Summary of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Are you a runner? Or are you one of those people who wonder what possesses people to run at all? Or maybe, you envy runners and wish that you could be one, too? Whichever category you fall under, there remains one simple truth. The human body was built to run long distances. As crazy as it sounds, our bodies have all the tools required to run for hours. So, why doesn’t everyone run marathons? Well, it’s quite possible that you can if you want to. All it takes is some training, dedication and knowledge.

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • The secrets of the Tarahumara 
  • How the human body is adapted to running
  • Why you should run barefoot
  • The best diet for a runner
  • Some tips for running

Key lesson one: The secrets of The Tarahumara

Christopher Mcdougall sought out The Tarahumara tribe after suffering multiple running injuries. He wanted to find out how the tribe avoids injuries caused by running. Why this particular you ask? Well, the Tarahumara are a tribe of runners. Based in the canyons of northern Mexico, the tribe name actually means running people and they are known to run 200 miles at a time effortlessly. They do this whilst avoiding typical running injuries which everyone in the modern world suffers.

Mcdougall, with the help of a local, managed to track down the elusive tribe and meet with one of their best runners. Despite living in isolation and somewhat distrusting of outsiders, they welcomed Mcdougall and shared their secrets to running. It was actually very simple – learn to love to run. The entire tribe was built around the mindset that running is a crucial human skill. Every member of the tribe is a runner and the love for running is passed on to the next generation as any tradition would. They run not only for themselves but for their tribe. 

Thinking of runners outside of the tribe, there might be some truth that learning to love to run is key in reaching new heights as a runner. Those carefree moments experienced as a child when running around was definitely an enjoyable experience. So why have we drifted away from this sense of pleasure? The Tarahumara have retained it as part of their identity as a tribe. Maybe it’s time we relearn it as part of our very own identity.

Key lesson two: How the human body is adapted to running

Humans were made to run. Not to sprint and be the fastest runners possible, but definitely long-distance runners. It’s in our very physiology. For starters, compared to other animals, humans can dissipate heat must faster. The glands that we have for sweating and the release of body heat cannot be found in most other mammals who mostly rely on breathing for heat release. 

Taking a closer look at four-legged animals for example, when they run fast they tend to break out into a gallop. This method is faster but the movement of the leg muscles actually impacts their lungs and restricts their breathing rate. Therefore, they tend to be limited to one breath per stride and this can only work so long. They reach a point where they need to slow down because they heat up faster than they cool down. If they continue to run past this point, it could be fatal. Humans, do not have this problem. We sweat through our skin in order to cool down. This means that our breathing is not limited. 

The second adaptation which enables humans to run is walking upright. Bipedalism evolved to allow humans to reach higher and allowed our hands to be free to be used for other tasks. It also changed our posture and changed our throats and chest. These all are factors that contribute to our capacity to run long distances. 

The Achilles tendon is also an adaptation for running. Our closest relatives share 95 per cent of our DNA but they do not possess this tendon. As our Achilles tendon stretches it stores energy until it is ready to be used when the leg moves the body forward. This means that because of this cord of tissue, we use less energy to spring from step to step which maximizes our endurance. 

Key lesson three: Why you should run barefoot

We have physiological characteristics to aid in our running, so why do we seek help from other inventions? The main invention being shoes. Now one can argue that running shoes are an absolute blessing when it comes to running and keeping our feet safe and stable but honestly, they actually hinder our natural abilities. 

To explain this in more detail, when we run our feet roll inward. This process is called pronation and it acts as a shock absorber for our lower legs. However, pronation is also responsible for runner’s knee, a common and painful repercussion from running. It is because of this that pronation-alleviating shoes were designed. These shoes may prevent runner’s knee but they have unintentionally also prevented the full movement of the foot. This causes muscles to atrophy and our feet to lose strength. If our feet lose strength, it results in imbalances elsewhere in the body. Certain muscles and joints are strained which could lead to further injury. So, in fact, not wearing shoes at all may be the better solution. 

Alan Webb, known for being the greatest mile runner in the United States, suffered many foot injuries in school. His injuries were a result of his lack of arches and therefore flat feet which is not good for running. However, he proceeded to train barefoot as a way to strengthen his feet. By doing these barefoot exercises, Webb was able to develop his arches and lessen his foot injuries drastically. 

Shoes also camouflage the discomfort we would feel if our bare feet hit the ground as we ran. This may seem like a good thing, but it actually prevents us from running optimally. When shoes mask pain, the body is unaware of what is really happening and therefore cannot adopt a less harmful running form. By running barefoot, runners are able to adopt a more natural and comfortable step.

Key lesson four: The best diet for a runner

As with any sport, what you eat is important. As much as running burns a lot of calories, it has been proven time and time again that the best approach when it comes to diet, is to switch over to vegetarianism. 

Japanese monks can complete 25 000 mile marathons on a diet of miso soup, tofu and vegetables. Running coach Percy Cerutty also suggest a vegetarian diet to his runners and ultra-runner, Scott Jurek switched to a vegan diet. Jurek was criticised for his choice and was told that he would have many difficulties and be unable to recover quickly from training. He, in turn, ignored all the naysayers and proved them all wrong by performing better than ever. 

A vegetarian diet enables long-distance runners to extract the maximum nutrition from the fewest calories. This means that their bodies won’t be bogged down by processing heavier foods and they won’t lose valuable energy resources. The body digests protein slower than carbohydrates. It’s why we feel so sluggish after a heavy meal, our body is trying to digest it. 

Adopting a vegetarian diet is no need for concern. A diet rich in legumes, grains and vegetables has all the necessary requirements for muscle production. You will not be malnourished or lacking anything needed to fuel you whilst you run.

Key lesson five: Some tips for running

When it comes to long-distance running, the technique used is so different to sprinting, they might as well be completely different things. From posture to stride, the differences enable runners to achieve very different goals. 

Exercise physiologist, Ken Mierke, studied Kenyan long-distance runners to understand these differences further. He watched barefoot athletes for hours before coming to an astonishing realisation. The Kenyan runner ran like children. They moved their legs in smaller contractions meaning they had a quicker foot turnover. Mierke implemented this technique by attaching metronomes set to 180 beats per minute to athletes. He asked them to match their pace to the tempo of the metronome. This led to a vast improvement in all the athletes – one of them being a 60-year-old who had been running since he was 20. This proved that improvements could be achieved in not only beginners but experienced runners as well. 

In terms of pace, you have to consider how your body burns fuel. If you run too fast, you will deplete your sugar reserves quickly and get tired rapidly. However, if you maintain a pace just below the point where your breathing becomes heavy otherwise known as your aerobic threshold, you will use up your fat stores instead of burning through your sugar reserves. This will enable you to run for a longer period of time and thus, further.

The key takeaway from Born to Run is:

Humans were born to run. Our bodies are designed to do so but this fact is often ignored. To be a long-distance runner, you have to embrace running for the joy it brings and allow your body to take over. It is not hard to become a long-distance runner if you want to, it just takes a bit of work. By changing your diet, mindset and embracing the capabilities of your body, you too can get running in no time. 

How can I implement the lessons learned in Born to Run:

If you are seriously considering becoming a long-distance runner, change your diet. A vegetarian diet will allow your body to adapt to a better running form from the outset. You can then spend time running barefoot to allow your body to find its most comfortable form and strengthen unused muscles which will be needed for running. Learn to love running again and nothing will be able to stop you.

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