I saw Christopher McDougall speak about his book, 4 or so years ago with a group of friends in Spokane, WA. I hadn’t even read it. However, it came back into my life recently from a recommendation from another good friend of mine, so I decided to pick it up.
I have been skeptical towards endurance training of any kind since I’ve briefly heard of the potential harms of “chronic cardio,” and the wear and tear on the body that comes with running. I will be the first to admit though, my own digging into those topics has been limited.
Primal Running & Primal Living
McDougall’s book provides another addition to the case for more primal living. We are seeing this trend of “returning to our roots” grow more in the area of diet and nutrition and Born to Run is a supplemental book to that movement, covering running.
Friends of mine have mentioned that this book expresses too much of a “one size fits all” approach to running, and we should be cautious towards embracing barefoot running whole-heartedly. I would lean towards the ancestral position, getting closer to living (and exercising) how our ancestors did should intuitively be better.
All in all, it did leave me inspired to run and be in greater aerobic shape. Since ending my competitive athletic career in high school, I’ve missed the feeling of being able to run for hours without tire.
However, I do feel I’m left with a bit more research to do in the arenas of “chronic cardio,” nutritional needs for endurance athletes, and getting started with minimalist running as I feel some more discernable action steps could have been a great addition to the book.
There are some action steps, but not wholly explicit. I’ll include them in my takeaways below, with supporting quotes where appropriate.
Notes and Takeaways from Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
**In some places I will directly quote, in others I will summarize (and reference) as appropriate**
McDougall briefly outline the training program he was put on to prepare for the final ultra-race:
- Don’t jump right into barefoot running – If you have been wearing supported running shoes for many years, you can cause a stress fracture. Your feet aren’t ready for it yet. Find shoes to progress from.
- Run like you were running for your life – This urgency will cause your body to self-correct form. As described in the book, here’s the ideal form:
- “You’ll be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking back toward your butt.”
- Correct Your Pace – “Only go as fast as you can while holding a conversation.”
“Eric [Chris’ coach] also had me get a heart-rate monitor so I could correct the second-most common mistake of the running class—pace. Most of us are just as clueless about speed as we are about form…Nearly all runners do their slow runs too fast, and their fast runs too slow,” Ken Mierke says. [founder of the Evolution Running method]…So they’re just training their bodies to burn sugar, which is the last thing a distance runner wants. You’ve got enough fat stored to run to California, so the more you train your body to burn fat instead of sugar, the longer your limited sugar tank is going to last…The way to activate your fat-burning furnace is by staying below your aerobic threshold—your hard-breathing point—during your endurance runs.”
- McDougall’s Training Plan (as I can best assume)
**There’s some left to be desired with the “regime” McDougall describes he was put on to correct his form and prepare for the final ultra-race.**
Week 1: Start with Hill Repeats (frequency & duration not identified)
”You can’t run uphill powerfully with poor biomechanics…just doesn’t work. If you try landing on your heel with a straight leg, you’ll tip over backward.”
Week 2: Focus on New Form, Not Speed
“By week two, Eric [Chris’ coach] was sending me off for two hours at a stretch, his only advice being to focus on form and keep the pace relaxed enough to occasionally breathe with my mouth shut.”
Week 3-4(?): Focus on Speedwork
“By week four, Eric was layering in speedwork: “The faster you can run comfortably,” he taught me,” the less energy you’ll need. Speed means less time on your feet.”
- Get Started Simply! Run Barefoot on Grass – Another coach whom McDougall spoke with recommended, “running barefoot on dewy grass three times a week.” Again, there was no mention of duration and technique…sadly.
More Expensive Supported Running Shoes Does Not Mean Less Injury
- “Runners wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes, according to a study led by Bernard Marti, M.D., a preventative medicine specialist at Switzerland’s University of Bern.”
- “Runners in shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40.” (McDougall cites The American Journal of Sports Medicine from 1989)
- “A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries”
Your Feet, Your Body will Get Stronger with Stress. It needs it!
- “The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh.”
- “Every time we put someone in a corrective device, we’re creating new problems by treating ones that don’t exist.”
- “When you run in cushioned shoes your feet are pushing through the soles in search of a hard stable platform.”
There’s a Strong Case, We Were “Born to Run”
- The Basic “Running Man” Hypothesis (as presented in Born to Run):
The Animal Kingdom is split into two categories: runners and walkers. Runners have traditionally been dogs and horses, walkers are pigs and chimps.
We share 95% of our DNA with chimps, it should make sense that we should share much of the same skeleton if we are in fact walkers too.
However, there are key differences between us and chimps relevant to running vs. walking:
- We have Achilles tendons, which connects the calf to the heel, chimps don’t.
- Our feet are arched. Chimps’ feet are flat.
- Are toes are short and straight, which helps running, while chimps’ are long and splayed, much better for walking.
- We’ve got a gluteus maximus, chimps have none.
- Big butts are only necessary for walking…your butt’s job is to prevent the momentum of your upper body from flipping you onto your face.”
- Chimps don’t have a nuchal ligament, we do, as well as dogs and horses.
- “The nuchal ligament is useful only for stabilizing the head when an animal is moving fast; if you’re a walker, you don’t need one.”
So, skeletally, the “human body changed over time, it adopted key features of a running animal.” We aren’t as close to walkers as we thought, and key features of our skeleton would suggest we could be runners.
But, there’s no way we could run like a horse, a dog or a cheetah, right?
Key distinction: there are two types of runners.
“…There are two kinds of great runners: sprinters and marathoners. Maybe human running was about going far, not fast. That would explain why our feet and legs are so dense with springy tendons—because springy tendons store and return energy, just like the rubber-band propellers on balsa-wood airplanes. The more you twist the rubber band, the farther the plane flies; likewise, the more you can stretch the tendons, the more free energy you get when that leg extends and swings back.”
In fact, humans may be the best marathoners in existence…
“…even though biomechanically smooth human runners have short strides, they still cover more distance per step than a horse, making them more efficient. With equal amounts of gas in the tank, in other words, a human can theoretically run father than a horse.”
As well, it could be the case that we evolved to stand on two feet, for this reason…
“…all running mammals are restricted to the same cycle of take-a-step, take-a-breath…[with] one exception: YOU.”
“When quadrupeds run, they get stuck in a one breath per locomotion cycle. Human runners never go one to one. They could pick from a number of different rations, and generally prefer two to one. We’re the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating. All the pelt-covered creatures in the world cool off primarily by breathing, which locks their entire heat-regulating system to their lungs. But humans, with our millions of sweat glands, are the best air-cooled engine that evolution has ever put on the market.”
“Once a cheetah’s temperature hits 105 degrees is shuts down and can’t run. They have to putt off heat via their mouths, or they die.”
“…when a deer wants to accelerate to four meters a second, it has to break into a heavy-breathing gallop, while a human can go just as fast and still be in his noggin zone. A deer is way faster at a sprint, but we’re faster at a jog; so when Bambi is already edging into oxygen debt, we’re barely breathing hard.”
We could believe, that we could run animals to death. In fact, there’s an episode of This American Life detailing the man who found out how you could…
McDougall’s talks with the various doctors who championed this theory led him to believe…
“You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else.”
But, as a society we’ve lost our appetite to run because while our bodies are built for performance, our brains are built for efficiency.
Why run if you don’t have to? Nowadays we don’t have to run down our dinner.