Baby, We Were Born to Run

An example of a barefoot runner in a 5K race.

Image via Wikipedia

Almost two years ago, Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen was published in hardback, and since then the barefoot running movement has steadily gained momentum.  It will be released in paperback later this month, so although the book is already well-known, the publicity push seems to have picked back up lately.  Last night, I posted a TED talk by McDougall, wherein he talks a bit about the book, the idea of barefoot running, and where it may have originated.  It’s an interesting video, and definitely worth watching if you’re interested in running.  I haven’t read the book, and I’m no scientist, but I have to say I wasn’t entirely convinced by what McDougall had to say.

He begins by telling the story of Derartu Tulu, the top female finisher in the 2009 ING New York City Marathon.  Tulu was, as he puts it, “under the underdogs”, and not at all favored to win.  But she beat every other woman who ran, including Paula Radcliffe.  Mcdougall describes her as “the most compassionate and the most competitive” runner.  From here, he goes on to identify three “mysteries”.  How are they connected?  Mcdougall’s talk is, in part, an attempt to answer this question.

Mystery #1: 2 million years ago, the size of the human brain increased dramatically, which Mcdougall argues indicates that humans were eating meat by this point; however, weapons were not invented until about 200,000 years ago.  So how were humans killing the animals they were eating?

Mystery #2: Women aren’t fast runners, but they are strong runners and have great stamina.  Although they may be no match for men in distances like 1 mile, their performance relative to men’s increases significantly as distance increases.

Mystery #3: When researchers tracked marathoners’ times, they found that someone who begins running marathons at the age of 19 can steadily improve on their time until the age of 27.  From there, the time will get slower and slower, but will not return to that starting point until about 45 years later.  So 65-year-olds are running as fast as they did when they were 19.

According to Mcdougall’s theory, the connector here is not just running, but running the way it is practiced by the Tarahumara Indians, who run 100-125 miles at a time, barefoot.  This tribe hasn’t really changed in the past 400 years, when they migrated into the Copper Canyons to flee the conquistadores.  They don’t experience running the way we do–they don’t get injured, they don’t see it as a chore, and they haven’t developed all kinds of shoes and gadgets to go along with it.  To be clear, Mcdougall isn’t arguing that we should start living just like the Tarahumara, but that we may be able to learn something from them and adapt it to our way of life.  I also find it interesting that he points out that the Tarahumara’s preferred diet is made up of corn and maiz.  I’ll say more about that in a moment.

Lately, I’ve become pretty intrigued by lower-weight shoes, especially those which are designed to mimic or more closely resemble barefoot running.  Jill has actually reviewed a couple pairs of shoes that fit into this category recently, so if you’re also intrigued, I’d suggest checking out her posts, which include a run-down of minimal shoes that have hit the market recently or are due to hit soon.  If my budget were a bit more, er, generous, I would definitely be buying a pair of these.  I’m not sure that I’d go as far as the Vibram, but I would love to experience a lighter shoe that might allow me to pay a bit more attention to my form and work some different muscles.

Mcdougall’s interest in barefoot running is different from mine, though.  He contends that barefoot running would enable us to get more enjoyment from running (and do away with the idea that it’s an unpleasant, torturous way to spend time), be less stressed because we’d all be running, have fewer injuries, and be healthier overall.  He thinks that humans were built to be long-distance runners, and that we would all be better off if we tried to get back to our roots, so to speak.

And this is kind of where he loses me.  I want to point out again that I’m not a scientist (or an anthropologist) and I’m sure he’s done his research, but some of what he’s saying just doesn’t come together for me.  First, I’m not sure why increased brain size HAS to correlate with a diet that includes regular servings of meat (to Mcdougall, this proves that humans were probably just running animals to death, in packs, since there were no weapons).  The Tarahumara subsist mainly on corn and maiz, and I’d always thought that early human diets were primarily composed of nuts, fruits, and plants, and that meat was a more (relatively) recent addition.  Is it anthropologically possible that this increase in brain size can be attributed to something else?  Or, could humans have been hunting differently, using traps, for instance?  In an anthropology course I took, we discussed a technique where hunters would direct animals off cliffs so that they would fall to their death before they began using weapons.  I don’t think long-distance running was necessary in that case.

