“Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall

“Born to Run” by Christopher McDougallBorn to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and
the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Christopher McDougall
Knopf
2009
978-0307266309

I can’t remember how I first heard about this book, but I’m glad I did because it has been a revelation. As the author has acknowledged in an interview, it is really three books in one. It is partly about the Rarámuri (“Tarahumara”) Indians of Mexico, a shy, peaceful tribe that has survived by running and hiding in the most rugged terrain on earth, the Copper Canyon. “Rarámuri” means “running people,” and indeed running is the foundation of their culture. It is not just a means of escape, it is something they find great joy in, and they have learned how to run great distances, for days on end, through impossible terrain. McDougall, a runner himself, became fascinated with them after struggling with running injuries that threatened to take away his favourite sport. He wanted to know how they ran so much without difficulty, and that is how the book started.

Born to Run is also about a group of crazy “ultrarunners,” long distance runners who regularly compete in 50 to 100 mile races up and down mountains, and who run even longer distances just for fun. This is not a sport with a lot of glory and sponsorships, they just love running, and so when they were brought to the Copper Canyon to race the Rarámuri, it was like the meeting of twins separated at birth.

However the part of the book that blew my mind was about running itself, and how we really are born to run, built to run, evolved to run. This may seem hard to believe for those of us who learned to run in great, galumphing, heel-first strides. The way we normally run is just about least efficient, most punishing way to do it. We’ve taken something completely natural and made it so difficult that only those with the highest pain thresholds can get much enjoyment out of it. The problem is the running shoe. The running shoe practically forces us run in the worst way possible, by slamming down on our heel with a straight leg. The shoe’s cushioning prevents us from feeling the pain of hitting the ground in this way, so we keep doing it despite the damage it does to our bodies. If that wasn’t enough, the much-lauded arch support in these shoes actually weakens our feet, making them even more vulnerable to injury and less able to carry us. Think of an architectural stone arch—put a heavy weight on it and the stones lock together more strongly; but push up from below and the arch falls apart easily. That’s what arch support does to our feet.

So what is the alternative? Run like the Rarámuri, and like every other barefoot or sandaled runner in the world, on the balls of our feet. It’s how children naturally run, before they are taught the wrong way, and it is how animals run, whose heels never even touch the ground. It’s the only possible way to run without shoes, because the other way just hurts too much. Pain is the best running coach—the bottoms of our feet are among the most sensitive parts of our bodies and when they aren’t cocooned by an inch of foam rubber they can tell us quite clearly when we’re running wrong.

The way the Rarámuri run is to land softly on the balls of their feet, making first contact with the outside of the foot, rolling in, and gently coming down on the whole foot while stroking the ground backwards. Steps are light and quick, and much shorter than we run in running shoes. It is more efficient to run with smaller strides, and landing on the ball of the foot takes advantage of the springy tendons and ligaments in our feet and legs. We have far more connective tissue in our legs than most animals, so running for us is a bit like riding a pogo stick—we only need to use enough muscle to keep the bounce going and our tendons and ligaments do the rest.

For me as a biologist the most fascinating part of Born to Run was about how running is the key to our evolution. Until recently, no one has been able to account for our bizarre morphology, the form of our bodies. Compared to other animals, we are slow, weak, and defenceless. We really have no business being on this planet. People sometimes say that making tools evened the odds, but we didn’t start making tools until long after we assumed our present shape. So why are we the way we are? The only theory that explains us is “persistence hunting.” Persistence hunting is tracking and running down a prey animal until it collapses. Animals are obviously faster on the sprint, but they cannot run long distances. Their fur traps heat so they can only run for so long before they must stop to cool down. Also the way their bodies scrunch up and extend with every galloping stride limits how much they can breathe. We, on the other hand, have no fur and can sweat, so we shed heat as we run, and being upright means we can breathe as much as we need to while running. Add to that our efficient, springy legs and you have a long distance running machine.

Running may be the key to our evolution in another way. If we didn’t evolve by making tools, what caused us to develop our supersized brains? The answer may be tracking. Tracking is partly a matter of perception—being able to see the slightest signs left by an animal—but it is also a matter of thinking. To track an animal efficiently you have to be able to put together the story of what the tracks mean, what the animal was doing when it left a track, and where it might be going. This employs quite a number of different mental skills—learning, memory, extrapolation, inference, deduction, visualization. Throw in the need to teach these complex skills to the next generation and you may have the basis for speech as well.

