I recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I can confidently say this was one of the most thought-provoking and inspiring running books I’ve read. In this article, I summarise the book into a quick digestible read.
About the author, Christopher McDougall
The man behind Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, is a journalist, author, TED speaker and passionate runner.
Christopher McDougall wrote the book after his experience of a painful foot injury and his subsequent quest to overcome routine running injuries. His enquiry into eliminating foot pain lead him to an unexpected place…
A visit to the doctor for foot pain starts the journey
Christopher McDougall ran 2-3 miles every other day and started developing persistent foot pain. Playing it safe, he visited his doctor who analysed his foot and said ‘running is bad for you. That’s the reason for your foot pain.’
This lead Chris to wonder, why is running bad for some people but others can run for miles and miles without injury?
In pursuit of the answer, Chris tracks down the legendary Tarahumara Indian tribe living remotely in the Mexican Copper Canyons and decides to visit them. As you do.
Who are the Tarahumara tribe?
‘But whatever secrets the Tarahumara are hiding, they’ve hidden them well.’ Christopher McDougall, Born to Run
The Tarahumara tribe have become legends in the running world.
They are known to run ultra distances of more than 100 miles at impressive speeds without experiencing common injuries most runners sustain.
The tribe are difficult to track down and have not been seen by many outsiders, and they prefer to keep it that way.
Living on a diet of ground corn, mice and corn beer, the Tarahumara tribe have an incredibly natural diet.
The Leadville 100 and the Tarahumara victory
Chris tells the story of the Leadville 100 and the Tarahumara’s participation.
In 1994, a runner offered the Tarahumara corn to see them run the famous Leadville 100.
The Leadville Trail 100 Run is an ultramarathon held annually on rugged trails and dirt roads near Leadville, Colorado, through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
Two from the tribe turned up to the starting line in sandals and robes, smoking a cigarette, having done no special preparation for the race.
The race started and the two from the tribe went to the front of the pack. They dominated the field all race, finishing in 1st and 3rd, breaking the course record by a whopping 25 minutes.
Caballo Blanco’s running transformation using the Tarahumara’s ways
Having ran alongside the two tribesmen during the Leadville 100, Caballo Blanco visited the tribe in the mountains and learned their ways. Having been recently experiencing foot injuries, he wanted to try an alternative way to run.
He wore sandals when running and ate the Tarahumara diet, and lived in a hut on the side of the mountains alongside them to learn their ways. If that’s not dedication to improve running, I don’t know what is!
Pretty soon, Caballo Blanco’s running started to improve drastically. He stopped getting injured, smoothed out his running form, ran in sandals or barefoot and joined the tribesmen on long runs for training.
The First Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco in 2003
Having been impressed with his recent results form applying the Tarahumara’s running methods, Caballo Blanco decided to organise a special ultra-marathon.
The Caballo Blanco marathon consisted of a few days sharing tips, working on form and training together, before participating in a 50-mile run on the last day.
Christopher McDougall, alongside 6 other ultramarathoners including Scott Jurek and almost 20 tribes’ people, turned up to participate.
The ultra-event continues today and brings together runners from all over the planet to run together with hundreds of Tarahumara athletes.
The 50-mile race included many climbs, descents, tough stretches of rocky terrain, all in the blistering 37 degrees Celsius temperatures.
After 6-hours, Arnulfo from the tribe came 1st in an impressive time of 6:41, Scott Jurek came 2nd in a time of 6:47 and Christopher McDougall came 15th in a time of 12:44.
Even Scott Jurek, arguably the greatest ultrarunner in the world at the time, was beaten by the running might of the Tarahumara’s running abilities.
3 key points within Born to Run
- Humans are well-equipped to run long distances
- We run best barefoot
- The secret to long-distance running is great form and proper pacing
Point 1: Humans are well-equipped to run long distances
Us bipedal humans can outrun pretty much every animal on the planet. Sure, a horse and a cheetah may leave us in the dust at the starting line but when it comes to long-distance always prevail.
Our bodies regulate internal temperature better than other animals via sweating. Many animals, like dogs and cheetahs, can’t sweat so they overheat quickly. As a result, they constantly stop to cool down.
Us humans, however, have the cooling effects of sweat to our advantage which enables us to run for miles without stopping.
Point 2: We run best barefoot
Perhaps the most well-known claim made by McDougall in the book is that humans run best barefoot. Arguably, this started the barefoot running movement whereby runners ditched their Asics and Nike trainers instead opting for bare feet.
The argument behind this point is that humans evolved to run barefoot, so running without shoes must be the best for our feet.
McDougall argues in the book that, as demonstrated by the Tarahumara tribe, running barefoot can improve form and reduce the chance of encountering an injury.
Modern running shoes provide too much stability for the feet, causing them to roll the feet inwards which causes pronation. This pronation absorbs shock with each step and can gradually lead to a condition known as runner’s knee.
According to McDougall, running shoes also harm good form. Due to the extreme cushioning of running shoes, runners can’t feel pain when they adopt poor form when they hit the ground. Consequently, the runner adopts a poor running form which makes them more prone to injury.
Personally, I’m not convinced running shoes are overly harmful for us as runners and I don’t think running barefoot is the answer. Of course, these are just my views and you don’t have to share them.
There are plenty of online resources or in person trainers that can show you proper running form to prevent injury and not over pronate. This means we can ensure proper form whilst running, without needing to rely on bare feet.
In addition, us modern day humans have become accustomed to wearing shoes most of our lives. Our feet simply aren’t conditioned for barefoot running. This means our feet may not necessarily be able to tolerate the additional friction, wear and tear when we take off the running trainers.
Experts recommend those taking up barefoot running to make the transition gradually over a period. Doing so adequately conditions the feet and ensures the risk of injury associated with bare foot running is minimised.
For more information on the truth about barefoot running, check out this great video:
Point 3: The secret to long-distance running is great form and proper pacing
My biggest takeaway from the book was that the secret to long-distance running is form and pacing.
The best thing about running form is that you can change it immediately. If you work out, or are shown, where your form weaknesses lie, you can consciously change it right away and see quick improvements.
Usually, the difference between good and great running performance lies in the quality of your running form. You may not be able to run 100 miles in one go like the Tarhumara tribe, but adjusting your form is certainly a good step towards improving your distance running.
Have you ever seen an Olympic marathon broadcast on TV? If so, you’ve seen the phenomenal form standards displayed by elite runners leading the pack.
The form of these Olympic long-distance runners is typically characterised by leg contractions that are quicker than foot turnover. These shorter yet faster strides are best for running long distances because the movements are small, and energy is conserved.
Runners like Elouid Kipchoge land in a mid-heel strike position, allowing him to keep contact time short so he’s able to bounce up and continue running. Kipchoge also leans forward so he can work with gravity to propel him forward as quick as possible.
For a detailed breakdown on good long-distance running form, check out this great video:
Overall, Born to Run is a great book which I enjoyed reading. It certainly challenged my ideas on what effective long-distance running is and I’ll now be spending more time working on my form.
Christopher McDougall speaks about running with passion and he genuinely believes the message he’s sharing will help you improve your running. This makes reading the book a joy, as the author is clearly determined to get his point across with enthusiasm.
He effortlessly paints a picture of the Mexican copper canyons, enabling you to imagine being there on the journey to discover the Tarahumara’s ultra-running secrets.
I’d highly recommend this book and hope you get as much enjoyment out of reading as I did.