining Vibrams claims were poorly designed studies with small numbers of participants which does not take into consideration the fact that too small a sample size can not adequately be generalized or applied to larger populations, raising the possibility of inference and error.
The final blow against Vibram that essentially closed the book in the plaintiff’s favor, was generated by the results of this study that sampled 103 runners and found that the Vibram shoe increased the probability of injury specifically to the shin and calf and this study combined with several smaller ones overturned Vibrams claims.
Vibram’s success arguably capitalized on Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s book about Tarahumara Indians who were skilled runners in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. They had the reputation for running barefoot for hundreds of miles without rest or injury, not unlike the relay runners in older South American Andes empires. Given that studies like this one completed in 1990 were once part and parcel of the environmental craze and return to nature movements that inspired Vibram and have spawned such an revived interest in things as diverse as permaculture and the paleo diet, we may not have seen the last of the back to nature movement. But with the current judgment against Vibram now part of the public consciousness it may be accurate to presume that the return to nature has been postponed due to the weather.