Book Review: Born to Run

I just finished Born to Run:  A Hidden Tribe, Super-Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall, and wanted to share some musings with you all.  You may have heard of Mr. McDougall before, either in passing from a newly converted “barefoot runner”, or from his recent NY Times articles or TED Talk.  Regardless, if you’re like me, you were immediately intrigued by the message:  Is our evolutionary advantage, in fact, our ability to run long distances and sweat out our excess heat?  And what does this mean for current fitness programming?

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First of all, if you haven’t read the book, I HIGHLY recommend it. I listened to the audiobook version from Audible, which was also excellent.  The story is both captivating and thought-provoking, and centers around McDougall and his relationship with the mysterious running man called Caballo Blano (“the White Horse”). It tracks McDougall’s own struggles with running injuries and his search for a cure, as well as various other characters in the world of ultra-marathons.  He covers a lot of material, but here are some of the major points brought up in the book that I want to discuss:

1.  Modern athletic shoes, first invented by Nike in 1972, actually cause more injuries than they prevent.

Nike Air Max 1990 x Home Grown

Do shoes cause more injuries than they prevent?

On this point, I couldn’t agree more. McDougall presents a strong defense, pointing out that those runners with more expensive, cushioned, “injury-preventing” shoes actually experience over 120% MORE INJURIES per year that those runners who have nothing but the cheap 30 dollar shoes they got at Payless (or, in fact, no shoes at all).  Though it seems contra-intuitive, the numbers don’t lie:  the more money you spend on shoes/orthodics/etc., the more likely you are to get hurt.

The biggest reason for this is simply a lack of awareness of our feet. With shoes, our feet are kept in a constant, cushioned environment.  They don’t have to react or adapt to the ground.  They are, in effect, in hibernation – unable to communicate valuable information to our brains.  Information like pain.

Pain teaches our bodies what NOT to do, and it’s darn good at it too. For example, if you were to try to run with that long, heel-first, ground-eating stride that you do in your Nike’s in your bare feet, you would find that landing on your heel causes INSTANT pain.  When running on hard surfaces, our bodies naturally adapt to a shorter, fast-paced stride that is healthy for our joints.  To see this in effect, McDougall suggests trying this thought experiment:

You see your young child getting dangerously close to the road, and have to run to grab her.  Only you don’t have any shoes on, and she’s at the other end of your asphalt driveway.  Without thinking, you just GO!  If you do this in your own driveway, you will see that you adapt this same short, choppy stride.

domokun in driveway

How would your body react in this situation?

That makes sense for barefoot running, but what does that have to do with running in my shock-absorbing shoes? As it turns out, the force of impact between your foot and the ground (measured at about 12x your body weight) is the same WHETHER YOU ARE WEARING SHOES OR NOT.  Shoes, despite their highly-touted ‘shock-absorbing’ properties, don’t lessen the impact.  So the same stimulus that would normally result in our feet saying “hey, don’t run like that!” is simply being ignored.  While our joints still take the brunt of the damage, we aren’t aware of it until an injury crops up because our sensitive feet are unable to warn us.

(Note:  Did you know that, besides your hands, your feet are the 2nd most sensitive part of your body, chalk-full of nerve endings?)

Engineers and exercise scientists alike agree that our feet are marvels of design and complexity.  Even the most expensive shoes just can’t mimic all the musculature and step-by-step terrain adjustments that your feet provide you when running.

Does this mean you should strip off your shoes and start running barefoot right away? Well, no.  You have to think of your feet as if they have been in casts for a very, very long time.  The muscles in your feet have atrophied through non-use over the years, and it will take some time to build those back up.  The best way to start is SLOWLY.  Go for a walk, wear some gorilla feet to work, or take a short jog.  If jogging is your game, start with about 200m and build slowly from there, by about 50m or so a session.

I train barefoot or in Vibram KSOs whenever I can, and the results have been astounding. My feet are stronger, my running injuries way down, and my overall enjoyment of exercise way up.  The connection you feel with the ground on your first time out will likely tempt you to KEEP RUNNING.  Resist this urge and play it smart, and you’ll be running around safely in no time at all.

Vibram KSO footprint

My footprint in Vibram's looks like...a footprint.

(For more information on how to get started running barefoot, check out Barefoot Ted’s [featured in the book] site here, or this Couch to Barefoot Guide from David Csonka of Naturally Engineered.)

2.  Human beings evolved to run.

It takes a long time to grow young.

Did we evolve to run?

This one seems to be a bit more controversial among evolutionists, though the body of evidence is very interesting indeed. When our human ancestors came down out of the trees, it is most likely that we walked around on fours.  But at some point, we stood up.  The question is, why?  Why sacrifice the superior speed, strength, and power that being on all fours provided?  One possible reason:  oxygen.

By standing up, we allowed ourselves to breathe.  Other animals can only breathe once per stride, but as humans, are breath isn’t tied down to our movement.  It can be separately controlled.  And while this made us much slower, combined with our unique ability to sweat, it also made us vicious persistence hunters.  We could literally run animals to death, not by besting them in speed, but by hounding them consistently over great distances until they literally dropped from overheating and exhaustion.

