Charlie's Blog: The Worst Book Ever


The Worst Book Ever

DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor, podiatrist, healthcare professional, personal trainer, or anything requiring extra letters after my last name. Consult with those people before beginning an exercise program.

Blaming the running injury epidemic on big, bad Nike seems too easy - but that's okay, because it's largely their fault.

The title of this post is deliberate hyperbole. I am certain that I can find books that are worse than Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. I just don't care to look. The reason I think Born to Run is the worst book ever is because it was a fad that pushed many bad ideas out there that persist to the present day. That pervasive influence is what makes it the worst book ever.

I read the book over a decade ago mainly because of its fad nature. I loved the book especially with the takedown of Nike as the cause of all running injuries. I thought McDougall had solved the problem of running injuries. He didn't.

We are not born to run. McDougall's tale of persistence hunting and evolution is a nice myth, but it is a myth. I do not believe in evolution. When I read Born to Run, I did believe in evolution as an explanation for human origins because I was a stone cold atheist. I am not an atheist now. I believe God designed all human beings and all living things. There is microevolution and devolution that occurs within a species but no species are created as a product of this process.

If I said that we were born to swim, people would laugh. Some people can swim but nothing close to how dolphins swim. If I said that we were born to fly, people would laugh at that as people can't fly without additional equipment. The same applies to cycling as the bicycle is a relatively recent invention in terms of human history. We were not born to cycle.

Humans can run reasonably well over short distances. That's about it. Those anaerobic bursts can save your life, but they cannot be sustained for long. When we run slower at aerobic levels, we can maintain that indefinitely until the injuries kick in. This is where footwear comes into the picture. All footwear exists to prevent injury to the foot. This is why footwear has a long history predating Nike by thousands of years.

Running shoes are not the cause of running injuries. Running is the cause of running injuries. McDougall points out correctly that running shoes have not prevented these injuries. What he leaves out is that barefoot running or wearing minimalist footwear has not stopped these injuries either. Here is what Martin Fritz Huber wrote for Outside,

Fortunately all photographic evidence has long been destroyed, but there was a time when I briefly belonged to the barefoot running cult. This was roughly ten years ago. Like millions of others, I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and realized that I’d been duped by big running shoe companies who had sold me something that I didn’t actually need. Newly enlightened, I did the only rational thing and spent $160 on a pair of shoes that mimicked the sensation of running barefoot. I felt sorry for the idiots I saw on my daily park loop who were still caught in the cushioning-is-necessary matrix. I exchanged nods with the local hippie guy who always ran in sandals. After a few weeks, however, I became disillusioned. The anticipated breakthrough in my running never came. What’s more, none of the top professionals seemed to be ditching their plush footwear and going minimalist. If they weren’t doing it, why should I? In the end, I was relieved to go back to wearing regular old running shoes; my feet were really starting to hurt.  

When you dig into McDougall's claims, you find that he is a first class bullshitter. Here is what Jamie Compos wrote about the minimalist running thing:

So I did some runs in my fancy new shoes and it felt liberating. I even did a spate of barefoot walks on all types of terrain, and some sprints in grassy fields. I tore out the cushy insoles from my work shoes and got some good ol’ Chuck Taylors (minimalism incognito) to wear casually.

Everything was going well. So well, in fact, that one day I decided to do several squats at the gym, followed by a 6-mile run – more than double the distance I’d attempted in my minimalist shoes to date.

My knees were screaming the next day, and remained extremely tender for weeks.

Thus endeth the experiment in minimalism.

The injury frightened me so much that I gave up running for several years. Dual obsessions with backpacking and running are probably not good on the knees. A friend’s comment while we were out on a beautiful backpacking trip sealed the deal:

“I’d rather be able to do this in old age than risk it all on running,” he said.

The claim from barefoot and minimalist enthusiasts is that runners have to allow for an adjustment period until you get used to running without all the cushioning of a modern running shoe. This sounds almost identical to carnivore diet enthusiasts who tell people to allow for days, weeks, and months as you suffer explosive and chronic diarrhea until you "adjust" to the new diet and become chronically constipated. With a vegan diet, your health is already improving after a few days. But I digress. . .

I am going to tell a different story. You can agree or disagree if you like, but I think my tale is better. We were never born to run just like we weren't born to swim, fly, cycle, row a boat, or sweat to the oldies with Richard Simmons. We were born to walk. This is our natural movement. You begin as a toddler with a few unsteady steps and progress from there. Walking injuries are rare relative to running. You feel better when you walk. You don't feel better when you run. Our bodies are designed to walk for long distances which we are able to do with little difficulty or distress. In comparison, chimpanzees are terrible walkers but outstanding climbers. They were designed to climb. It is their natural movement.

