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

Posted on February 06 2012

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.

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