Is this the missing key to why humans evolved as they did? While McDougall makes an interesting case, there is no way to say for sure.  So many factors went in to our species surviving when others (such as the neanderthals) did not.  (Ex:  location of our shoulders allowed for spear-throwing from a distance.)  Obviously, this point doesn’t have as much immediate meaning for us like barefoot running does.  I doubt that any of us will stop going to the grocery store and pick up persistence hunting instead anytime soon.  However, it does provide an interesting new point of view into how our physiology and evolution went hand-in-hand.

3.  The highest nutrient-dense diet consists of vegetables, fruit, and whole grains, while eliminating meat.

Red and Yellow Grape Tomatoes

What diet has the highest nutrient density?

This was easily the thing I took most issue with. Although most of the evidence he presents is anecdotal, (e.g. This superstar distance runner eats fruits, veggies, and whole grains), I believe it is perpetuating misinformation.

First of all, we know for a fact that whole grains, calorie for calorie, can’t stack up against good old fruits and veggies for nutritional content.  ‘Nough said.

And why is meat getting a bad rap again in the public media? It’s chalk full of essential amino acids, provides satiety signalling in the brain (unlike carbohydrate), and even helped us to grow big brains.  While there are vegetarian sources of protein, the amount of other stuff that comes with them – gluten and anti-nutrients like phytate, lectins, etc. –  make it a very difficult to optimize your health.  Luckily, there are those who still stand up for meat – like Mark Sission (former professional Marathoner) at Mark’s Daily Apple.  If you’ve never heard a good argument for meat consumption, check out this post, part 1 and part 2.

My opinion, simply put.

Something we can agree on is that eating organic, unprocessed foods is healthy for us. However, I would include whole grains in the “processed foods” group.  We are unable to digest grains in their raw form – it is only after much mashing and boiling that they become edible.  Sure, whole grains are less-processed than their bleached and powdered counterparts, but as we saw in the nutritional comparison, they aren’t all that much healthier either.

If you’re keeping score, that makes for one strongly agree, one interested nod, and one strongly disagree. The last point I want to look at is not directly mentioned in the book, but I think is a natural extension of the logic presented within:  should long-distance running trump other forms of exercise?

Benefits/Drawback of a Long-Distance Exercise Program

Let’s break this down into 3 categories – the time it takes to exercise this way, the physical results it yields, and how the role of community plays a part.

Time

My fitness philosophy is built around getting you in and out of your workouts in the shortest amount of time possible, freeing you to spend time doing other things you love while still enjoying all the benefits of vibrant health.  This usually means doing 3-4 workouts a week for anywhere between 15-45 minutes a day (including warm-up/cool-down).  Many of the long-distance runners mentioned in the book, however, run for upwards of 2 hours A DAY.

Now, if running is what you love, then there really isn’t a problem since the ultimate goal is to have time to do what you love. But I think for a large majority of the population, we would like time to pursue other passions besides just fitness, such as spending time with family, team sports, hobbies, etc.  While historically spending hours running down your next meal might have been normal, in modern society’s 9-5 work schedule, we just don’t have the same structure to our days as we used to, making time a valuable commodity.

Results

This is probably where you will see the biggest discrepancy between the two methods. While running long distance does make you aerobically and cardiovascularly fit, so too does smart anaerobic interval training. However, through anaerobic training, we also gain the benefits of increased strength and power.  Add to that the potential cortisol issues from over-training, the sky-high number of running injuries suffered each year as opposed to organized weight training (you are 300 times more likely to be injured in cross-country than in weight training, though barefoot running would probably bring those numbers down), and the muscle-burning effects of long-distance running, and I am hesitant to recommend such training to anyone unless it is what you truly love to do.

The difference between this method and anaerobic style training is easy to see, and while there is no ‘right’ body type, it is up to you to decide what your goals are.

 

Aerobic vs. Anaerobic

 

Community

One of the best parts of McDougall’s story is learning about the amazing community of ultra-marathoners. They look out for each other, support each other, and are in the sport for reasons other than just winning.  Don’t we all love that kind of story?  Indeed, the Tarahumara (running people described in the book) have built their entire culture of social interaction around long-distance races.  This would seem to be a strong argument for the power of running in building community – or is it?

Haven’t we all felt that sense of connection with others as we work out, play games, or even watch sports? Is it because they are running, or because they are being active, together?  If you’ve ever been in a tight-knit CrossFit box, on a sports team, or even just with your friend in the gym, you know the very sense of community, of family, that I’m talking about.

There are other ways to build and experience community other than long-distance running, and the long hours spent trekking alone every night would seem to me to be the opposite of community-building. That’s not to say that time alone isn’t important, but just that it doesn’t HAVE to come through running.  In fact, almost none of the positive benefits mentioned are solely in the runner’s domain.

The bottom line is, if you love to run, then go for it. (Maybe re-think your fancy shoes.)  Just be aware of the physical changes that your body will under-go during this type of training, and that you may not optimize your OVERALL fitness.  And if you don’t love to run, don’t worry – you can still have get all of the wonderful perks that McDougall talks about through other means.  The choice, as always, is up to you.


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