Vivobarefoot’s “Barefoot is Best” Campaign: Another Example of Marketing Twisting Science

A few weeks ago a study was released out of Daniel Lieberman’s lab at Harvard (to give due credit, the lead author was Adam Daoud) showing that forefoot strikers on the Harvard Cross Country team suffered half as many injuries as heel strikers. I’m not going to get into the details of the study here as that is not the point of this blog entry (if you want to read about it, check out Alex Hutchinson’s nice summary on Sweat Science). Rather, I’d like to respond to the marketing response to the study by shoe manufacturer Vivobarefoot.

Shortly after the study was released, Vivobarefoot put up a blog entry on their website stating that the Harvard study “proves” that “barefoot is best.” Here’s how they put it:

“While VIVOBAREFOOT has been a believer in “Barefoot is Best” since 2003, there is now scientific proof. Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman has released his latest ground breaking research: Foot Strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners: a retrospective study. The research shows runners with a rearfoot strike have almost twice the rate of injury than those who forefoot strike, a characteristic found in skilled barefoot runners.”

Accompanying the blog entry was the following graphic:

vivobarefoot-research

Last week I got an email from Vivobarefoot asking if they could use some of my footage from the NYC Barefoot Run for a piece they are putting together. I responded that I was fine with that as anything I put on YouTube is free and open to public use and sharing, but cautioned that their interpretation of the Harvard study was incorrect. I’m writing this post in part to make my feelings clear that if indeed my video shows up in a marketing piece that misrepresents the results of a study, I want my position on the subject to be known.

Now, I understand the link Vivobarefoot is trying to make here, but I also feel that intellectual honesty needs to come into play. The Harvard study did not look at barefoot running in any way! It looked at college cross country runners wearing shoes and running in their typical form. It did not look at recreational runners who are considering changing form from a heel strike to a forefoot strike, which is what most people running in a Vivobarefoot shoe would be attempting to do. These are very different situations, and the types of injuries likely to be experience by these different populations might be quite different. What’s more, Vivobarefoot sells shoes, they don’t make their money off of barefoot running.

Maybe it’s just the scientist in me that gets irked whenever anybody claims that a scientific study “proves” something. I’ve laid into other shoe companies for disingenuous marketing (e.g., most recently Brooks), and feel it’s important to hold a similar standard for any company making such claims. And I’ll add that I’m actually regular wearer of Vivobarefoot shoes, as is my 6 year old daughter – I like their products and have worn Vivobarefoot Aquas to work more than any other shoe over the past year. But, the shoes can stand for themselves without this sort of marketing approach.

I’ll also add that the Harvard study was a valuable contribution to the ongoing debate about form and footwear, but it needs to be interpreted and applied within the limits of the specific question that it sought to address. That question was whether shod habitual forefoot strikers on a college cross country team exhibit more or fewer injuries than shod heel strikers. Let’s not extend our application of the results too far beyond that.

Given that this is political season and I live in New Hampshire, I’ll end by saying that when Vivobarefoot claims that the Harvard study proves that barefoot is best, I respond by saying that despite my own fairly strong minimalist leanings, I cannot approve this message.

About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Jacob Caldwell says:

    If you are hurting yourself running regardless of shoes or no shoes it is because your technique if off. Check out my 10 Part How to Walk Series…from proper foot placement to mental placement.  link to seattlemassageblog.net

  2. Ken Skier says:

    I don’t think you can expect much truth from a company that claims to sell a “barefoot” shoe.

    What’s next?  A “skinnydippin” wetsuit?

    • Hah – I agree. (I do own a pair of Vibrams but do not call them barefoot!). There is a great clip on youtube called “Sh*t Barefoot Runners Say”, where the runner says he is a barefoot runner, then shows the camera his Vibrams, Kinvaras, Minimus etc. Gold.

  3. Robert Osfield says:

    I had a very similar reaction to this bit of marketing from Vivobarefoot, and too feel that they make great shoes, so it’s a real shame that there marketing department need to do the hard sell and mis-represent the findings of Prof. Leiberman’s study.  For me it sullies the brand, so achieves the exact opposite of it’s intention, but then perhaps those who care about scientific rigorousness are in the minority… or at least the marketing folks seem to assume that.

    One element I see crop up over and over again in the minimialist shoe marketing is diagrams of runner – the heel striker at point of landing whilst over-stridding, and the non heel striker with their foot right underneath them or often even behind their COM.  This advert does it, Inov8 has some marketing that tries to illustrate a progression that has the heel striker to forefoot strike and does exactly the same thing and these aren’t in anyway alone in this.   What all these diagrams shoe is the “natural” runner late in stance, but sold as if they have just landed, and the heel striker right at the beginning of stance and doing a dreadful over-stride.   This type of marking is never like for like.  It’s basically deceit.

    I can’t help but feel that marketing and over-zelous evangelism does harm to the minimialist and barefoot movement.  Short term gain for long term pain.  It’s like the marketing departments are locked into matching either sides outlandish psuedo-science and unsustainable claims, actually telling the truth gets lost in the hype.

    Which is shame because my expectation is that with time the more evidence will come to support minimalist and barefoot running as a valuable approach to running.  The house of cards of high heel drops and motion control shoes is already crumbling, one needn’t create a new house of cards built on pseudo science or mis-representing proper science as an alternative.

    I do hope that publicly calling out the dubious marking, like you have done here, will help keep a check on the silliness.  Kudos to kick the ball into play.

  4. Tom Buckner says:

    Can we finally put an end to ‘barefoot’ and ‘shoes’ as meaning the same thing?!  We are either wearing shoes or going barefoot.  It is such a contradiction of terms to say barefoot shoes and so confusing to those looking in at the movement.  

