I just read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, and it blew me away! Once in awhile it’s great to have my preconceived notions turned upside-down. The main topic of the book is extreme distance running, particularly as practiced by the Tarahumara, Mexican indigenous people who live a remote existence in Mexico’s Copper Canyon region. By extreme distance running, I’m referring to people who run distances longer than a marathon. People for whom a marathon may be a light warm-up race. The story is a page-turner, and the narrative is organized around events that lead to a race between some of the best extreme distance runners in the world.
Anyone who knows me, or has read my many snarky remarks here about distance running, will wonder if I’ve lost my mind. Well, I won’t weigh in on that. Most of my hopefully humorous remarks are my way of poking fun at the sport’s huge injury rate. The frequence of injuries is so high that it’s essentially taken for granted, and viewed as an acceptable risk for those who love the sport.
I remember the time a friend invited me to his dojo to observe an aikido class. No sooner had I arrived, than several people, one after the other, got hurt and staggered off the mat. To top it off, there was a woman with a cast on her arm who, nevertheless, still wanted to be with her friends and cheer them on, and she was all suited up. As someone for whom exercise is a way of preventing injury, and who also plays the guitar, this parade of pain had a chilling effect on my enthusiasm. Although I was sorry for the wounded, I’ll have to admit that it was unintentionally hilarious that he had invited me on a particularly unlucky day. In a sense, it was the worst commercial ever written. Similarly, as regards distance running, the legions of walking wounded with self-induced injuries did not have me clamoring to sign up for the next marathon, or even a 10K.
But I used to love running. And I’ve always been interested in the people who are the best at what they do, or those who like to explore the outer limits of their sport, art, mountaineering, or other pursuit. So the topic of this book hooked me immediately.
But wait, there’s more! Since “everyone knows” that distance running will cause you pain and injuries, and that running a marathon is a gargantuan distance, how can we explain that some people seem to have no problem running marathons, sometimes more than one in a week, or others can run 100K, or even much further? That’s one of the key questions addressed in the book. Amazingly, he made a very strong case that, to a large extent, the high injury rate is caused by those silly expensive running shoes we all like to buy, or at least think we need to have. But surely the most expensive, most technically advanced ones must be better for you, right? They may actually be worse than the others – but they’re great for someone – yes, the companies that are making money by selling them! Oh well, at least they look cute.
I had been moving in this direction more or less intuitively. When doing cardio and strength training, I prefer to have no shoes on. This way, the feet get the most direct sensation of balance and the body’s position in space, and can adjust accordingly. (Martial artists pay particular attention to that, with the concept of getting grounded). This is especially effective when doing 1-leg squats. I would make an exception when lifting large, droppable weights over my head that I didn’t want landing on my feet. But whenever possible, my feet like to go commando! And this summer I started running again, just doing sprint invervals.
Another part of the puzzle is running technique. I can’t explain that here fully, any more than I could explain how to do Olympic weightlifting in a few paragraphs. And the truth is, even with fairly vivid descriptions, it’s hard to pick that up from text in a book, even a good one. But when I went to the track, I tried a couple of the ideas, and did my first barefoot run on a track ever! Lest any of you go crazy and hit the road outside your house without shoes for a long run, one of the track gurus quoted in the book points out that if you’ve always run with the heavily cushioned expensive running shoes, you may get a stress fracture by suddenly having no support. So with moderation in mind, I just went for a couple hundred yards after I had already done my workout. And wow, even though that track is made of soft and comfy artificial turf, with no shoes on I got an intense sensation. I liked it!
The implications go further than that. If we assume that a heavily padded shoe coddles the foot, allowing it to be weaker and still function, a case can be made that all these orthotics and special shoes prescribed by podiatrists and the like may mask, but not cure, foot problems, whereas having a well-exercised foot may obviate the need for any of those products, or even the need to visit the doctor.
So there will be detractors. There is a huge gravy-train based on the sale of running shoes, an enormous industry that stands to be decimated if this idea were to take hold. Manufacturers like Nike stop and start new lines all the time, even popular ones, so that they can get people in the habit of spending hundreds every couple years. Good old planned obsolescence. And some will cite scientific reasons why those $400 shoes may be good for you. There have been few studies done on barefoot running, and this may continue, as there’s no fortune to be made by telling people to run in bare feet. It’s somewhat analogous to the inherent conflicts of interest in the drug industry. Follow the money.
Yet, with a whole class of athletes being routinely injured, science is clearly not yet providing the answers needed. It would also be instructive to know how many of the running-shoe-supporting studies were funded by the industry.
It’s possible that we would be better off combining science research with the practical, sometimes ancient, wisdom of people who don’t concoct theories, but simply get results. This book makes a great case for it, as well as featuring great anecdotes, downright wacky characters, and plenty of drama, along with some science information. Somehow it manages to be just about everything I like in a book – for me it’s the most compelling one I’ve read all year. I was sorry when it ended. Yes, I am even considering going back to distance running again. Maybe. 🙂 Kudos and thanks to the author!
For more about this book and topic, here’s a very interesting NYTimes article.