Monday, 17 August 2009
Tarahumara Indians, barefoot running, and modern madness
Just back from holiday/training camp, and wanted to share a book recommendation. I've been reading Chris McDougall's 'Born to Run', and it's incredible.
Basically, it's the story of the founding of perhaps the greatest running race in the world, which for the last couple of years has pitted the best ultra-marathon runners in the modern world against the best of a tribe of indigenous Mexicans called the Tarahumara, who live in the Copper Canyons near the border with Texas. As the story develops, you learn everything from the Running Man theory of evolution, which suggests - with a convincing case - that humans uniquely evolved as endurance runners; through to the story of the founding of Vibram Five Fingers, the shoe of choice of the barefoot running community.
This is the point where I've got particularly stuck... I fairly readily dismissed barefoot running when it was first suggested to me, having been happy to accept the conventional wisdom that running shoes should be bought to compensate for and support the individual gait. However, on reading this book, I'm convinced otherwise. Quoting everyone from Bill Bowerman to US Olympic coaches to Harvard scientists, McDougall brings together an apparently bullet-proof case that running barefoot (or as close to as is safe on hot/dirty/broken-glass-ridden ground) is better for us, quicker, and more enjoyable. The fact that Nike released (somewhat paradoxically) a shoe designed specifically for this purpose in 2006 suggests that even they accept there might be something in it. Article here from Wired.
I think this is fascinating. It struck me while reading that the case of the running shoe has many parallels in other areas of modern life. Fundamentally, in the attempt to create 'better than nature', what we've done is created something totally unnecessary and in fact counter-productive. With that in mind, have a think about bottled water, or GM crops (which initially boost yields, but by killing soil, deplete those yields over the long term).
I don't have the answers to these bigger problems, and unfortunately I don't have the time before the Ironman to build up the muscles in my feet which have been undermined by years of shoe-wearing. But I know I'll be getting into barefoot from October 5th onwards. I might even get in touch with the Caballo Blanco, and go on one of his trips - his website's pretty impressive these days!
(PS - if I were to have a small complaint with the book, it would be the author's American jock-journo language - there's more tangential melodramatic comparisons in this book than there are bronzed bikini babes in an entire year of Sports Illustrated, if you get my meaning - but you can get past that once he's into his flow... and the man did run the first Copper Canyon Ultra as well, so fair play to him)