Monday, January 3, 2011

Bare Foot Reflections on "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall

After thirty years of running, I've discovered plenty of people who have a hard time understanding why I find it so enjoyable. Maybe this skepticism isn't too difficult to understand, since running is basically a continuous, repetitive motion which in the short term leads to shortness of breath, muscle soreness, and makes one smell rather nasty. Maybe I should simply be more tolerant of well intentioned, curious questions I get about running that seem motivated by a barely concealed incredulousness that someone could actually enjoy it, while simultaneously trying to unlock dark, elusive running secrets. While my mind registers snide answers to the usual questions like "What electrolytic rehydration drink do you use?" ("Water"), or "What advice do you have about running gadgets?" ("Throw them away"), and "What do you do when it rains?" ("I get wet"), to the ever popular, "Don't you get bored running?" ("No, am I missing something?"), my rational side generally shapes these answers into something more diplomatic, unless I happen to be in a very bad, or very good mood.

In recently months, I found myself being asked "What do you think about barefoot running?", so it seemed time to read the book often cited as a catalyst to this recent movement, "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. And while much to my dismay, this book did not inspire any smart-ass answers to questions about barefoot running, it was a fascinating read, weaving a lot of interesting research about running as it told an intriguing story about McDougall arranging an ultramarathon super-race between an elusive Indian tribe in Mexico and quirky menagerie of American endurance athletes.

The book itself started with McDougall asking himself a simple question, "Why does my foot hurt?". The search for the answer lead him to the barren Copper Canyons of Mexico hunting for the elusive Tarahumara Indians, a tribe where members run hundreds of miles in rugged terrain and sun drenched conditions, fueled by a corn beer they brew, making them the most hard core beer runners on the planet. McDougall begins to investigate the history and secrets of the shadowy group, who display amazing feats of running endurance wearing light weight sandals, instead of modern running shoes.

McDougall finds plenty of biomechanical research to suggest modern running shoes have been a lot of the cause of running injuries, rather than the prevention. Extra cushiony shoes actually require more force to push off the ground with, forcing runners to modify their natural running gait to a more inefficient heel-toe stride, causing injuries as a result. At one point McDougall writes "running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot", and he gives plenty of space in the book for an ultramarathoner known as Barefoot Ted, who's running endurance is only exceeded by his tenacity to preach for hours on the virtues of running barefoot to anyone with the strength to listen to him. It's this part of the book that he helped spark a bit of a barefoot running revolution, where barefoot running advocates claim we can break the shackles of running injuries and big nasty shoe companies, by simply taking off our running shoes, run barefoot, and reach a certain running nirvana.

The problem I have with these barefoot running advocates is that they take some perfectly good research and drive it right off a cliff that flies in the face of some actual historical facts about barefoot runners. For example, barefoot running advocates often mention that Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon while running barefoot. I find it both highly amusing and highly suspicious that barefoot running advocates conveniently don't mention Abebe Bikila came back four years later to win the 1964 Olympic Marathon wearing shoes on his feet. (In fact, Bikila decided to run the 1960 Marathon in his bare feet because the only available shoes for him didn't fit.) We often hear so much about African children running miles to and from school each day in their bare feet, and indeed, this is probably a major reason why these African children grow up to be world class runners. What we don't hear is that once these African children reach a certain level of running success, they start putting on running shoes and reach even greater heights. Now I ask you: Why do these runners, who fully appreciate the apparent advantages of running barefoot, choose to put on shoes once they have the opportunity to do so and continue to run even faster, rather than continue to run in their bare feet? Barefoot running advocates have absolutely no answer to this inconvenient question.

But McDougall makes a rather convincing case that with running shoes, less is often more. I never cease to be amazed of the performances of athletes in the 50's, 60's and 70's who ran in flimsy slipper-like shoes. And over time, I've found that the best running shoes are the stripped down models, with less overall cushioning. I considered running in lighter and thinner soled racing flats, but found they simply don't provide enough support, and my legs feel pretty beat up if I wear them for too long. Understanding that running without shoes is less than a hindrance one might think, simply taking off your shoes can expose you to more injuries, and it is interesting to note that at the end of the book, Barefoot Ted nurses sore, bandaged feet after the end of the big ultramarathon showdown, while the rest of the athletes, even those that raced in lightweight sandals, were relatively injury free. Sure, the running shoe companies would love to sell everyone their high-end shoes with overhyped and overpriced gadgets, (as if that were a shocking revelation), but the main thing to take away from "Born to Run" is that simple running shoes are the best shoes.

