Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Originally posted this review on Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run on birthdayshoes.com:

Christopher McDougall Born to Run
Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run

I challenge anyone to read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen and not be inspired—to run, to be healthy, to be, well just, better.

Born to Run is about McDougall’s investigative adventure into the world of running, ultramarathons, the shoe industry, and the Tarahumara Indians, a seclusive group of “superathletes” known for their running endurance and speed. The tale begins with a question, “How come my foot hurts?” and ends with a race between a few elite ultrarunners and the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. In between are a number of answers, questions, and challenges.

It was difficult to put Born to Run down. The book is simultaneously thrilling and informative. It not only recaptures the excitement of past distance running races (like the 1995 Leadville 100), but it also tells the backstories of BtR‘s protagonists — Ann Trason, Ken Chlouber, Caballo Blanco (or “Micah True”), “Barefoot Ted” McDonald, Scott Jurek, Jenn “Mookie” Shelton and Billy “Bonehead” Barnett. Even still, the book serves as an indictment of the running shoe industry, specifically Nike, while also laying out a compelling case that human beings evolved to be runners—chasing prey down, out-enduring them via the persistence hunt. At under 300 pages Born to Run, like the runners and races it describes, covers a lot of ground quickly.

Perhaps one of the most inspirational paragraphs from Born to Run contains the book’s title:

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

Born to Run is one of those rare books that captures within its pages an authentic human experience and conveys that experience directly to the reader. It’s a book in which you are awed by superhuman athletes while still seeing their core humanity. And therein is one of McDougall’s primary takeaways: every human being was born to run, the design being coded within our DNA.

Since this book review is for the Vibram fivefingers fan community, I’d be remiss not to note that BtR gives a hearty mention regarding VFFs, specifically via Barefoot Ted, who apparently inspired Vibram USA’s CEO, Tony Post, to go for a run in his fivefingers. I’m guessing this was back in early 2006. “El Mono” (Barefoot Ted) also made use of his fivefingers at various times during his trek to race with the Tarahumara. And as previously noted on this site, Christopher McDougall seems to enjoy his fivefingers for running these days, too.

Conclusion: BtR is a fantastic read, and I whole-heartedly recommend it. More than anything, I expect this book to spawn the next generation of runners, and I’m optimistic that it will take barefooting (or pseudo-barefooting/minimalist footwear) mainstream. Born to Run is yet another step in a more general movement towards acquiring a higher understanding of what it means and requires to be human.

Thank you to Christopher McDougall for telling this tale: it needed to be told!

If you’d like to snag Born to Run, just click this link to pick it up from Amazon.com.

How Humans Play

http://naturalathletics.b…erfect-day.html

From Natural Athletics comes a wonderfully descriptive post from Rafe Kelley regarding a recent training day of “parkour” or “natural movement” (a la MovNat or Methode Naturelle), which I think is simply human play. Sit back, read a snippet, and if you want it in full, go to Rafe’s site:

The weather is beautiful, so we decide to make the trip down to Larrabee State Park, an amazing area of beautiful old forests and a rocky beach with formations of Chuckanut sandstone carved into fantastic shapes for climbing by wind and rain. …

[So] we simply go, running along fallen logs, vaulting rails along the trail. Then, deeper into the woods, running downslope, leaping up and over a fallen tree and taking a large gap across a creek–too much fun; had to do it twice, taking the even bigger thirteen foot or so gap on the way back, this one over a waterfall. Downslope again, slipping sliding to the lower creek bed, two step tic tac off a fallen log across the stream and continue on upslope, which ends with a chest high rock–vault on top, keep running. Upslope again, boulders strewn across, pull on them to gain leverage, a vault here, a jump there, finish the slope, wait for Dane to catch up. More slope ahead, dirt trail, fallen logs, boulders; perfect.

Time for a race, a no holds barred race, inspired by Teghead–a traceur from the UK. We’re off, both go for the pull on the arms, hands in the face, spinning–Dane’s getting in front, I dive for his leg, pull him around, clinched up almost falling down slope, I have to avoid the log, break, he’s spinning–shove–I am in the clear, put that rock between him and me, almost there–aha, top of the slope. So fun, but so tiring.

We catch our breath, looking out down the beach. There is a point sticking out 800 yards away as a crow flies, maybe a mile overland, rocky beach the whole way. Is our training only for sprints I ask myself? This what I have needed to do, a real run. “Lets go here to there,” I say, “No stops.” We’re off, moving smooth at first, scrambling over the rocks, hugging faces, ocean inches away. Quick traverses, spinning around obstacles, up and through holes in the rock, vaulting up to boulders, balancing on driftwood, a quarter of the way…Tired. Dane passes me, he isn’t slowing down. Quads burning, no more power moves, I’m struggling just to run. Watching my feet, gotta keep running, but have to stay safe, every foot placement has to be secure, 100% focus. Dane is out of sight. I round the bend; he is climbing the last face, the last cove is between me and him, just small rocks and then the end. I want to slow to a walk so bad–doesn’t matter, have to finish–watching every foot placement, every foot placement, slippery rocks in the stream, can they be trusted, jump, jump, I guess so. We are almost done, roots hanging from the slope, traverse and ascend, I pull myself over the final lip. There’s Dane looking out at the water. I lay down. He wins this round.

