Running Average: Thoughts on “Born to Run”, by Chris McDougall

I recently purchased (and finished) Born to Run, a book which has been described as one of the most influential running books out there.

Having finished it, I have to say that it was well worth the read – if nothing else, the style is extremely engaging and entertaining, and the book makes a strong statement about humans and how we are, well, born to run (I don’t think that’s a spoiler…). I can definitely see why this book has become to popular, not only within the running community, but in the mainstream market as well.

To that end, I did want to jot down a few of the points from the book that stood out to me, so if you’re yet to read this book, get a copy and read it as it’s a good read, but unfortunately what follows contains SPOILERS – you’ve been warned!

So, onto the thoughts.

For me, there are a few major ideas that the book wants us to remember when it comes to running:

  • Love of running
  • Running shoes cause injuries
  • Nike’s role in creating the running shoe market
  • Importance of cross training
  • Homosapiens out-surviving Neanderthals because of running ability
  • Humans being able to run into old age

And just a disclaimer before we get into it: what follows are just my thoughts – I’m naturally a bit of a sceptic, but where I can, I’ve read more into the subject matter to get an idea of where the truth seems to lie. No issues

Love of running

That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to live running – Chris McDougall

Born to Run spends most of the book glorifying and, perhaps rightly so, immortalizing the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico as the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time.

In particular, the book points out that one of the Tarahumara’s primary strengths is that because they associate running with community and freedom, they love to run, and therefore continue to do it day on and day out without giving it a second thought. Similar to how kids seem to possess unbridled joy.

I think there’s definitely something in that argument, particularly when it comes to our lives that we know now – when we move from childhood to adulthood, we study, we learn discipline, we learn about life, and we learn to play is secondary to working hard. So why would we enjoy exercise, let alone running, if we’re taught our whole lives that we should be working hard, not running hard?

Definitely something I’ll be taking forward – hopefully to rekindle in myself too.

Running shoes cause injuries

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” – Dr. Daniel Lieberman

This is probably the most controversial and divisive point made in Born to Run. It’s the point that has made dedicated runners switch to minimal, or even barefoot, running, and continue to espouse it’s benefits to whoever will listen.

My two cents on this whole topic is that as with all things in life, it’s about balance. I don’t think that running shoes inherently cause injuries, because I don’t think it would be as simple as that. While I think it’s important to acknowledge the evolutionary aspects to how our legs came to be, I think it’s also important to recognize how far we as a species have evolved as well.

As homosapiens, we are taller than we have ever been, and we are constantly bee being told by the media that we are heavier than we have ever been. A switch to barefoot or minimal running for some people who are extremely tall or overweight may not necessarily be the best course of action to address symptoms of sore knees and ankles, and presumably applies to the extreme and everything in-between.

I guess I’m not going to pretend that I’ve done a huge amount of research on this, but the human condition has moved passed our cave dwelling days, and for those who want to rekindle that and reap certain benefits, then by all means – but shoes seem to be relevant for those of us who aren’t on the cutting edge of performance running, which is most of the human population; Chris McDougall himself included. So don’t ditch your shoes just yet, in my opinion.

Before I move on, I think there’s definitely something to be said for walking around barefoot to strengthen your feet in general, however running barefoot is a completely different ballgame.

Nike’s role in creating the running shoe market

“It’s the new Nike Free, a swooshed slipper even thinner than the old Cortez.”

And it’s slogan?

“Run Barefoot”

– Chris McDougall

Another controversial point made in Born to Run, but hasn’t seemed to get as much publicity as some of the other points in this book, is the suggestion that Nike continued pushing and expanding its shoe operations despite being aware that barefoot running is the best way to run.

For me, these chapters are written a bit too antagonistically – there’s probably no doubt in many people’s minds that Nike has really capitalized on the sports shoe market in our lifetimes, to the point where it’s almost synonymous with the concept of sports wear in general. However, the idea that well-respected scientists and entrepreneurs went out of their way to make a buck by ignoring what their customers actually needed, seems a bit farfetched, if somewhat unfair.

As touched on above, the barefoot movement has its place in promoting the strengthening of feet, however our needs as humans have changed – we invented stuff called “asphalt” and “bitumen” which most of us need to run and walk on everyday, so it would be ignorant to say that running shoes don’t at least play a part in protecting our feet.

Once again, I won’t pretend that I’ve done a lot of research into what shoes are the best (e.g. zero drop, minimalist, high drop, maximalist), however the one idea that I like to reinforce is that you should run the way you want to and pick shoes (or no shoes if that’s really who you are) that you are most comfortable in. Nobody’s saying you won’t get injured – but if you do, I feel Nike may not necessarily have anything to do with it.

