Born To Run: Book Review

I rarely do book reviews. I don’t read to review books – I read to get lost in someone else’s life, discover who killed who, guess who will end up with who, etc. I almost will always finish a book, even if I’m not enjoying it. (For example, most recently, I really struggled through All The Lights We Cannot See because my friends had spoken so highly of it – I wasn’t a fan, unfortunately.) Today I’m breaking my tradition of not doing reviews because this book completely drew me in.

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From Goodreads: Full of incredible characters, amazing athletic achievements, cutting-edge science, and, most of all, pure inspiration, Born to Run is an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong.
Isolated by the most savage terrain in North America, the reclusive Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons are custodians of a lost art. For centuries they have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence. With the help of Caballo Blanco, a mysterious loner who lives among the tribe, the author was able not only to uncover the secrets of the Tarahumara but also to find his own inner ultra-athlete, as he trained for the challenge of a lifetime: a fifty-mile race through the heart of Tarahumara country pitting the tribe against an odd band of Americans, including a star ultramarathoner, a beautiful young surfer, and a barefoot wonder.
With a sharp wit and wild exuberance, McDougall takes us from the high-tech science labs at Harvard to the sun-baked valleys and freezing peaks across North America, where ever-growing numbers of ultrarunners are pushing their bodies to the limit, and, finally, to the climactic race in the Copper Canyons. Born to Run is that rare book that will not only engage your mind but inspire your body when you realize that the secret to happiness is right at your feet, and that you, indeed all of us, were born to run.

This book had my mind engrossed from the first chapter. Not only because I am a runner and it was so interesting me, all these concepts that you read about on a daily basis getting slashed – but also because I’m a physical therapist, and I tell people a lot of the things that this book worked so hard to disprove.

McDougall does a fantastic job telling the story of the Tarahumara and intertwining all of the other characters that make the story so captivating. I think my favorite aspect of this book is how the author ties in actual scientific evidence and physiological language that I understood completely, given my educational background.

As you can tell from the Goodreads summary – the Tarahumara run without shoes. In the mountains, none the less. A chunk of this book tears apart the running shoe industry, giving evidence and stats to back up the fact that running shoes may actually be causing injuries. Professors and researchers from Ivy League and well-respected Universities shared thoughts and facts about running shoes:

  • Injuries that plague runners today are caused by weaker feet that stem from the modern running shoe
  • The runners wearing ‘the best shoes’ (i.e. most expensive) are “123% more likely to get injured” due to the overcompensation of protection they provide
  • Beat up running shoes are safer than newer ones because the cushioning is lessened and it requires the runner to utilize more stability from the foot musculature
    • This one really got me thinking: “the more cushioned the shoe, the less protection is provides.” They used gymnasts as an example: the thicker the landing mat, the harder the gymnasts stuck their landings – this is because when the gymnasts sense a soft landing surface, they hit harder to make sure they stick it. In comparison with runners: when runners hit the ground on a soft, cushioned surface, your feet instinctively hit the ground harder. Hhmmm…
  • The arch is the biggest support in our bodies (this I knew, thank you PT education), but running shoes can actually weaken the arch (say what?!). When you’re barefoot, you force the muscles to work harder and condition to how the foot is supposed to work. Pronation in the running world get a bad rep, but as a PT, I can tell you that pronation is a natural motion that the foot does to absorb shock. Yes, some people overpronate, but that’s something that can be helped with strengthening. Take this quote for thought: “Putting your feet in shoes is similar to putting them in a plaster cast”. Think about when you’re arm is in a cast and how atrophied it is when you take it off – similar with shoes? Hhmmm…

So, am I going to convert in to a barefoot runner? Am I going to start ultra marathoning? Most likely, no, and definitely, no. But this book seriously got me pumped up about running and really made me think about how running has transformed in this society. How running is something so natural, something that our ancestors did to survive, to hunt meals, to escape predators, something that was so thoughtless and aimless – and now it’s a multi-billion dollar industry.

Another intriguing point brought forward by the author in his quest to discover how to avoid injury and run “properly”: through observation and studying the human form running, an exercise physiologist that McDougall interacted with states that “the greatest marathoners in the world run like kindergarteners.” Okay, now I’ve seen my nephews run a lot, but I’ve never really watched them run. What he means by that is that kids don’t know anything about the newest running technology, the latest in the perfect form, or have any experience in running long distances – they run the way our ancestors did – they run just to run. “Their feet land right under them, and they push back.” Simple as that.

As a professional in a field where I see runners daily and give them my professional advice about running shoes and running technique, this book may have made me change the way that I answer these questions. I’ve known for awhile that what works for some just does not work for others when it comes to running, but I feel like I learned that all over again through McDougall’s story.

Here are some quotes that stuck out to me while I read my way through the book…

“You don’t stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running.”

“If a middle aged professor can outrun a dog on a hot day, imagine what a pac of motivated hunter-gatherers could do to an overheated antelope.”

“You can’t run uphill powerfully with poor biomechanics, just doesn’t work.” (Curses to the hills.)

One thing that probably causes most runners the biggest issue: the brain:

“…humans have a mind-body conflict: we have a body built for performance, but a brain that’s always looking for efficiency.”

And my favorite quote from the book:

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a lion or a gazelle; when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

In summary: if you’re a runner, endurance athlete, – or really any athlete at all – I highly recommend picking this one up off the shelves. It was inspiring, intriguing, and made me want to go run an ultra marathon…

Okay, not quite. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Born To Run: Book Review

  1. I am really surprised how everyone loves this book. I bought it to motivate myself to run and haven’t still finished it. As a matter of fact, it did the opposite of motivating and I have trouble getting myself to run even though I had been running every day until I picked up the book in hopes that I will be motivated to run longer.

    It is still on my nightstand, but I mostly read few chapters while bathing. Sometimes it gets interesting, but then all the fun is killed.
    Of course I will finish it eventually, but, yeah, not a fan…

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