Last week I finished the book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Chris McDougall. It’s easily in the top five best books I’ve read this year. And that’s not just because I’ve been doing more running this year than any other year. It’s an incredibly interesting book that makes the most mundane things completely fascinating.
The writer starts off the book with a running injury and wants to know how he can run without getting hurt. His doctors tell him to stop running. It launches into an exploration of running shoes, which didn’t come into use until the late 1960s. The author ends up pursuing a lost tribe in Mexico called the Tarahumara who easily run up to a hundred miles a day in ridiculous canyons with little more than sandals for shoes.
Personally it’s engaging because I’m fighting the same battle. I’ve taken up running recently but I’m terrified I’m going to hurt myself. Something like one in three runners get injured every year. I was going to run a 5K this weekend, but I came back from a run on Thursday with my knees hurting. Pushing it didn’t seem wise. The idea of barefoot running that’s explored in Born to Run suddenly seems appealing.
The fact is that for all our fancy cushioned shoes, running injuries have only increased. Running shoes actually increase the power of your footfall, magnifying potential damage to your feet, ankles and knees. But people have run for millenia without such fancy shoes, so why not do it that way (or at least in minimal shoes—I’m too much of a wimp to go completely barefoot). This barefoot or minimalist trend has skyrocketed recently, to the point that Nike has released their own “barefoot” running shoe. Here’s a good summary from the author’s site.
I’m not sure where I’ll land. I know I need to ease into minimalist shoes if they’re going to work for me, and with my iffy knees right now I need to be especially careful. Exercise shouldn’t be this difficult.
And that’s the most compelling part of this book, that perhaps we’re doing something wrong. Virtually every disease that plagues Western nations can be blamed on poor diet and exercise. Many of our health problems could be solved if we simply went running. We need to re-learn how to run, both to get back into the practice but also to learn how to do it right so we can avoid the epidemic of running injuries.
Which brings me to what I thought was the most fascinating portion of the book. McDougall talked to some evolutionary biologists who theorize that the human body was made to run. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which holds that our design is for walking. But as they compared human and animal physiology, they found that we have more traits in common with runners than walkers. As they explored further they found that we’re especially designed to run—but not sprints like a jack rabbit or a cheetah, but long distances. More than any other animal, humans have a capacity to go fast over long distances.
At first this stumped the biologists. How could that be helpful? Long distance is no good if a tiger catches you in the first 10 seconds. Likewise dinner would manage to escape in the first 10 seconds as well.
Then they discovered an ancient art of hunting that involves literally running an animal to death. It’s very rare today with fenced in preserves and what not, but they managed to find a tribe in Africa that would hunt this way: Persistence hunting. They would run an animal down over 20 miles, tracking them, herding them to keep from losing the stragglers and eventually the animals would overheat and die. A deer might be able to outrun you, but if you keep after it, the deer has to slow down to rest and you don’t.
That’s incredible. I’m probably summarizing the story poorly, which is why you should go read the book, but that’s just fascinating. I’d like to see how it goes over with my hunting friends. What if instead of grabbing the rifle or bow, they headed out in shorts and a water bottle, ready to run that buck to death? Think you need a hunting license for that?
Here’s a good video that summarizes the book and includes persistence hunting: