Christopher McDougall is an American author, journalist and runner best known for his 2009 best-selling book "Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen". He tells MNN why running is so right, but running shoes are so wrong.
MNN: Why do you run?
Christopher McDougall: It’s as close as I can get to flying under my own power. I finish every run feeling better than I started — stronger, calmer, more joyful — and I don’t think that’s an accident.
What is so powerful about running?
Running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. Today, when we set off for a jog, we’re tapping into that same primal tradition.
Tell me about barefoot running.
Evidence is building all the time that running shoes are an unnecessary cushion which interfere with our natural biomechanics. Before the invention of the modern cushioned running shoe, there was virtually no record of running injuries. Since then, up to 80 percent of all runners are injured every year. Every year!
So trainers [sneakers] are part of the problem?
Get rid of the shoes, and you’ll feel your calves and arches strengthen, your back straighten, and your stride become quicker and more nimble. Trainers cut off your foot’s perception of the ground it’s landing on. They allow you to clomp down heavily, rather than landing lightly. Most people in trainers land on their heels, for instance; barefoot runners never do.
What about those shoes you can buy that mimic being barefoot?
Any shoe that doesn’t change the way your foot naturally interacts with the ground is great. Those roller-shoes are the exact opposite of a minimalist shoe. They try to take over the job your foot should be doing. I’ve never tried them, but the whole concept seems like a joke.
Why did you decide to write a book?
When I heard about the Tarahumara Indians and discovered that they could run for hundreds of miles at a time, even deep into old age, I wanted to know what they were doing that I wasn’t. For the rest of us, running always leads to injuries; for the Tarahumara, it never does.
How did you come across the Tarahumara tribe?
I was in Mexico on another assignment when I happened to spot a photo in a Mexican magazine of what looked like an old man in a bathrobe and slippers tearing down a gnarly trail. It turned out to be a 55-year-old Tarahumara runner who had won a 100-mile footrace through the Rocky Mountains. I immediately hired a guide and set off in search of the tribe.
How did they get that stamina and endurance?
It’s a natural and common consequence of centering their lives around running. Because they never suffer running injuries, they don’t fear long distance runs. Because they often run long, they learn to eat lightly and fuel their bodies properly. The first step is learning how to run gently. From there, everything falls easily into place.
Can running be considered one of the greenest sports?
Sure. There’s nothing greener. Running barefoot, you’re acutely aware of your environment and leave no trace.
What is an ultra runner?
An ultra runner is anyone who runs further than the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Most ultra races tend to be about 50 or 100 miles. It’s probably the most egalitarian sport: Because humans evolved as distance-running pack hunters, the differences between ages and genders diminish as distances increase. Since the pack has to stay together, what you find in ultra races is that women can beat men and old runners can hold their own with youngsters.
Tell me about your own running. Where and how do you run (barefoot or not)?
I run barefoot all the time, usually about 5 to 15 miles a day. I live in Amish farm country in Pennsylvania, so my runs vary between asphalt roads and dirt farm roads. I don’t have much interest in racing, so the most remarkable events I’ve been involved with have been as a pacer for friends. I helped Luis Escobar race 135 miles across Death Valley in the Badwater Ultra, and paced Jenn Shelton at the Vermont 100. But hands down, the wildest experience was racing the Tarahumara for 50 miles through the Copper Canyons, as I describe in "Born to Run."
Were we really all born to run?
Absolutely. Two million years of anthropological evidence can’t be wrong.
And, if we are bad runners, can we learn how to run better? How?
Easy. Take off your shoes, and pay attention to your feet. They’ll tell you everything you need to know.
Also on MNN:
- Harvard biologist studies why barefoot running is better for your feet
- Even high heels are better for your feet than running shoes