Vibram Fivefingers

Justin Geissinger, of Lancaster, shows his Vibram FiveFingers shoes. A suit contended Vibram made unfounded health claims for the shoes and the company recently agreed to a $3.75 million settlement. Justin, won't be seeking money: He likes the shoes. (Richard Hertzler/Staff)

Glove-like Vibram FiveFingers shoes became kind of a big deal a few years ago among some runners.

The idea behind FiveFingers was that they'd allow for a natural barefoot running style, with a rubber sole for a bit of protection against sticks, stones and the like.

But a 2012 lawsuit filed by a Florida woman claimed Vibram promised health benefits without scientific proof, including that the shoe would improve posture, strength and balance.

Now, Vibram has agreed to settle the class-action lawsuit for $3.75 million, but doesn't admit wrongdoing. It's still selling the shoes.

The shoes weren't very popular locally, according to Mark Amway, owner of The Inside Track running store.

Amway said the store sold perhaps a couple hundred pair during their peak popularity several years ago. That didn't even account for half a percent of shoe sales even at their peak.

"It really was a side business," he said. The store still carries them.

Amway wasn't a believer in the shoe and saw them more as a fad, he said.

FiveFingers epitomized the minimalist running trend — lightweight shoes with relatively little cushioning and support. Some purport to offer a barefoot feel.

Amway said the trend is waning.

"The whole minimalist thing has really curtailed, and that's partially because of the injuries," he said.

Jeff Dengate, senior editor at Runners' World magazine, agrees.

"I don't want to say minimalist is dead, but, it's dead," he said. "There was a lot of buzz. A lot of people tried it, and a lot of people failed at it."

Now, he said, running shoes are trending big and cushiony. Dengate doesn't necessarily see a problem with minimal shoes, but said people were misusing them.

Elite athletes may race in barely-there shoes, but they train in more substantial shoes, he said.

Dr. Maria Kasper, a podiatrist at Martin Foot and Ankle, said she's seen patients with overuse issues from FiveFingers, mainly things like metatarsal stress fractures and tendonitis.

The reasoning behind the Vibrams — running "naturally," the way nature intended, instead of shoe-bound — is not unreasonable, she said.

"The problem is, that reasoning falls in line with a Kenyan running," instead of someone who's been in shoes his or her whole life, she said.

Drew Nesbitt, a local runner and physical therapist for Hartz Physical Therapy in Lititz and Lancaster, also saw injuries associated with the shoes.

"My big complaint with the Vibrams is, people read the book, 'Oh this is great, it's going to change my life,' and they go from zero to hero" and risk injury, he said.

The book he's referring to is "Born to Run," by Christopher McDougall. The 2009 bestseller tells the story of a tribe in Mexico who run extraordinary distances in sandals. McDougall also talks about barefoot running in the book.

McDougall, who lives in Peach Bottom, doesn't see a problem with FiveFingers. The barefoot running proponent has had a pair, but doesn't run in them.

"The only problem with most of the news stories about (the settlement) is, they are interpreting it as there's something wrong with the shoes," he said. "The settlement is about the advertising."

That said, he thinks the claims are probably right.

"All they're saying is, if you go barefoot, you'll get stronger," he said.

As for claims by podiatrists that FiveFingers and minimal shoes lead to injuries, McDougall said, "Of course, they're seeing injuries, but they're always seeing injuries" even with runners using traditional shoes.

"What minimalist is all about is training your body first and choosing a product second," he said.

Justin Geissinger, a physical therapist at Prana Functional Manual Therapy in Lancaster, has a pair of FiveFingers but won't be seeking any money back.

"I just don't agree with it. The reason that the settlement occurred is because none of the facts can be supported —yet," he said. "Who's going to pay Vibram back when they are justified by research?"

He believes in the shoes.

"I got them because I was getting some injuries and I wanted to change it up and I had heard about them and barefoot running and how changing your running form could lead to less frequent injuries," he said.

He said he felt he became more efficient, faster and could run farther.

Dengate said he thinks shoe companies and marketers will be more careful how they make and sell shoes.

The Vibram settlement follows other recent similar claims against shoe companies.

The Federal Trade Commission sued Skechers in 2012 over its claims that its Shape Up shoe would tone muscles; Skechers settled for $40 million. And Reebok refunded $25 million to consumers over claims that its EasyTone shoes would improve muscle tone.

"This is really the wording and the marketing of these products, rather than what these products do," Dengate said.

Dengate doesn't think many people will pursue the Vibram settlement. People can get up to $94 per pair, but $20 to $40 is more realistic.

"I think when people start to realize they're probably going to see a much smaller chunk of money, they may not go through the time and effort," he said.

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Dan Nephin is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer. He can be reached atdnephin@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6150. You can also follow @DanNephin on Twitter.