Concerning women runners, speed, I think, has to be considered relative.  Is a woman really “slow” just because she wouldn’t be able to beat a man’s time in the mile?  I don’t know that that’s a fair evaluation.  And women’s performance does improve as distance increases–that’s been studied and is quantifiable.  But if this is an argument for why humans as a species are built as distance runners, then why are men “fast” in shorter distances?  And why wouldn’t men’s performance increase in the same way women’s does?  I don’t really know that this arguments holds water unless the same performance changes apply to both men and women.  I guess that in terms of survival of the fittest, only the strongest female distance runners would be able to pass on their genes, thereby creating a female population that performs strongly in distance events.  But then that assumes that this sort of selection continued, which it didn’t (or at least wouldn’t have).  So, logically, this argument just seems a bit weak to me.

As for mystery #3, I think this information is of the sort that can be interpreted in very different ways.  Mcdougall puts one spin on it–that an individual is as fast at the age of 65 as he or she is at the age of 19.  A different way to see this would be that the body begins to gradually lose speed and strength in a notable way around the age of 30–which is something that we already know.  Additionally, someone who is running marathons at the age of 19 and still running them 45 years later isn’t, I don’t think, someone on whom we can draw conclusions that apply to the human population in general.  Granted, I should go read the study in order to speak more thoroughly about it, but I think this one can be spun in whatever way you want to spin it.

Finally, I don’t really agree that running has developed a really negative perception.  Mcdougall talks about how in mythology, running is depicted as heroic and freeing, and I’d argue that it still is, in both our present-day mythologies and our everyday lives.  Furthermore, running isn’t for everyone.  I’m a firm believer in the fact that exercise is great and relieves stress, and that everyone should do it, but I also strongly feel that everyone has to find the sort of exercise that’s right for them.  I don’t necessarily think that people who don’t like running just haven’t taken their shoes off yet, and that doing so will change their whole mindset.

I enjoyed the talk, as I said above, and I really don’t have anything against barefoot running.  On the other hand, though, Christopher Mcdougall did not make me a convert.

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  1. I love your critical eye on these things!

    Anyway, I completely agree that running isn’t necessarily going to be for everyone. Just like we can all consume greens or small lavendar or hear Mozart… doesn’t mean that is for everyone. You’re right that people do need to find what works for them individually!

    The big thing that I’ve got from barefoot running though, and this is applied to me as someone who already enjoyed running, is that I feel more natural and fluid. Even in minimal shoes (as opposed to completely barefoot) I feel like I am more connected to my body and the experience.

    But it’s definitely not a “magic bullet” for everyone. For some people, running will always be a negative thing and for others they’ll run no matter what kind of pain and discomfort they’re in/not in, because we’re all individuals!

  2. I understood the message that McDougall gave in his book a bit differently from what you wrote here. First of all, there is a principle here, that natural selection can only act upon what is available to it. With this in mind, humans did not have a large brain that could give them the ability to do complicated things like run animals off cliffs. Studies of chimps demonstrate that any animal of high intelligence, up to and including chimps and dolphins, do not predict the future and cannot live in anything but the present. Human brains are the only ones that can do the analysis necessary to cover complicated strategies for teamwork. So what I understood based on this is that humans had to ‘grow’ or evolve large brains first, before natural selection could select those brains that had better abilities to handle language, etc. So running comes into play as a way for brains to grow bigger. The weight and size of the head is key here. The head acted as a counterweight for running in bipedal fashion. (we see ostriches with long necks and large heads, for example). As heads got bigger and heavier to make running more efficient, brain cases and brains got bigger too. That’s what I understood to be important here.

    1. Interesting, I was unaware of all that! I actually had a chance to read the book since writing this post on the TED Talk, and it was interesting to read more about the theories about how humans could have developed as a running species (having a different anatomical build than chimpanzees, for example). I don’t know if you had a chance to watch the TED talk video, but it’s really just sort of a very abbreviated form of the book in which McDougall breaks things down into these three facts, basing his argument that we were ‘born to run’ on those things. The book is more convincing because he has the space to go into more detail, although it did still leave me with some questions.

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