I also found McDougall's writing on benefits running form to be some most valuable information on running I've ever read. From the various passages on running form McDougall wrote, I've modified my running form to have a slight forward lean, with the ball of my foot landing directly below the hips, and my arms swinging either forward or backward without any wasteful side-to- side motion. Running with this form was a little awkward at first, creating the sensation of a continuous fall, with each foot plant catching me from landing smack on my face. But over time, it became natural and lead to an overall faster running pace, and less wear and tear on the body.

But perhaps the most notable chapter in the book describes research by University of Utah evolutionary biologist David Carrier and Dennis Bramble, who teamed up with Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Dan Lieberman, to discover the big evolutionary advantage early Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals because Homo sapiens were better adapted to distance running. It took South African Louis Lienberg, who spent a few years living with Kalahari Desert bushmen and joining them in hunts as they chased antelope until the tired animal collapsed from exhaustion after 3-5 hours. These hunts are a more efficient means of hunting than using crude arrows and other weapons available when both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals roamed the earth. So while Neanderthals had a number of physiological advantages over Homo sapiens, their inability to run down prey in packs is cited as a major reason why the Neanderthals eventually vanished from the face of the earth.

Which explains why the odd, modern day tribe of runners continue their strange habit. We're only human.


  1. "Barefoot running advocates have absolutely no answer to this inconvenient question."

    Sure we do. It's simple. Shoe companies pay these runners to wear their shoes. If you're Haile Gebreselassie, Adidas will pay for a mansion and make you a wealthy man.

    Do a little research, and you'll find that lots of top African runners start wearing shoes when they are paid to: the fellow who just won the NY Marathon is another good example.

    Haile Geb. grew up in a stick hut. Who can blame him?

    Some of the rules also prohibit barefoot running, as this story makes clear:

    Oh, and Bikila ran Tokyo in shoes because he was required to.

  2. I stand corrected, Tuck. I should have written, "Barefoot activists have tired and uninformed answers to these questions, or likely make stuff up."

    Yes, the big bad running shoe companies pay athletes to wear their shoes, but if fact, it's not that simple. They can also earn prize money in races and are also paid well by their country's athletic federation if they are successful. Given that national and world class runners go to extreme lengths to gain slight advantages in pursuit of this prize money and notoriety, why don't they simply take off their shoes if it would give them an big advantage? Simply saying shoe companies pay them to wear shoes is a too convinient answer that ignores several economic facts about world class running.

    And I think most world class athletes are driven by more by say, "Winning the Boston Marathon" than then money, anyway.

    "Oh, and Bikila ran Tokyo in shoes because he was required to."

    This contradicts other sources I used to research for this article, so I would be interested in your source for this.

  3. Nice review; I loved the book too. I admit it inspired me to ditch my 11 oz cushioned stability shoes for some more neutral lightweight trainers and I love them. But I'd caution that barefoot running just isn't for everyone; those with flat feet and giant bunions (ok me), but I do agree with the whole minimalist approach.

    Also: I'd love to get drunk on corn beer with Jenn Shelton and the Tarahumara. ;)

  4. I tried SO HARD to read this book. I couldn't get through it, too much anthropology lost me. But thank you for this great review. I've put this in my favorites, actually I just might print it out.

  5. This is similar to issues facing dancers and their shoes. Pointe shoes hurt. A lot of people try to over pad their shoes so they don't hurt but then you can't feel the floor at all and it leads to injuries. The less padding, the better and then your feet get stronger (and quite a bit uglier!) Less is definitely more.

  6. Sorry my incessant badgering about barefoot running drove you to read this book. Great review, by the way, and I'm still working on getting my running form to be more like the way you described towards the end of your post.

    Maybe when I'm at a level I feel confident I can keep up, we can go for a run, then consume vast amounts of corn-based beer.

  7. It's not truly barefoot running, but rather running with minimal shoes. Barefoot Ted ran/runs with five-fingered shoes, or sandals. Barefoot Ted also opened a shoe store in Bellevue, Washington, called Born to Run - it sells shoes that allow the foot to move more naturally