Human beings did not develop big brains from eating meat from persistent hunting. Humans always had big brains, and those brains have been maintained by starches derived from farming. The energy we require to walk and work comes mostly from carbohydrates not meat. Carbs are the preferred fuel source for human beings. I don't know how persistence hunters can run all day while bonking on a meat diet.

McDougall is at pains to argue that endurance running is natural to humans. Yes, humans have great endurance and sweat like horses. We can go all day when it comes to walking and working. The running thing comes up short with the injuries. This leads us to the next big myth which is ultrarunning.

Ultrarunners do not actually run ultramarathons. They run and walk those extreme distances. A marathoner is able to cover a marathon while running the entire distance, but ultramarathoners are incapable of doing that with ultramarathons especially those 100-milers. They shouldn't call it ultrarunning but speed hiking. Here is what Heather Hart wrote:

Here’s a bit of a reality check for new (or non) ultra runners: you’re likely going to walk during your ultramarathon. The longer the distance, the more you’re going to walk. But don’t worry: walking during an ultramarathon is quite normal – you’ll even see the elites power walking up some steep and gnarly hills.

But for whatever reason, not a lot of people seem to know that.

The reason not a lot of people seem to know that is because ultrarunners hide the truth about the walking while embellishing the running. I would like to know how much they walk in a typical ultra, but I will guess 50%. Some researcher needs to use fitness tracker data to get a true picture on the ratio of running to walking in an ultra.

Why do ultrarunners have to walk? That is obvious. Human beings are not born to run. Running long distances is unnatural for us. But we can walk those same distances though we do it slower. Ultrarunning is just a great way to ruin a hike.

If you believe the ultrarunning myth that ultrarunners run the entire 100 mile distance, you will buy the born to run thesis. The reality is they don't run the whole way. That brings us back to the shoe issue.

Neither cushioned trainers nor barefoot shoes make any difference. If you run, you will have running injuries. No shoe causes or cures these injuries. The running shoe industry won't tell you this because they make bank off of your search for that magic shoe that will cure those injuries. This is why they never make those injury prevention claims. When Vibram made those claims, they got sued and lost.

Running injuries have one thing in common. They are all sustained while running. When you stop running, those injuries clear up. This is the number one advice for healing running injuries. Stop running.

When it comes to cushioned shoes, they certainly make walking more comfortable. When people walk, they heel strike normally. This is why shoes for eons have had stacked heels relative to the forefoot. That is the point of first contact when walking normally. Forefoot striking is abnormal for walking on level ground. Forefoot striking comes into play when going up steep hills. You can walk barefoot, but this becomes painful very quickly. This is why people like carpeted floors and rugs.

Born to Run is a bad book. Unfortunately, it still remains influential. It was a microfad in the larger fad of running. If there is one upside, Born to Run has made some people give up running when they finally rejected the hype. A better book to read is Shane O'Mara's In Praise of Walking. The big complaint of that book is that it is very scientific and has a ton of evidence and research that can be wonky to read. I don't care for the evolution arguments O'Mara makes, but the book seems solid in its presentation which makes it the opposite of Born to Run. O'Mara isn't full of crap. I think runners should switch to walking and do that walking in comfortable shoes.

UPDATE #1: I enjoyed this comment from Ben so much on one of my sources for this post that I wanted to share it.

To me, the issue isn’t whether barefoot running is better than running using cushioned shoes, but whether humans are truly ‘born to run’ at all. We can run long distances, certainly, but did we evolve to do so, or are we to some extent ‘misusing’ our biology?

The persistence hunting theory, often used as an evolutionary explanation for our running ability, has been debunked as unscientific. It has about the same standing among anthropologists as the aquatic ape hypothesis. Studies of extant hunter-gatherer societies show that some never run at all – never.

All in all, it seems that running is something that we (or some of us) can do, but we don’t have to do it, it isn’t necessary to be healthy, and its importance in our evolution has been overstated (or at least misstated – no doubt occasionally running from predators or towards prey is very useful). It’s an interesting issue, and personally I find McDougall’s mythologising of running and running culture doesn’t contribute in a useful way, whatever its practical applications for runners or effect on the industry.

UPDATE #2: I found this video on the Sport Walk channel on YouTube:

Sport Walking Top Tips - Should you use Forefoot Landing when Sport Walking?

This video definitely settles the issue of minimalist footwear and the barefoot philosophy for walking with a dose of plain common sense. Running is a different story. I know that I need cushioned shoes and to land on the heel not the forefoot when walking.