We’re moving on, tide going out. Sandy beach now. We find some rocks–big rocks–the biggest one we can move. It looks like a shark head, maybe some 200 pounds. Full squat, bear hug, lift and carry. Dane’s turn; it doesn’t come off the ground–a point for me. We find some rocks, throw them, press them, carry them. Dane finds a big one, clean and press. Damn, that looks heavy. My turn. I press, get stuck in the middle, can’t finish; bring it back down, split jerk, full overhead, unstable, bail out from under it.

Onwards, almost to the end. We come to a big sloped wall. Amazing horizontal wall run; my feet slip when I try to hug it too close. Next time, even though I know this, am telling myself ‘Lean out, lean out.’ It’s damn scary, but it works. Every foot placement is solid and I’m running. High drop to the ledge after the wall run is awesome. Dane is climbing. Climb up 70 feet off the ground. We look out. So beautiful: San Juan island in the west, tip of the snow-capped Cascades in the south. Finally, we make it to Clayton Beach for big kongs over a massive rock into the sand to finish the day, climb up the last rock and watch the sunset.

I’ll be sore for a week.

Thanks, Rafe! Inspiring.

Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Finally and most important, to find happiness we need others, but an addict needs only himself. Dependent only upon himself and knowing he can pursue his addiction, he does so with a single-minded devotion that is remarkable to behold. But what if there were addictions that, instead of making you weaker, made you stronger?

Breezed through William Glasser’s Positive Addiction. At around 150 pages (the 1976 edition), it is a quick and thought-provoking overview of Glasser’s conclusion that there are activities that enable a person to achieve a transcendent, trance-like, meditative state where the mind can “spin free.” Positive addictions are activities that fairly predictably take a person to this mental state, are addictive in that missing the activity results in various symptoms of withdrawal (anxiety, depression, etc.), and are positive in that they are a creative, in-control time that endows an individual with strength in the form of both mental capacity and increased neurological horsepower. These strength gains carry over into all other aspects of life.

It sounds mystical in nature, but Glasser believes (and I have no reason to suspect otherwise) that the state of mind reached via positive addictions is natural and maybe even primal — a reversion to animalistic mental processes, perhaps.

What is the PA state? My understanding is that when you reach the PA state, your mind drifts, wandering effortlessly from random thought to observation to idea. This “spun out” or “free spinning” state is creative, relaxed, unforced, and difficult to intentionally maintain.

Though Glasser alludes to other possibly PA activities, running dominated his research which involved sending out a survey request in a running magazine. One response to Glasser’s survey helps describe the mental state:

When I am settled into my run I concentrate on running as much as possible but the mind wanders to thoughts of most anything. The state of mind is one of almost total complacency and privacy. Although you are in sight of people, cars, buses, school kids, dogs, etc., I feel a very privateness when I run. People may yell at me or a kid may bug me for a few hundred yards but due to the nature of running (it is hard and physically demanding) you are pretty much left to yourself and no one can invade your runner’s world because they physically are not able.

The above runner’s description may conjure up imagery of the well-known (Today but not when the book was written) phenomenon of a “runner’s high”. A runner’s high is the effect felt as the body releases endorphins to weaken the physical pain caused by high-impact nature of running. Though Glasser does not address this connection in Positive Addiction, given the numerous alternative means to reach the PA state, I am not convinced endorphins are fundamental — they may merely be an ancillary effect of higher-endurance activities. It seems to me based on personal experience that the meditative state achieved through repetitive, non-critical physical activity is separate from endorphin release.

Transcendental meditation is another way to achieve the PA state though Glasser concludes from his research that TM rarely becomes addictive because it tends to only induce the PA state infrequently.

Aside from regularly running, Glasser alludes to other possible methods that may achieve the PA state. His research into PA discovered subjects that appeared to be positively addicted to gardening, juggling, swinging a bat, bathing, creative but non-critical writing, and knitting. The PA state elicits in me the diminished, wandering awareness reached almost immediately prior to falling asleep; could the PA state be akin to dreaming while still awake? It also reminds me of how I (and many people I know) feel during a morning hot shower.

In Positive Addiction Glasser outlines six steps or requirements of a PA activity. If you’re looking for a potential PA, the steps as pulled from the book are:

  1. It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it.
  2. It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
  3. You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it.
  4. You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you.
  5. You believe that if you persist at it you will improve, but this is completely subjective—you need to be the only one who measures that improvement.
  6. The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting. This is why it is so important that the activity can be done alone.

