Fans don't break their stride over FiveFingers

PHOTO: Fans don't break their stride over FiveFingers

SINGAPORE - A false advertising lawsuit in America, which ended with Vibram FiveFingers giving partial refunds to its customers, has not put off the barefoot running community in Singapore.

Instead, users of the glove-like footwear here said that any health issue which arises comes from the way people run, not the product. It was reported earlier this month that Italian company Vibram has agreed to pay US$3.75 million (S$4.7 million) to settle a class-action suit first taken out in 2012 by a woman named Valerie Bezdek.

She said that the firm, without scientific proof, had advertised that its minimalist shoe could reduce foot injuries, strengthen lower leg muscles and provide other benefits such as improved posture.

According to media reports, customers who put in a claim will receive US$20 to US$50 in compensation. Vibram, while insisting it did no wrong, also agreed to stop making unsubstantiated claims.

The sole distributor of the shoes in Singapore, Innovatez, told The Sunday Times that the settlement applies to only those who purchased the shoes in the United States.

Innovatez declined to reveal how many of the shoes - which cost between $149 and $209 - have been sold since it started selling them in 2009.

It said it will "continue to position Vibram FiveFingers as a viable option for consumers who want to be as close to barefoot as possible, as well as for travellers who want a lightweight and compact pair of shoes".

The lawsuit has also kicked off a fresh debate over barefoot running, which enjoyed a resurgence after Born To Run was published in 2009. The book by American Christopher McDougall was about a certain tribe of Native Americans who could run long distances on thin sandals without getting injuries.

The jury is still out on barefoot running, which involves the middle or front part of the foot striking the ground instead of the heel. While some studies suggest it reduces certain injuries, other studies say it increases stress in other parts.

Mr Anthony Sum, founder of running group Team Fat Bird, which has more than 1,000 members, said many runners do not take the time to get used to running in minimalist shoes and continue landing with their heels.

He added that his team's trust in Vibram has not wavered. "We do not intend to get any refunds even if the lawsuit claims can be applied in Singapore," the 51-year-old marketing consultant said.

Said sports physiotherapist Gino Ng: "Currently the evidence for barefoot or minimalist (shoes) is actually very sound, provided your technique is spot on."

Personal trainer Haffiz Amin, 28, who has been using Vibram FiveFingers for more than three years, added: "Ultimately it may not be... the product but the person wearing the product that is the cause of injuries."

Mr Haffiz, who also manages running site My Running Addiction, uses the shoes as a tool to strengthen his feet and improve his running form for short distances.

Ms Charine Tan, who climbed Mount Kinabalu and ran a 42km marathon in the shoes, said she is convinced of their health benefits after using them.

"The shoes help improve my running posture," said the 28-year-old manager, who said she will continue to wear them.

But investment analyst Asyraf Salman, 26, who bought a pair about a year ago after reading the marketing materials, said his knees started hurting after he used the shoes.

He is trying to ease into the shoes by reducing his jogging pace. Now that it seems the health benefits are not backed by science, he is worried about long-term damage to his knees.

"If the pain doesn't subside, I could decide to switch back to my normal running shoes."

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