    Btw, I also like my Vivo’s, though they are a casual ‘work’ or ‘leisure’ shoe for me and cannot run the long distances in them.

  5. I’ve always wondered about the whole barefoot running phenomenon and what the rate of injury is. Thanks for sharing!

  6. At best, Vivo is probably going to cause an injury to a runner who looks at the marketing and nothing else. The problem is it takes more than a “barefoot” shoe to help someone transition from a heel strike to a forefoot (or midfoot) strike.

  7. Good for you, Pete.  I appreciate you being willing to take a stand against the marketing machine.

  8. Galahad Clark says:

    Hi Pete,I would, personally like to apologise for our over-enthusiastic response to Prof. Liebermans research (I’ve been making and promoting barefoot shoes, against the tide, since 2003 and this was an exciting moment!).  We are currently updating our approach. It is true that nothing is ‘proven’, and it is true that over-striding whilst forefoot striking can be just as injurious as heel striking, and it’s worth noting that the sample set in Dan’s latest study were all elite athletes.But, ‘twice’ as many injuries and up to 8% more efficient is statistically significant whichever way you slice and dice it.Uncommon Sense:  Barefoot is best, and we’re more enthusiastic than ever to be part of the revolution to encourage anyone that is not happy heel striking in overly padded shoes to re-discover proprioception and good form fore foot running…  All our focus is on trying to make the best ‘barefoot’ products (with maximum proprioception) we can and on creating education for healthy transitions…  Lets join forces and do what we can to help educate the world about the benefits of fore foot strike (barefoot) running that we know and love…There’s a lot more transition to go!Galahad Clark, Managing Director VIVOBAREFOOT

    • Pete Larson says:

      Galahad,

      I appreciate very much that you took the time to respond here – that is not typical of other shoe companies that I have criticized, and it says a lot about your approach.

      My sensitivity on this issue is that all too often claims are made by shoe companies that either distort or or are not supported by the scientific evidence. This is how we wound up with things like the pronation control paradigm (which Runner’s World seems to have just abandoned in their most recent issue), the wet test, the role of cushioning, heel lifts, etc. I believe that barefoot running can be of benefit, and that running in minimalist shoes can as well. I am a supporter of both myself as anyone who reads this blog can tell. But, people are individuals with individual backgrounds of past shoe wear, physical activity, health issues (e.g., diabetes), etc., so we need to be careful in a blanket approach to footwear for all. Some people may in fact need a bit more shoe for any number of reasons, and that’s ok. What’s important is that there is now variety in the market, and people can choose more minimal shoes like yours if they want (as I have myself).

      The problem is that headlines and marketing slogans that are over-enthusiastic can get people hurt. Dan’s study was a step in the direction of providing evidence for the benefits of one stride type over
      the other, but it’s one study that focuses on a very specific type of
      high-level runner (collegiate XC athletes). As I pointed out in my post, it
      does not address the safety and benefits of barefoot running or the safety
      and benefits of active attempts to alter stride from one type to another
      (which is what most people choosing a shoe like yours would be attempting
      to do). A solid argument can be made that wearing any shoe on one’s foot
      alters mechanics relative to barefoot, so these facts are important to keep
      in mind. I get emails from people all the time who have benefited from
      moving to a more minimal shoe, but I also know far too many people who have
      gotten hurt in attempting to transition to barefoot/minimalist with too
      much exuberance. That’s why I don’t like proclamations like “barefoot is
      better” or “forefoot striking reduces injuries.” It makes people feel like
      this is something they should be doing even if they are running just fine
      in their current form and footwear. A lot of folks also don’t understand
      just what a forefoot strike is – quite often they think of it as running up
      on the toes, and this can put tremendous stress on the foot and ankle.

      As I indicated, I wear your shoes regularly, and you make kid’s shoes that
      I feel comfortable putting on the feet of my own children (and that’s very
      important to me). I also appreciate your efforts at education – this is
      what I think needs to be most emphasized right now. But, when it comes to
      using science in marketing, let’s take the high road and not overgeneralize
      or get too exuberant with research findings. We have a lot left to learn,
      and until we have a better handle on who should transition, what the risks
      are, and how to minimize them, it’s in everyone’s best interest to take a
      very careful approach.

      Pete

      • Vicki Capone says:

        I really love any company that makes minimal shoes for kids and Vivo is one of the few that do. My son is currently wearing Merrell Trail Gloves which have not held up very well. We’re planning Vivos next time around.

  9. Paul Joyce says:

    Pete, completely agree with your post. Vivobarefoot have been a real leader in both quality shoes and their emphasis on good running form (their work with Lee Saxby is excellent) so it’s disappointing to see them go down this path. Hopefully posts like this will make them reconsider in the future. Cheers, Paul

  10. HawleyHawk says:

    The above post is why I continue to follow your blog. You look at the true picture of the barefood debate. Too many people and all the shoe companies take one snippet and blow it out of proportion. Thank you for being you.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks,much appreciated. I was really disappointed with the interpretation as I do genuinely like their shoes and the folks from the company that I have interacted with. They also are one of the few companies who make shoes that I feel comfortable putting on my kids’ feet. But, it’s still important to be honest, and though it can be hard at times when you have a good relationship with a company, it’s worth pointing examples of bad marketing like this out.

  11. Pete, great article! I truly appreciate your objective view on the matter. When it comes down to marketing I think comparative advertising is not possible in this case with such a limited research data gathered from small and focused user group. In applying these findings directly on general population and by making wide ranging assumptions based on the study Vivo has created misleading advertising. In all honesty, Vivo should pull this campaign.    

Trackbacks

  1. […] The bold conclusions drawn from this particular piece of research have been wildly blown out of all proportion by some of those with a stake in the minimalist market (see this RunBlogger.com article). […]

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