Glasser’s default recommendation for those interested in reaching PA is to run. He cautions that getting to the point where you can run for an hour for five to six days a week could take up to six months, and even then, it may still take up to two years to get to the point where running is a positive addiction.

Self-experimentation — as I am more or less convinced of the benefits of positive addiction; however, in order to see if its something real and useful for me, I need to conduct some self-experimentation, introspection, and observation. Since I am not a runner (or jogger), I am interested in finding other means to achieve the PA state. I believe that I have reached the PA state at various times while working out. I have noticed symptoms of withdrawal when I miss workouts. Finally, I’ve noticed that working out with others tends to diminish my enjoyment severely even though weight-lifting often requires a workout partner (and I do suspect weight-lifting can be a positive addiction).

If you wish to follow my experimentation with achieving PA via alternatives to running. Right out the gate I suspect that PA can be reached through kettlebell drills such as the kettlebell swing. Additionally, as I somewhat regularly bike (both mountain and road), I will be experimenting with positive addiction there, as well, though I’m nearly positive I have noticed the PA state while biking.

Further reading — This is the second book by William Glasser that I have read. The first was Control Theory. Glasser’s style of therapy has been termed “Choice Theory” or “Reality Therapy.” I have one other book of his that I plan on reading. I have enjoyed Glasser’s writing style and particularly his inquisitive mind and search for useful, testable and easy to apply methods to improve mental health. Working to improve your mind is something healthy individuals do not do enough. This is despite the obvious conclusion that just like it is healthy to strengthen your body via lifting weights and routine physical activity, it is also healthy to take efforts to strengthen the mind. As it is, positive addiction may increase both physical and mental well-being at the same time.

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.

Searching for the right mix of cardio and high-intensity exercise

I stumbled across a blog post titled Conflicting Cardio that pondered aloud the following:

As I read Mark’s essay, I distinctly remembered hearing advice somewhere that completely contradicted what he was saying. I remembered reading that we were actually genetically designed to run long, slow distances, and that the way our ancestors hunted was not in short sprints (antelope would outrun us no problem), but rather in long, slow jogs, waiting for the animal’s body temperature to overheat. At that point, the animal simply passed out from heat exhaustion, and we moved in for the kill. This is based on the premise that human beings evolved an evaporative cooling system, whereas animals didn’t; they don’t sweat, and thus, they’re terribly inefficient at cooling their bodies during exercise.

Fortunately for you, I have a spectacular memory. The article I’m referencing was from an issue of Men’s Health that ran about a year ago, titled Yes, You Were Born to Run. The author, Richard Conniff, based the article on research conducted by Daniel Lieberman PhD, a University of Utah biologist.

I find this situation particularly hilarious because it illustrates perfectly the dilemma that the typical North American finds itself in when attempting to establish what, exactly, is good for us in terms of our health. Is it low-fat or low-carb? Steady-state cardio exercise, or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)? 12-15 reps or 6-8? The amount of conflicting information published is astounding.

What is the right combination of cardiovascular exercise and strength-training? Is one better than the other? Is endurance exercise healthy? These are important questions to ask.

Here is my brief take, which is cross-posted as a comment on Becoming Adonis:

Thought-provoking post.

Seems to me that any “cardio” should be conducted at low-intensity. “Intensity” is incredibly vague, so for my purposes, I am defining it as whatever rate at which my body burns mostly fat for energy. For most of us, I imagine fairly low levels of exercise — probably less than jogging but greater than walking (Though walking with weight could serve in a pinch). For individuals who train for endurance, the level will be higher as their bodies are more efficient at burning fat for energy — I’m thinking specifically of Ironman athletes or other high endurance individuals who necessarily blow through all of the glycogen stores in their bodies and simply must burn fat for fuel. For a discussion on this, see Mark Twight’s write-up on endurance and fat (here).

Based on a number of articles about endurance exercise (See More Reading below), I don’t see a lot of benefits in endurance training. I’ll save further discussion on that topic for another time.

Meanwhile, HIIT and/or weight lifting is right up the alley of most all of us mere mortals for the very reasons Mark Sisson and you describe (Sprints being a great example).

How do we put all of this together? Do we just ditch cardio/endurance exercise altogether?

Modern man is scarcely active relative to our ancient ancestors. Hunting/gathering at the grocery store is hardly going to require a lot of energy nor is typing 90wpm or clicking a mouse. The big incongruity is simply a lack of basic, low-intensity activity that would have been a matter of course to paleo man but is a foreign concept to us bloggers.

So what is the solution? We should simply seek to be more active at low-levels of intensity. This means more walking (perhaps weighted) or perhaps low-intensity biking or mountain biking. I imagine there are a number of competitive sports that could also fit the bill here. Mix these activities with HIIT and weight-lifting and you’ve got an optimal combination.

More reading:

  • Did you happen to see this post by De Vany on sweating? Totally jives with the evaporative cooling mechanism discussion in your post.
  • The Men’s Health article referenced can be found here

And a bevvy of articles on endurance exercise, most which question its health benefits: