Marx Running owner Mark Coddaire recalls that it was early in 2011, in the height of the popularity of the barefoot running movement, that he was approached by Vibram Five Fingers sales representatives. The company, which is based out of Concord, MA, wanted to know why the running store that was closest in proximity to their headquarters wasn’t selling their product. Coddaire had always been a proponent of a more traditional running shoe and was skeptical of the claims that Vibrams reduced the risk of injury, strengthened foot muscles, and positively changed a runner’s form. But now Coddaire’s beliefs were put to the test as he faced convincing sales representatives from Vibram’s corporate headquarters (on more than one occasion) and was offered very attractive introductory pricing.
“Other running store owners told me they couldn’t keep Vibrams on the shelf — they were selling like hotcakes,” says Coddaire. “Bringing them in would’ve been a huge short-term financial windfall for us.” But Coddaire never pulled the trigger. The critical moment came in one of Vibram’s sales pitches to Coddaire: they claimed that their product forced the runner onto the forefoot, eliminating any over-pronation in the process due to the new forefoot strike. Having coached many youth runners, Coddaire had compiled an archive of videos of his athletes’ gait patterns. He queued up a video of an over-pronator running barefoot. What they saw in slo-mo was a defining moment. The athlete landed on the forefoot just as the Vibram rep claimed they would, but then the athlete sank back down onto their heel while their arch and ankle collapsed in — a telltale sign of over-pronation! This is something a traditional running shoe could correct. Barefoot running hadn’t eliminated the over-pronation but simply shifted the order in which it occurred. So while virtually all area running stores started selling Vibrams, Coddaire walked away — “I was afraid I was making a big mistake, seeing my competitors having the success they were, but in the end we never drank the cool-aid.”
Coddaire understood the source of the barefoot running movement. While the book “Born to Run” had helped it gain traction, it was also a backlash against running shoes that utilized excessive cushioning and over-corrected peoples’ gaits. This type of “maximal-ism” led to widespread injury. Coddaire had trained his staff to advocate for a more moderate approach. They recommended shoes with a firm mid-sole and that only offered enough support that was necessary for each specific runner’s style. This proved to be a winning formula. Vibrams went to the other extreme on the spectrum and completely eliminated the mid-sole and any type of support. This also led to widespread injury. “I can’t tell you how many people come in our store looking for help because they got injured running in Vibrams,” says Coddaire.
Coddaire has also been a sponsor of several professional Kenyan runners, helping them obtain sports visas to compete in the U.S. Many of the Kenyans grew up running barefoot. As professional runners, however, they all wear traditional running shoes, which they see as necessary to help offset the shock of running over 100 miles per week. “When I ask the Kenyans about the whole minimal movement, they just laugh at the ‘silly Americans running barefoot’,” recalls Coddaire. This begs the question — if barefoot running reduces the risk of injury and strengthens foot muscles, then how come virtually no elite or professional runners have bought into Vibrams? This is just one of the unanswered questions that Vibrams hasn’t been pressed to answer.
But it all appears to be coming full circle. Just this week, it was announced that Vibram was slapped with a class-action lawsuit for making false advertising claims. The lawsuit claimed that Vibram had deceived customers with assertions that their product reduced the risk of injury when, in fact, no scientific evidence supported this claim. Further, it appeared that Vibrams actually increased the chances of becoming injured. Vibram is currently settling this suit by providing a $3.75 million settlement to those who bought the Five Fingers shoes after 2009. When Coddaire started Marx Running & Fitness in March of 2003, he advocated a moderate approach where a shoe provided some firm support but didn’t go overboard with excessive cushioning or over-correction. As the running industry changed over the years and the major running companies started beefing up the cushioning in their shoes to absurd levels, Coddaire stood by his original claim. And then as the minimal movement spread like wildfire, his beliefs still didn’t waver. When the pendulum swings back the other way and the next big running shoe-fad takes off, Coddaire and Marx Running & Fitness will be waiting patiently in the middle, where they’ve always been.