Importance of cross training

Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong. And if I wanted to stay healthy, Eric warned me, I’d better do likewise – Chris McDougall

For me, and maybe because this is where I’m at in my running journey, this is the most important point in the whole book – that cross training is crucial to success as a long distance runner.

I myself have reached a point where my body is going as far as it can without breaking down, and I can see that the only way to get further is to build strength in some of the muscles I’m actively using, as well as some of those that I’m not.

This chapter floats the idea that the Tarahumara are not only runners, who are a one trick pony, but great athletes who are well-rounded in many sporting aspects which complement their ability to run for hours and hours. And that certainly rings true for me – if you do one particular activity for so long, neglecting everything else, you open yourself up to possibilities of injury when that something else happens.

This is why moving forward, I’ll be doing all I can to incorporate more cross training into my schedule.

Homosapiens out-surviving Neanderthals because of running ability

Smothered in muscle, the Neanderthals followed the mastodons into the dying forest, and oblivion. The new world was made for runners, and running just wasn’t their thing. – Chris McDougall

To reinforce the notion that humans, or more specifically homosapiens, are in fact born to run, McDougall takes us on a evolutionary journey down memory lane. More specifically, why we as homosapiens survived and Neanderthals did not.

While this is definitely a compelling argument which is supported by some interesting evolutionary traits that homosapiens possess (coincidences, you might say), my opinion, as always, is that the real answer may be more of a balance.

Again, I’m no expert in evolutionary history, but the latest research suggests that Neanderthals coexisted with homosapiens for at least 2000 years, which suggests there was plenty of opportunity for crossbreeding – in fact, it’s suggested that 1-2% of our current bloodlines are Neanderthal in origin.

No doubt we will continue to learn in this area as we progress as a civilisation, but the suggestion is that Neanderthals did have something to contribute to the homosapien gene pool, otherwise their lineage may have disappeared completely.

And it may not have been one particular way that Neanderthals diminished to simply one part of the homosapien gene pool. There may have been other ways the Neanderthals were inferior to homosapiens – at the very least, we know that homosapiens we smarter than Neanderthals, so that in itself is a compelling reason (reason enough that we sit at the top of the food chain now).

However, the idea suggested in the book that a tribe that hunts in the exact way the scientist were looking for smacks of confirmation bias, or at the very most makes it a compelling theory, rather than scientific fact.

Humans being able to run into old age

There’s something really weird about us humans; we’re not only really good at endurance running, we’re really good at it for a remarkably long time.” – Dr. Dennis Bramble

A tantalising suggestion right on the heels of the evolutionary history discussion is the idea that we humans are capable of running well into what we consider to be old age. This notion is apparently based on statistics from marathon finishers, where a 64 year old has the potential to stick with a 19 year old because we’re able to retain our endurance and speed much better than anything else.

It’s certainly an appetising theory, and we’ve all heard the saying “you don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” As always, my 2 cents on this is that there’s likely a balance somewhere in the details.

Marathon runners, particularly those who are older, are generally considered to be outliers, not because they can run, but more because they haven’t incurred any of the ailments that we associate with old age. It would be wonderful if we could confirm that the average person could do a reasonable amount of running and be healthy into old age, but I don’t think that’s information that we have now (and it’s not something the book spends more than half a chapter on)

The Summary

To round off all of the above discussion, I’ll say again that I found Born to Run extremely thrilling to read and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who runs, or is on the fence about starting their running journey – if nothing else, this book’s draw is it’s compelling narrative of how humans should be running, and if it gets people running, which I think it definitely has, then perhaps it’s all worth it.

All I wanted to do with the above is really put my thoughts down onto paper (or whitescreen) as I felt that although the book was very compelling, it was very one sided – perhaps necessarily, but that shouldn’t get in the way of further discussion and future research, and certainly not any misguided decisions to dive into barefoot running, for example.

As always with running, I think the most important thing to remember is to run within yourself – you know yourself better than anyone, and whether you’re a beginner or seasoned veteran, you know what your body needs and what your limits are. So as long as you can get out the door and start running, you’re always winning, in my books, whether we were born to run or not.

So I’ve talked way too much already – what are your thoughts on the book? Any points from Born to Run that you want to point out that I missed? Would love to hear from you in the comments or on Instagram!

Published by Stephen Yuen

I've been many things in my life, but right now, I'm an engineer, a runner, a husband, and a cat daddy. Who knows what comes next.

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