Born To Run? Understanding 3 Truths Of Christopher McDougalls’ Best Seller

“Running is the problem”. 

For an injured runner, hearing this is like Scar sinking his claws into Mufasa as he clings on for dear life. A real helping hand would be nice. But no…

Christopher McDougall had the same situation when a Sports Medicine Doctor told him the cheerful news. The only apparent answer to his injuries was to “ride a bike”… Or was there another trail less trodden?

Like a downed fighter, Christopher McDougall climbed back up and began his ascent into the Mexican Copper Canyons – to find the illusory Tarahumara… Why? The Tarahumara run distances of over 50 miles: in sandals. No problem. And not to mention the fact that their running playground is a mountain range. 

Christopher had started his mission to disprove common assumptions about running, and he shows his enthusiasm in finding the answer to – Are We Born To Run?

The Tarahumara

DY2XXN Copper Canyon Ultramarathon (Ultra Caballo Blanco), Chihuahua, Mexico.

Raramuri… Meaning ‘those who run fast’, is another name for the Tarahumara. And rightly so. In Born To Run, they are perceived as the runners ideal. They run with a swiftness that we could only hope to match as we bounce (less elegantly) down our local running paths. Christopher McDougall references to a quote by Dr Dale Groom, who had conducted studies on the Tarahumara in 1971: “Probably not since the days of the ancient Spartans has a people achieved such a high state of physical conditioning.”  

This conditioning can be shown by the story of a twenty two year old Tarahumara runner, Lolena Ramirez. In this short Born To Run documentary, we get to see Lolena in action.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=25DE-1rO3qM

 Lolena exploded onto the Ultra Marathon scene when she competed in a 50km run through the Copper Canyons of Mexico – in a skirt and sandals. They conducted studies as to why the Tarahumara run so efficiently. Two reasons show up in the documentary. Firstly, they have a lower heart rate when running, with Lolena’s pumping at a steady 125-130 BPM. Secondly, the sandals they run in have caused their feet to become wider, and hard as granite with thick calluses, therefore providing a solid base.

Christopher McDougall And The Barefoot Running Solution

The modern runner is spoilt. There seems to be an endless number of shiny shoes coming out each year, with each one being sold as the haven for your foot, and the answer to your risk of injury. Yet the dream we are sold doesn’t appear to reduce injuries at all. 

Take Christopher at the start of his book, for example. He explains how poor his form was as the Doctor recorded a horror show: “My size 13s clumped down so heavily it sounded like the video had a bongo beat.” He then goes on to say in his Ted Talk that he bought too many new shoes to count and still ended up injured.

I believe this to be a key insight into the problem we face with cushioned shoes. It gives license to poor running technique because of the comfy clouds beneath the frail wrapped up foot. For instance, there was a study conducted by Dr Lieberman, which shows that runners who heel strike ended up with double the quantity of repetitive stress injuries, due to the increased impact to the joints. 

However, It would not be advised for someone to jump straight into barefoot running without preparation. Christopher even alludes to this when he says in Born To Run, that changing from heel striking to forefoot running could be swapping from one problem to another: Achilles strains.

It appears the best option is the steady transition to a quicker cadence. Therefore allowing the athlete to land on the forefoot/midfoot instead of the heel.

Evolution Shows We Have Always Ran: Persistence Hunting

How can a 37 year old Ethiopian woman turn up to the New York City Marathon, and beat the most competent female marathoner at the time, Paula Radcliffe? How can a 64 year old Tarahumara tribesman run just as fast and far at 64, as he did at 19? These mysteries are what Christopher has tried to tackle.

Let’s start with the Gluteus Maximus. This may have been a substantially important muscle during our evolution, and supports the thesis of our running routes. Daniel E. Lieberman conducted a study to understand the role of the Glutes, and it has shown that they are mostly inactive during walking, then begin to fire once you pick up speed. This appears to mean that evolution dedicated importance to having large running muscles. Which leads to the persistence hunting thesis. Why was running at speed important?

Edged weapons supposedly came on to the scene around 200,000 years ago. However 2 million years ago was when our increase in brain size appears to have happened and we began hunting for meat. So we hunted with our legs, suggesting running was inherent to survival.

We would run an animal down (being able to sweat gave us a big advantage over distance), and then finish the kill. There are tribes that still prove this to be true. If you are interested in reading more on persistence hunting then I recommend this article. Christopher also talks about it in his Ted Talk.

Conclusion

Christopher McDougall enlivens us in his search for the truth of running. Many would accept what the specialist says and suffer their painful fate. With the popularity of his book and ideas, more word is spread that the answer may not be in our futuristic shoes, but in how we ran many, many years ago.

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