Running: Can We Enjoy the Health and Mood Benefits Without the Injuries? Maybe We Can
Time for a running post. I’m not a runner, but I used to run cross country and track in high school back around the time the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, so that has to count for something.
What got me going was a book I just read, Born to Run by journalist and running aficionado Christopher McDougal. I highly recommend the book for the sheer reading pleasure. Think Hunter Thompson meets nerd science reporter. Anyway ...
Mr McDougal maintains that two million years of human evolution have conditioned us to run incredibly long distances and actually enjoy it. Not only that, if we run the way nature intended us to run, we won’t get hurt.
This turns traditional science completely on its head. According to conventional wisdom, the adaptive advantages of walking (and running) upright came at tremendous cost. We were the wimps of the wild, the sissies of the savannah. Not strong, not fast, not durable - basically, instant lunch.
So how the hell did we survive?
It turns out, on reflection, that nature has gifted us a magnificently engineered body, together with an awesome brain, that allows us to run as a pack and track and chase down our prey until it drops.
That’s right - the prey drops, not us. Sure, a deer can beat us in a twenty-second sprint, but after 21 seconds, assuming we can anticipate where the animal is going, the advantage belongs to us. We can keep running for hours.
One key factor is we sweat through all of our skin. Bambi’s mother, by contrast, is inclined to overheat. Eventually, she reaches the point where she cannot pant and run at the same time. Dog-owners need to be mindful of that when they take Fido for a jog.
According to Mr McDougal, it took scientists forever to figure all this out. Meanwhile, we have eye-witness accounts of the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert running down game in the heat of day. In the Copper Canyon of Mexico, the Tarahumara people run hundreds of miles in sandals just for fun. And in the west, we have the phenomenon of ultra distance running.
We tend to think of these people as freaks of nature, genetic lottery winners, human perpetual motion machines that don’t break down. For the rest of us, assuming we can go the distance, running injuries are a fact of life. The constant pounding of the road does a number to our feet, our tendons, our knees, our backs. Most distance runners are injured in the course of a year, which, over time, makes a major blow-out a dead certainty.
Not so fast, says Mr McDougal. According to his account, running injuries were rare prior to the advent of the first Nike shoe in the early seventies. Athletes used to train and compete in shoes with very thin soles and no cushioning. Often, they trained barefoot. The Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon running unshod along Rome’s cobbled streets.
Apparently, post-barefoot cushioning desensitizes the runner to the feel of the ground. We fail to adjust, we wind up giving our feet and everything above it a beating. As a result, we run all wrong, not the way nature intended. Our stride is out of alignment, we come down on the wrong part of our foot.
Since the early seventies, says McDougal, the injury rates have shot way up. This coincided with the number of world champion American distance runners going way down. In the early 80s, for instance, the Greater Boston track club, an amateur group, had six men who could run a 2:12 marathon. In 2000, not one US runner met the 2:14 Olympic qualifying standard.
Lately, we see a “barefoot running” movement. Even Nike is grudgingly getting into the act, with new lines of stripped-down shoes. McDougal says that since throwing away his Nikes and changing his stride, he no longer gets injured. This allows him to enjoy running for its own sake, for the sheer joy of running and feeling alive, with all the health benefits.
A number of studies strongly suggest that running is a natural antidepressant. We can also make a case that going for a run acts as a mood stabilizer. The catch has always been the high injury rate. In essence, if running is good medicine, things that go ouch is the inevitable side effect.
But that may change. The jury is still out, but if indeed we were born to run, then all of us have the genes for it, not just a chosen few. Moreover, if running is our natural state, we should be able to engage in it relatively free of injury.
But don’t just head for the hills barefoot. Chances are, even if you are an experienced runner, all this time you have been doing it wrong. In time, more lightly shod, your mechanics should naturally adjust, but McDougal had the benefit of interviewing the top experts and competitors, not to mention the services of a personal coach.
Like everything else about managing our illness, we need to be smart about this.