You improve at running by running and running and…


Tarahumara runners

From The New Yorker:

The search for the one best way of running is what drives Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run,” which came out in 2009 and has sold at least half a million copies since. The book tells the story of a group of larger-than-life ultramarathoners, with names like Caballo Blanco and Barefoot Ted, and the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, a tribe of men and women who spend their lives racing, in sandals, through canyons—except for when they come to the United States to win hundred-mile races. It’s a rollicking narrative, a romanticization of a distant group of people, and a broadside against American shoe companies. “Born to Run” is not the best book on the intricacies of the sport—my pick would be Timothy Noakes’s “Lore of Running”; for a training guide, I’d select Scott Douglas and Pete Pfitzinger’s “Advanced Marathoning”—but it’s certainly the most accessible and the best selling.

In McDougall’s view, Americans have been duped by running-shoe companies, eager to sell us shoes with ever more cushioning in the heel at ever higher prices. Modern running shoes, McDougall writes, are sort of like plaster casts, inhibiting free movement, and pushing us into all sorts of bad habits, like landing entirely on those well-cushioned heels. He started researching the book because he wanted to know why so many runners—himself included—get hurt. The answer is that our shoes did it. McDougal’s book has changed the way that Americans run, and it has led to a surge in sales for thin running shoes, or even “five-fingered” shoes that make someone look something like a lizard. If you haven’t seen these shoes before, head to a Manhattan track on a sunny afternoon. Or look for the people stepping on buses to remote corners of Mexico to search out the Tarahumara.

Running is indeed a sport defined by injuries. Each stride puts stress across the body in the same way every time. Our shins splint, our tibias fracture, our patella tendons become inflamed. Part of the problem is that the thing that injures a runner—running—is the very thing that makes him better. Basketball players may get injured by crashing into people as they rebound, but they can improve by shooting jump shots alone in a gym. You improve at running by running. Many of the sport’s injuries are chronic. And in those cases, there’s no question that a minimalist shoe, or running barefoot, can help. Chronic problems typically derive from some ingrained habit. Maybe you twist your hips in a way that puts pressure on the outside of the leg. A radical change in shoe, and a radical change in stride, changes the habit. The new techniques are better just for being different. Just as the Atkins diet makes you lose weight quickly, barefoot running can quickly make your knee pain go away.

But there’s a danger. Our ancestors may have run barefoot, but they didn’t do it on asphalt and concrete. They didn’t do it on roads caked with broken glass. They also didn’t have potato chips and soda, or bodies shaped by days spent in offices. Running is an extremely complex physical motion. Changing your shoes might help, but the way stress is distributed across your body depends a great deal, too, on how your hold your head, and even how you swing your arms. Ultimately, we don’t really know whether the movement spurred by “Born to Run” will make us more or less hurt. My guess is that, ten years from now, we’ll see it as a useful corrective.

“The Running Life”, Nicholas Thompson, The New Yorker