Born to run?

Running.  (I know some of you just cringed)

It has its lovers and its haters, and both sides tend to skew to the passionate.  There are few things in the world of fitness that polarize so many people as the simple subject of running.

There are the adamant life-long runners who think everyone should get out and hit the trail, and then there are those who point out that anywhere from 30 to 75 percent of runners are injured annually.  Then there are others who would simply rather jump off the nearest tall building than run a 5K.

To make matters more complicated, books like Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and products like the Vibram Five Finger “shoe” (I use the term loosely because, if you haven’t seen a Vibram, it doesn’t exactly mesh with what most people think of when they think of shoes) have created different factions within the pro-running side, the barefoot runners and the Nike-wearing crowd (note: when I say Nike, I’m using them as shorthand for any major brand of running shoe).

The book I mentioned above, Born to Run, makes the argument that man evolved to run.  I’ll let you give it a read to hear some of the finer points of McDougall’s argument, but he makes an interesting case for the idea that humans’ evolutionary advantage has been in their ability to run very long distances.  This ability is actually at the heart of a little-known method of hunting, one humans used before we started using spears, arrows and high-powered rifles, known as persistence hunting.  Humans could literally run and track their prey to the point of exhaustion, allowing us to make up for our lack of sprint speed and strength.

Ancient hunting methods aside, the question for me is “what makes sense for your average exerciser?”

The tribe McDougall fawns over in his book, the Tarahumara of Mexico, don’t exactly lead lives that mirror that of your average American, so trying to mimic what they do doesn’t make a lot of sense.  They run incredibly long distances from a very young age and continue to do so well into adulthood.  I’m talking hours upon hours here (you’ve got 3-4 hours of free time to devote to running every day, right?).  And they’ve done it all without modern footwear.

Now that last part, the part about the lack of modern footwear, is important.  I have no doubt that our Nikes have done a fair share of negative to our bodies as we’ve worn them all our lives.  I can’t imagine many Americans have the foot and ankle strength of the Tarahumara.  And when we try to dawn our Vibrams or run barefoot for the first time, it’s important to remember that, as adults, we are far heavier than we were while our feet were developing.  It’s not an easy adjustment for our feet to make, and a lot of people do it too quickly, leading to injury.

But all those Nike-wearers aren’t exactly injury free.  Plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, stress fractures, shin splints… having coached high school track & field for the last 11 years, I can say that there’s no shortage of those sorts of overuse injuries in the ranks of the distance runners.  Running in modern shoes leads us to stride in ways that we’d never attempt barefoot because it would hurt too much.  If we believe those changes in our gait aren’t at least partially to blame for the high incidence of injury in distance running we’re fooling ourselves.  The Tarahumara aren’t running the way a miler runs during a race, but my bet would be that, if they did, they’d end up with the same kinds of injuries.

Why am I pontificating on all of this in written form?  Well, mostly to let you know all the thoughts that have been running (pun intended) through my brain for the last couple days as I’ve been preparing to write this.  I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how odd it is that modern humans are the exact opposite of every other species (including our own ancestors) in that our goal has become to use up energy, rather than save it.  Conserving, not expending, energy is the norm in nature unless you have a death wish… but I digress.  There’s just so much to consider when it comes to running as it’s not just a part of modern exercise, but part of human history (which is probably why it’s so hotly contested, too).

Okay, bottom line…  Should you or shouldn’t you?  Barefoot or shod (honestly I just wanted an excuse to use that form of the word “shoe”)?

To me, running should be more about recreation than about fitness.  In order to be in the best shape of your life, you don’t need to do it.  In fact, for fat loss (the primary or secondary goal for the vast majority of the population), endurance running is way less effective and takes more time than shorter bursts of high intensity exercise.  For that reason, I don’t include any of it in my own fitness programming.  And for most of what your daily life involves, being strong will probably benefit you more than being able to chase an antelope until it collapses.  It’ll probably keep you safer in training, too.

That said, I think there is something very human about the desire to run.  I know far too many people with a marathon on their bucket list to believe otherwise.  If you enjoy running, do it.  Just do your best to stay safe.  Try not to get preoccupied with timing yourself when you run and certainly don’t make it about burning calories – make it about the experience of running.  Take your time and listen to your body.  If you want to give barefoot running a try (if you’re starting healthy, I think it’s a great idea), start very slowly to give your feet time to build the necessary strength.

So what do you think?  Are you a runner/non-runner and why?



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6 responses to “Born to run?

  1. Well, two years ago I was one of the many for which even the thought of running for any length of time would cause my knees to ache. Then I read “Born to Run”, was completely floored by the info in the book, and decided to try for myself. I dutifully bought the Five Fingers, watched some videos online about changing my stride, and hopped aboard my treadmill.
    For the first time in my life, I could run! Not fast, but farther than I EVER had, and NO pain in my knees and hips. I was hooked. Little by little, I pushed myself, and ended up running my first 5K last Thanksgiving weekend, in those same Five Fingers.
    I am convinced that everyone can run. Not fast, not far, at least at first, and certainly not with conventional running shoes. There are many other shoe companies jumping on the minimalist-shoe bandwagon, so if you are hesitant to look like a gorilla, there are more “normal” options…

    Looking forward to getting back to class next week!

  2. J. Caruso

    A runner. Have been even before I read James Fixx’s book in college. One time had “marathon” on my bucket list but put kids and work first for those prime adult years. Now I am 57 and attempting my first half-marathon. Loved the Born to Run book, which inspired me to take up running again. I also recommend Jeff Galloway’s training program (3x/week) of running and walking. It’s more “natural,” less stressful on joints and muscles, and has enabled me to complete my longest distance yet = 10 miles. I feel the running and boot camp have put me in my best physical condition since my high school tennis team. I totally agree that running should be fun and not be a “chore” to do or a way to just burn “calories.”

  3. Stace

    Hi Mark,

    Timely post as I’ve just stepped in from a trail run wearing my Merrell Trail Glove “barefoot” running shoe that uses the Vibram sole tech. Having said that, I have never really been a runner. I would regularly post 14 minute miles in gym class, as I didn’t run but walked with a bounce. I only just started going out and hitting some trails here in my neighborhood this past Spring.

    For me it’s not so much about running for fitness as it is running for the pleasure and joy of it. It is play. I get to run, jump, climb trees, etc…I get to use my body physically in a way that is rare in our modern world, I get to be in the woods, listen to the birds sing, get some sun on my skin, and if it’s raining I get wet (after a couple minutes the rain is no bother).

    My gym training is intense and brief. I rarely do “cardio”. What I do in the gym is preparatory for what I do in the world. For me that’s what it’s about. Proper strength conditioning with the occasional bout of high intensity interval training, proper nutrition, proper rest, and proper play. This has been the formula that has helped me lose fat and get fit.

    So to answer your question: Although I run, I am not a “runner”. I am a grown up who like’s to play outside.

    All the best.


    • Great thoughts and I totally agree. There can be something very fun about running if it’s approached as recreation. It doesn’t really meet modern demands as far as functional fitness, but neither does basketball, which is my habit and is horrible for the body. To me, if running feels good for the person doing it, be it physically or psychologically, then they should do it. If not, then they should steer clear and choose a better fitness solution.

      Thanks again for your input!

  4. I’m not a runner, but I’m trying out running right now. I’m using the “Get Running” app on my iPhone. It is a 9 week program that I am doing with a friend of mine. So, running is a social thing and something to get me moving more. I anticipate moving onto the next thing in a few weeks. I like having a process to work through. Maintenance is not my thing!

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