If you’re a runner and have never heard of Christopher McDougall or the book he’s written, Born to Run, then you must be running on another planet. The guy needs no introduction, so let’s get straight into the two pieces I wrote after meeting him in December 2010 in Singapore. He was in town for the Singapore Marathon (an old college roommate works for the bank and invited him) and I took the chance to show him Singapore’s trails at Macritchie. He loved it.
These articles were first published in A Runner’s Diary, a weekly column I had in the Straits Times, Dec 20 and 27, 2010.
A RUNNER’S DIARY
Dec 20, 2010
CHRIS McDougall is 2m tall, 48 years old and weighs 91kg, but he is leading me down a long descent on a trail at MacRitchie Reservoir like a ballerina half his height, age and weight.
His footwork – done in Vibram FiveFingers shoes as minimal as ballet flats – would make Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao proud.
McDougall, once 18kg heavier and plagued by injury, used to think running was “a stupid thing” and gave it up for good. His doctor had concurred, saying: “The human body is not designed for that kind of abuse. Especially not your body.”
Then in 2006, he met the Tarahumara – a tribe renowned for running long distances (like 700km in two days) in sandals and without injury – and everything changed. They taught him to run pain-free; lightly and gently on the balls of his feet, in shoes that are next to nothing.
His epic adventure in Mexico’s Copper Canyon became the best-selling Born To Run (2009), a book that has sparked a huge barefoot movement worldwide – including Singapore.
Minimalist shoes, such as the FiveFingers or Terra Plana’s Vivo Barefoot, are rising in popularity. Pauline Png, director of Innovatez, distributor of FiveFingers, says sales are growing every month. It now has 15 retail outlets, up from one just a couple of years ago.
Mohanadas Kandiah, 50, started running in FiveFingers a year ago, and has done 25 marathons in them. “I have chronic tendinitis. It would take me three to four days to recover from a marathon in shoes,” he says, “but in the FiveFingers, I take only a day.”
Michael Sandler, author of Barefoot Running, broke his hip and shattered his thigh bone in an inline skating accident in 2006. Doctors warned he may not walk again, much less run. “They were right,” said Sandler, who flew in to conduct a Terra Plana running clinic at the Botanic Gardens on Dec 4, “until I decided to go barefoot”.
Barefooting, however, is not the ultimate goal, noted McDougall. “The goal is to run properly, with a biomechanically efficient running stride,” he said. “Bare feet are the most efficient way of arriving at that goal.”
Without the cushioning of modern shoes, runners are forced to land on their forefoot instead of the heel. It is how kids run; it is how we were born to run.
Heel-striking, said Harvard University professor Daniel Lieberman, causes potentially-damaging impact, as it concentrates two or three times one’s body weight to a coin-sized surface. He led a study which found that 75 per cent of all shoe-wearing runners heel-strike, while most bare-footed runners land on the sides or balls of their feet.
Running barefoot also strengthens the plantar fascia muscles that run along the sole of the foot, and reduces the chance of shin splints, said Robert Gotlin, director of orthopaedic and sports rehabilitation at Beth Israel Medical Centre in New York City.
“Once you learn good form,” said McDougall, “you can wear any shoe you want.”
Injuries, though, are possible with barefoot running. Here is how to ease into it safely:
Take off your shoes.
“When you feel the ground and try to heel-strike, it will hurt and you will stop, preventing an overuse injury,” said Sandler.
Pick a hard surface.
“The harder the better,” said Sandler. “It’s easier to feel the ground, and to learn to run incredibly light.”
Listen to your body.
“Whatever you’re doing, if it feels uncomfortable, change it. Stop if it’s painful,” saidMcDougall. “When you become fatigued and your form starts falling apart, that’s your body telling you to pack it in today.”
Take your time.
Sandler started by running just 100m barefoot and took three months to build up to 10km. “If you’ve been a heel-striker all your life, you have to transition slowly to build strength in the calf and foot muscles,” Dr Lieberman said.
A RUNNER’S DIARY
Dec 27, 2010
WHEREVER Christopher McDougall goes, the debate over barefoot running – which he sparked with Born To Run, his 2009 book on Mexico’s Tarahumara running tribe – follows. Here is mine with the American, who was here this month for the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore.
Is barefoot running just a fad?
Shoes are the fad. Barefoot running has been around for two millions years; modern running shoes have been around 30 years or so. The problem with shoes started when they got into the business of correcting running biomechanics. For a very long time shoes were fine, because all they offered were some protection. It’s when they started to hyper-engineer shoes – by putting in motion-control, arch support and cushioned heels – that’s when we ran into trouble. I think that’s the fad, this idea that we can out think nature. And I think that fad is passing; we’re going back to natural biomechanics.
What shoes would you recommend for barefoot beginners?
I wouldn’t recommend any shoes… I think people love to try to buy their way out of trouble, and so I try to stay out of the conversation of recommending things, because they will ignore the part about learning good form, and taking their time.
It seems many shoe companies are trying to cash in on this whole barefoot thing.
It’s a problem and I agree with you. And that’s another reason why I don’t recommend shoes to people, because I don’t mean to be in the business of pimping shoes of any kind. There are shoes that I personally like. But barefoot running is running without anything on your feet. It’s all about running form, and to me the quickest way to learn good running form is to not have anything on your feet at all. Once your technique is good, then there’s a whole buffet of shoe choices. I don’t know what Haile Gebrselassie wore, but it sure wasn’t a pair of FiveFingers.
Marathon Singapore was your first road race in 10 years; you had been avoiding mass runs because of its commercialisation. Why the change of heart?
I’d always thought running was bad for you – and it’s not – and marathons were terrible, and actually they’re not. They’re a part of you. Humans evolved to run as a hunting pack, and that’s what finally clicked in my head. So my thing with the big urban marathon is I stopped thinking of them as my normal solitary training experience and looked at it as a celebration.
Are you surprised at the success of your book?
This was all ready to happen. The whole time I was working on the book, I thought, “I got to finish the book fast”, because if it wasn’t me, someone else was going to publish it… I get dozens of emails everyday from people telling me, “I couldn’t run before and now I can” or “I can’t run, can you tell me how to do it”. It’s an instinctive urge to go out there and join in the big party. I mean, 60,000 people don’t gather to do anything else on a Sunday morning, but yet, all over the world, on any given Sunday, people gather by the tens of thousands to run. I think it’s a cool thing. That’s why I changed my mind about being part of the party.
We hear Born To Run in going to be turned into a movie?
What I know is that there is a movie in development, the director is going to be Peter Sarsgaard. He’s got a really good screenwriter, Marshall Lewy. They are at [Mexico’s] Copper Canyons as we speak, which I think is just really impressive lengths for them to go to research this movie. Peter’s brother-in law is Jake Gyllenhall. Jake and Peter were at the Leadville Trail 100 race in Colarado with me this summer, soaking up the scene of ultrarunning. Jake is sort of involved, but I’m not sure how much.
So what’s your best marathon time?
You’re way too work-oriented. I think that’s one of the problems about people who run the marathon. People are all about the time… it’s way too judgemental and I think it just pushes people to not enjoy the marathon. That’s one of the reasons why I think ultrarunning will be the salvation of recreational running. The mentality, playful aspect and camaraderie that are the hallmarks of ultrarunning – I wish those existed in the marathon… My fastest time ever was 3 hr 48 min in Philadelphia, back in the late 90s. But, I can honestly tell you, I could care less about times… When you stop caring about this stuff and when you start to run for fun, you don’t get hurt, and you finish stronger and faster.