This is the best, and frankly the only, theory I’ve ever heard that explains human evolution. It’s not just a theory either, because persistence hunting has been observed. It only takes a few hours to run down an animal like an antelope, which is well within our capability. Then there’s the fact that running, punishing as it is in running shoes, is the most popular sport on Earth, not to mention the preferred mode of locomotion among children. Kids know what we grownups have forgotten—running is easy and running is fun.

Chris McDougall has become a convert to barefoot running since writing this book. His injuries have cleared up, and he can run farther and faster than he ever did before. But it’s not about distance and time, it’s about joy. Over and over McDougall talks about the pure joy he saw on the faces of the Rarámuri and the crazy ultrarunners, even at the end of a long, gruelling race. Running simply feels good, when you do it right.

If you’re tempted to give it a try, check out RunningBarefoot.org. The site has an extensive section on getting started, as well as plenty of other advice and discussion on barefoot and minimalist running. I particularly love the site’s motto: “Shoes? We don’t need no stinkin’ shoes!” You might also enjoy the blog of Barefoot Ted, one of the racers in Born to Run, and the site of Caballo Blanco, who organized the Copper Canyon race featured in the book.

I’ll leave you with this video by Christopher McDougall. When I first saw this I was struck by how much his form looked like the pottery paintings of Olympic athletes from ancient Greece. This is how they ran. It’s how we’ve always run. Thanks to Chris McDougall for showing us how to get our birthright back.

Panathenaic amphora, 333 BC

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8 comments on ““Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall

  1. Stefanie says:

    What an interesting post! I remember I ran “on my toes” when I was a kid and I loved running but when I got into middle school and had to run for P.E. and was told I ran “wrong” I started having knee problems and hated running. Now I know why. I'm not sure I'm going to go for a run anytime soon but it makes me think!

  2. Sylvia says:

    Wow, Stefanie, what a perfect example of how running has been ruined. I remember having knee problems back then too; the doctor just called it “growing pains.” It really is sad how the joy of running has been taken away from generations of kids. We might not be having a child obesity epidemic if children were allowed to run naturally.

  3. Stefanie says:

    My doctor called it growing pains too! That was, of course, after I was subjected to x-rays and several blood tests and he couldn't figure out what was wrong. It is amazing how we are taught not to trust out bodies and natural movement. But then what would Nike do if people started running barefoot? 😉

  4. Sylvia says:

    They would invent the Nike “Free,” a shoe that purports to simulate barefoot running. Ironically their marketing imagery shoes the same old heel-first stride. Not getting it. On the other hand Vibram does get it with their “Five Fingers” rubberized foot sock (with pockets for each toe!). They show people running properly and advise people to land on their forefoot. They're pricey though. A cheapo aquasock will do nearly as well.

  5. Wow, that's fascinating. I've always wanted to be a runner but in Basic Training I got so chewed up I never could. Knees, hips, ankles, I always had an injury. I thought it was because I was suddenly forced to run and march long distances. Up until the seventies the army ran in their combat boots each day but they were injured so often they switched to running shoes.

  6. Sylvia says:

    I don't imagine the running shoes were much of an improvement. According to the book, there's really no evidence that they're safe. The author quips that if the running shoe was a pharmaceutical drug it would be recalled immediately. One astonishing statistic in the book is that the more expensive the shoe, the more injuries people get! You're better off in a lowly sneaker than an air-gel-microchipped wonder.

    You'll have to ask for one of those running strollers for Christmas and give it another try!

  7. The doctor who treated me said that I have hyper-extensive joints and that running wasn't a good exercise for me but I enjoy taking the baby for walks.
    By the way I bought that book for my sister who runs. Do you have an Amazon Assoc. account? You probably do, I'll remember to buy my books through you next time.

  8. Sylvia says:

    I have loose joints too, and no doubt the usual way of running puts a lot of unnatural stresses on joints. Forefoot running is a lot smoother and lighter so it's probably OK with proper technique. But I know how easy it is to get injured when your joints are always threatening to go off in wild directions!

    Yes, I do have an Amazon account—just click on any of my book links here and I'll get a few pennies from whatever you end up buying. Thanks!

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