"Easy, light, smooth, and fast": Lessons from Born to Run

Full disclosure: I wrote this about 3 weeks ago, before a brutal and tenacious cold/flu type virus took me down, giving me a persistent cough and breathing problems. I haven't been running since. Jinx, I guess. Luckily, I'm feeling better these days, and hoping to hit the trails this week.

Recently, I read Christopher McDougall's 2009 book Born to Run, a journalist's investigation into running. McDougall gets involved in the sport of ultrarunning (super-long races in punishing terrain); travels to Mexico to meet the Tarahumara, a reclusive Indian tribe who run as a way of life and have produced some of the finest ultrarunners; examines what type of shoe is best (and concludes it's no shoe at all); and considers anthropological evidence that humans evolved to run long distances as part of persistence hunting strategy. While I'm not sure I totally buy everything in the book - part of it read like a yarn or tall tale - it's an entertaining and thought-provoking book, and it definitely inspired me to get out and run more.

There are a few pieces of running advice in the book that I wanted to remember later, and what better way than to write them up in a post?

Try running barefoot

One of the memorable characters in Born to Run is Barefoot Ted, a distance runner who insists on running barefoot even in difficult terrain. The Tarahumara, too, wear only light huarache sandals, cut from rubber tires. In a memorable scene, a group of Tarahumara runners who are sponsored by a sneaker company only wear the high-end shoes for the first mile or so of a race, stopping to remove them as soon as they're away from the starting line cameras.

When you're barefoot, you don't run the same way you do in shoes. I can confirm this from experience. As soon as you take off on your bare feet, your body adjusts to a different running style, as if of its own accord. You quickly learn to land on the ball of your foot or the mid-foot, not the heel. You may land on the outside of the foot and then roll inward as you push off. According to the book, the barefoot running style is more efficient and less effortful, so you can run for longer without feeling as tired, and it's also less injury-prone.

McDougall spends some time investigating the history of running shoes as we know them. It seems that a wacky personal trainer had the idea that we could run faster if we took longer strides, landing on our heels, so he designed a shoe that made this possible by putting a lot of padding in the heel. This inventor went on to co-found Nike.

The problem is that the thick heel absorbs enough shock so that you don't feel immediate pain, but it doesn't actually protect you from the kind of injuries that result from this high-impact running style, which stresses your knees and joints more than necessary. And these shoes "protect" you from making use of all the specialized engineering that has evolved in the human foot. One of the most convincing arguments that I read in the book involved the foot's arch. The arch is the strongest shape in architecture. What you don't want to do to an arch is put anything under it. That actually weakens it, and puts all the stress on the support beam. So why are we putting padding under our foot's arch?

This book seems to have spurred a bit of a cult of barefootism. I've heard people claim that all running injuries come from shoes, and anyone can cure themselves if they simply run barefoot. I don't believe that it's that simple. I don't think barefoot running is a cure-all. I think there are some people whose particular body shapes, injury history, or other conditions mean that they do need special shoes, who can't or shouldn't run barefoot, or at all. I think you can still mess yourself up if you run barefoot.

But I've experimented with running barefoot now, and I can tell you that it has helped my style and posture a lot. I do feel like I'm expending less energy, and running in a more light, "springy" style. And it's fun! I like the feel of the ground under my feet, when the pavement is just beginning to warm in the morning sun. Even once I put my shoes back on again, I continue to run on the balls of my feet, just letting the heels touch down as I push off again, and it feels right. I plan to continue training barefoot and with light, uncushioned shoes or sandals. It may not work for everyone, but it's working for me and I want to continue.

So, I have the book to thank for inspiring me to try something new.

Posture matters

I'm not always running barefoot (look, I live near a poorly maintained urban park, there is a lot of broken glass on the ground!). It can hard for me to ensure that I'm maintaining that good barefoot running posture when I'm wearing shoes, even minimalist ones. I know that I should be landing on my forefoot, but your foot moves pretty fast when you run, so it's not always easy to tell which part is touching down first. Some of the other posture tips in the book help me make sure I'm on the right track as I go.
  • Back straight! Just straightening up can help me get rid of neck and back pain from my sport bra as I run.
  • Knees lined up under hips
  • Take tiny, bird steps (the opposite of those long strides that force you onto your heels)
  • Kick off behind you - this is where that extra energy goes when you take small steps.

Self check

While we're on the subject of checking in with yourself, McDougall describes a check-in technique that can save your life if you are a long-distance runner. (I'm definitely not there, but it's still a generalizable technique.) It can be easy to get "in the zone" when you're running and not notice danger signs, so a good technique is to check in with yourself every so often and ask yourself: how am I doing? Am I hurt? Exhausted? Thirsty? Hungry? Make sure you attend to your basic needs before they become emergencies.

Keep a little in reserve

Similar is the idea of always keeping a little energy in reserve in case you need it, not going "all out." This advice is also probably most relevant in an ultrarunning scenario when you may actually need that extra bit of energy to save your life. But I find it useful to remember even on a simple jog near my house. It keeps me from getting so drained by the end of my run that I swear off running forever. It makes me feel like I can do more the next time.

Running is social

Some of the most exhilarating moments of the book are when McDougal, or the other racers, find just a little bit of extra energy and spring in their step when they run into another racer or have company on the trail. Running doesn't have to be solitary - it can be social! Besides, as one doctor tells him, you're running at a good pace for you if you can still carry on a conversation.

"Easy, light, smooth, and fast"

This is a great quote, so I'll just give it to you. It's from McDougal's running mentor, known in the book as Caballo Blanco.
The problem with most people is they only care about getting fast, and think that once they get fast, running will get easy. They got it backwards. First focus on getting easy, because if that's all you get, that ain't so bad. Once you can run easy, focus on light. Once you get light, focus on smooth. By the time you're easy, light and smooth, you won't have to worry about getting fast--you will be.
Each of these ideas is interesting. Being smooth means "taking what the trail gives you," as water along a creek bed: don't fight it. Being light, as in light on the earth, as in leave no trace, is a nice reminder not to take heavy steps, and has a neat sort of environmental ring to it. But I want to focus on the idea of easy.

This is probably the most revelatory ideas in this book, for me: running shouldn't be work.

So far in my life, I've run because I feel I have to - because it's a frugal and easy way to get in shape - but every step has felt effortful. I've accepted the idea that it needs to be, that fitness is all about trading punishment for health / muscle / lung capacity / weight loss / virtue points. The idea that it shouldn't feel like work is totally alien to me. But, sure enough, when I feel pain or exhaustion (after an amount of running I know I can handle), taking it easy on myself has helped. Trading speed for "easy," finding another way to move so that I can keep going for longer, really works. Pushing past it, "no pain no gain" style, leads to burnout and stopping. Easing up lets me keep going.

"If it feels like work, you're working too hard," another mentor, Eric, reminds McDougal before the big race, knowing that he'll need every bit of energy to finish.

Pain isn't a badge of honor or a test of will, it's a sign you're doing something wrong. Whoa.

My goal for this summer is to keep running regularly, not to get to a certain pace or time, but just to enjoy it.


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