Christopher McDougall: Born to Run
As a writer for Men’s Health magazine and one of Esquire’s original “Restless Man” columnists, Christopher McDougall says a big part of his job was experimenting with extreme sports – mountain biking, surfing giant sand dunes, etc. He’s reported from three war zones for the Associated Press and spent months in some of the most lawless regions of Africa, yet never got a scratch. But strangely, putting on tennis shoes and going for a run would cause him horrendous pain in his feet and legs, which led to painful cortisone shots to alleviate it.
Unfortunately, what happened to him is typical of most runners, he says. Almost eight out of 10 runners are hurt every year. A study by Harvard’s Dr. Daniel Lieberman shows that runners in cushioned shoes suffer three times more impact shock than runners in bare feet. Dr. Lieberman says that, “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 running shoe was invented by the sports industry, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had very strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries, he says. When it comes to shock absorption, the plushest shoes you can buy are worse than no shoes at all.
McDougall says he found the answer to why his foot hurt on an assignment from Runners’ World magazine to find the world’s premiere runners. The search took him on an extended journey to find the elusive Tarahumara (tara-OOH-mara) Indians in Mexico’s lethal Copper Canyons (where the drug cartels grow their crops).
He met many colorful people along the way – Caballo Blanco, an American who disappeared into the canyons years ago to learn and live as the Tarahumara did. Finding him led to the “Running People.”
The Indians easily run 50 miles for fun, and they do none of the things modern science says they should. “I always associated running with pain and injuries,” McDougall says. “I was led to believe that running is hard for the body. But the Indians run all the time.” He asked himself two key questions, “Why are they not hurt? Why are they having so much fun?” McDougall decided that he wanted to learn to run they way they did. “The secret is how you run,” he says.
BORN TO RUN
The Tarahumara say when you run on the earth, if you run with the earth, you can run forever. McDougall first thought this thinking was sweet but ignored it. What they are really saying is that you don’t pound down on the earth when you run, but skim over it. Imagine the earth is like a ball, and you’re on top of that ball. You’re trying to keep the ball spinning – much like the act of a circus performer.
McDougall says he came at running from the wrong perspective. He also says eating and diet is supplemental to this type of distance running, but it not the main thing. It’s all about learning to run gently. “Once you learn to run gently, you don’t get hurt, and you’re not postponing or avoiding the run,” he says. “You don’t have to comfort yourself afterwards with ice cream. To run is the reward.” That’s when everything fell into place for him; the diet regulated itself. As he dedicated himself to learn to run for the joy of it, his habits changed tremendously. The big difference happened when he took his shoes off.
McDougall says that when most people run they land on the heel first; that 85 percent of runners in shoes land on their heels. But 100 percent of barefoot people land on their fore-foot. One example of a natural tendency: When you jump off a chair, how do you land? You land on the balls of your feet. “Shoes have enabled a way to run that we never did before. In a way, it was not made to do,” McDougall says. Our bodies are not engineered to do it.
McDougall enjoys running around his neighborhood now that he is healthy and has discovered a thin-soled running shoe. He also runs with shoes-with-toes that was used by Barefoot Ted in the Mexico race. The shoes were originally used by kayakers and boaters. Barefoot Ted saw them and liked them. The major running shoe manufacturers have caught wind of the trend and are making the shift. They’re coming out with “minimalist” shoes of their own which are in the pipeline.
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