Born to Run
One book that any prospective or current runner should read is “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I first came across the book in an article by the same author in the New York Times in which he wrote about the barefoot running philosophy and the exploits of the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico. The book itself is a terrific read that brings out the author’s extreme passion for running and is based upon one fundamental premise…man was born to run.
This theory assumes that we evolved into the humans we are because we ran and could actually outrun our prey. The supporting arguments involve a complex interplay of the biomechanics of the foot and ankle, something as innocuous as the nuchal ligament at the base of the skull and bits of anthropology, paleontology and evolution. The theory is compelling and if you accept its premise and arguments, then it stands to reason that running is hard-wired into all of us.
This therefore means that by not running regularly (and the vast majority of us don’t), we are doing something unnatural…this may be one reason for the increased incidence of diseases like diabetes, hypertension and perhaps even cancer.
The book also focuses a lot on the way we run and should be running. For the last 2 million years or so, people have essentially been running…barefoot. However, in the last 40 years or so, after the invention of the cushioned running shoe, which has replaced the thin sole that was used mainly for protection from external injury (think of the Bata canvas shoes we used to wear in school), our running styles have changed quite significantly.
With cushioned shoes, we run heel first – the impact this has on the heel, leg and spine is tremendous and may perhaps be the single-most important cause of injuries. Natural barefoot running (with or without thin protective soles), involves landing lightly on the balls of your foot while maintaining an erect posture…the impact this has on the rest of the body is much less. However it takes time to transition from heel-first to front-foot-first running…one way is to try the 100-up technique, described by an English alchemist/chemist, Walter Goodall George, in the late 1900s. Look this up by googling “100 up running” and the videos are self-explanatory.
For years I used to believe that running on mud was better than running on asphalt/concrete, because the impact forces on the rest of the body are supposedly better cushioned by mud. However, there has never been any conclusive data to prove or disprove this, though your orthopedic surgeons and physiotherapists will never agree, just the way your trainers will never agree that there is no data to suggest that stretching before a run is of any help at all…in fact there is data to suggest that stretching actually produces muscle imbalance. In “Born to Run”, this argument comes up briefly when running on hard desert savannah land is compared to running on concrete…with barefoot running, the surface does not seem to matter.
Our feet have been conditioned in the last 40 years or so to run in cushioned shoes and it may not be easy to transition to front-foot landing and barefoot or barefoot-like running so easily. Nevertheless, I am going to give front-foot running a try, using Vibrams Five Fingers protective footwear and see if I can run a shade faster and perhaps some more kilometers every month, without getting injured.
It would also be interesting to hear from those who have had experience with barefoot and front-foot running!