Since I started running again, learning more about running and runners has been a significant source of inspiration to keep going.
A couple months ago, my boyfriend recommended I read Born to Run—Christopher McDougall’s 2009 nonfiction book recounting his own running journey and the lessons he learned from the incredibly skillful running tribe the Tarahumara, who reside in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental. McDougall recounts his own experiences meeting and racing with the Tarahumara, as well as their history, the stories of other amazing ultra runners, the evolution of running, and a whole lot more.
(If you’re not familiar with the book and you have any interest in running, read it.)
Having recently finished the book, I’m still hyped up on it, which has helped me in my own quest to become a better runner, and—more importantly—a committed and happy runner.
Here are some of the primary lessons I learned from this book that have informed my own running experience:
Chia seeds are amazing.
Evidently, those seeds that grew our highly-marketed plant pets in the nineties are a super food. We should have been ingesting them instead of sprinkling them on top of some frightening clay incarnation of Tweety Bird. According to McDougall:
“A tablespoon of chia is like a smoothie made from salmon, spinach, and human growth hormone. As tiny as those seeds are, they’re superpacked with omega-3s, omega-6s, protein, calcium, iron, zinc, fiber, and antioxidants. If you had to pick just one desert-island food, you couldn’t do much better than chia, at least if you were interested in building muscle, lowering cholesterol, and reducing your risk of heart disease.” (p. 44)
For good measure, I like to ingest chia prior to a run. Sometimes I just throw a tablespoon into water. It won’t dissolve, but the seeds will soften and expand. At first, it feels weird drinking a glass of water that looks like it has little pebbles in it, but it goes down easily and has given me an added boost during many runs.
Some people are simply amazing, and you’ll never be better than them no matter what you tell yourself.
I will never be able to live the kind of lifestyle where I get so wasted, I crash into a giant marble fountain and blacken my eye and then butt-grind my way into a wedding reception like nothing happened, yet can still be ranked one of the top three hundred-mile runners in the country. My body is too sensitive to sleep-deprivation, alcohol and poor diets to be able to run impeccably in spite of those things. Jenn Shelton, on the other hand, ran one hundred miles in 14 minutes and 57 seconds at the Rocky Racoon race – “the fasted hundred miles on dirt trails ever recorded by any woman, anywhere” (p. 147).
I bring this up for anyone who, like me, is easily defeated. Hearing how amazing some people are, especially while living a lifestyle that would leave many of us in shambles, can be disheartening. Can make you think that wow, if that person can be so good even while partying so hard, what business do I even have running?
So, I say we need to simply accept this, and remember that the existence of super humans like Jenn Shelton does not mean that you or I aren’t any good, and that we can’t continuously push ourselves to be better. Of course we can.
Shoes aren’t everything.
It seems many studies have found that expensive shoes often lead to more injuries. Specifically, those expensive shoes inundated with excess padding and “support.” Through all this extra material, your foot is trying to make contact with the ground, causing you to land harder, and potentially over-pronate your foot or ankle. In Born to Run, McDougall quotes Dr. Daniel Liberman, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University:
“A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet, and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.” (p. 168)
Evidence? This is just one study, so take it with a grain of salt, but it certainly gives me something to think about. In Switzerland, Bernard Marti, M.D., preventative-medicine specialist at University Of Bern, studied 4,358 runners in the Bern Grand-Prix, a 9.6-mile road race. He concluded that runners wearing top-of-the-line shoes are 123 percent more likely to get injured than runners in cheap shoes:
“The most common variable among casualties … was the price of the shoe. Runners in shoes that cost more than $95 were more than twice as likely to get hurt as runners in shoes that cost less than $40 … Wearers of expensive running shoes that are promoted as having additional features that protect (e.g., more cushioning, ‘pronation correction’) are injured significantly more frequently than runners wearing inexpensive shoes.” (p. 172)
Form is everything.
Bad form not only leads to injuries, it makes it harder to run. For example, when I first started running again, I liked to lean forward slightly to propel myself forward with my weight. But you have to good posture—it helps you breathe better, which is essential to endurance. I’ve noticed now that when I start to get tired, I want to slump, yet I can also tell that if I do, I’ll lose power and the ability to keep going.
I also learned that contrary to what I believed, a long stride isn’t ideal for long distance: “Quick, light leg contractions are more economical than big, forceful ones” (p. 206). In fact, my groin has been sensitive for several months, and I suspect it’s because I was working so hard to lengthen my stride more than was comfortable.
What’s ideal form? “Keep your feet under your body, your hips driving straight ahead, and your heels out of the picture … You’ll be up on your forefeet, with your back erect, head steady, arms high, elbows driving, and feet touching down quickly on the forefoot and kicking toward your butt” (p. 205-207).
Optimism is essential to running well.
When I was in cross country and people cheered me on, my exhaustion usually made me so surly I would often think shut the fuck up, especially when I didn’t know them. Why? Because I didn’t believe I was doing well, and felt patronized.
But, positivity matters. If I focus on how tired my legs are, or how out-of-breath I am, how dry my mouth and throat are, or that I’m just not in the fucking mood, running will be miserable and I’m going to have a hell of a time finishing.
I feel better, run better, and enjoy it more when I clear my head of negative thoughts. When they start to creep in, I tell myself how well I’m doing. And while telling myself I feel great doesn’t necessarily make me feel great, it does make me feel better, and encourages me to keep going.
The fundamental message of Born to Run is that the secret to being a great runner is learning to enjoy it:
“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they’d never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation … 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.” (p. 92-93)
This is the most empowering lesson I’ve learned McDougall’s book—not just hearing that I was “born to run,” but why that might be true. And though it might sound corny, taking a moment to marvel at the mechanics of my body and how well designed it is for endurance running inspires me to conquer what my ancestors did instinctively.
Read “My Return to Running, Part I” here.