Monday, January 02, 2012

Channeling the Tarahumara

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Running Injuries?

I finally got around to reading Born to Run, the book that more or less launched the barefoot/minimalist running revolution.  I'm not giving up my cushioned running shoes any time soon but there is some interesting info. about the relationship between running shoes and injuries.  I've been aware of the general ideas for years now but it was interesting to see the details behind the arguments in favor of minimalist shoes.  It's a very one-sided presentation though and I'm a bit skeptical.  One of the main ideas is that cushioned shoes prevent our feet from building up strength so if we run barefoot or in minimalist shoes our feet can flex and move and build up strength.  The problem with this argument is that the Tarahumara, or the sandal wearing distance running tribe in Mexico that the book is based on, live their lives on their feet so they have plenty of opportunity to build up the strength in their feet and even the proper gait for moving about in bare feet.  I consider myself a fairly active person, especially for an American, but still I spend a small amount of time on my feet compared to the Tarahumara.  Native tribal life is hardly comparable to the relatively sedentary life of even most active Americans.  Living your day to day life on your feet is not the same as an hour or even 2 or 3 hour training run and puttering about your house or office.

However the form they run with-small steps, high turnover, short strides, bent knees when the foot hits the ground, forefoot/mid-foot striking, straight back-is something my chiropractor has been encouraging me to do for the past year or so.  The minimalist shoes encourage this form but I don't see why you can't incorporate it even in padded shoes.  It's harder of course but I've been working on it over the past year and even more so after reading the book.  I'm definitely feeling better for it, especially my hamstrings, and even my gimpy knee seems to like it.  But I'm so slow and though it's starting to feel more 'normal' still feels a bit unnatural.  Over striding is my biggest issue and I've found that if I keep my back straight and pull my belly button in toward my spine/pelvis tilted forward it's harder to take big strides.  And I keep thinking to myself, 'itty bitty steps, pitty pat, pitty pat.'  Kind of silly when I write it out but it makes sense when I'm running.  It's too mentally draining to focus on form for a whole hour long run so instead I'll think about form for a few minutes then let my mind drift away and just run for a bit then a minute or two of focus, etc.

The more interesting part of the book to me though is the idea that the pure joy the Tarahumara have for running is the 'secret' of their success.  This seems so obvious to me but I know a fair number of people who have lost their love of their sport or hobby in the pursuit of unrealistic goals or goals that deep down they don't really want.  Who says you have to go to agility nationals or do an Ironman or be as good as the people in your training group, whatever you're training for?  I had a client come in the other week for help with her hobby which involves performing in front of other people.  She's been doing her hobby since childhood and loves it but joined a practice group where she felt her skills were inferior so she was taking lessons and practicing to try to measure up.  Unfortunately the pressure she was putting on herself was causing her problems that were manifesting physically and interfering with her ability to perform.  There's a lot of things you can do for this in hypnosis but mostly the idea is to bring back feelings of the initial love for the activity and after one session we got rid of the physical problem but she still wasn't able to perform as she wanted to.  A snow storm delayed her next session so she was able to listen to the CD I'd made of her last session a couple more times and when she finally came in she said she'd had the best performance in years over the weekend but more importantly had felt the joy and love of her hobby more so than she had in a long time.  And that's what it all should be about in the end, right?  Who cares about ribbons and titles and nationals and finisher's medals if the day to day training or the competition itself doesn't bring you joy?  A bad day or even week of training is normal but the good days should far outweigh the bad or something is wrong somewhere.

'Born to Run' is an interesting book even if you're not into running.  In addition to learning about the Tarahumara tribe of ultra distance runners there's studies/theories about human evolution and how our ancestors' ability to run shaped our evolution.  I've run into a lot of resistance from family members over my distance running.  Most of them think it's bad for me and they're not shy about telling me so.  I've been running since I was 12 and I wish I'd had this book back in the day as an argument for them that running is part of our evolutionary DNA, we are literally born to run.  Lately I've been running with an extra big grin on my face, channeling the joy of the Tarahumara even if I am wearing cushioned neon pink and yellow running shoes.


  1. I *heart* this blog post so so so much. The minimalist shoe thing feels like such a fad - and honestly everyone I know who's tried it has ended up injured! - and it's nice to get a little perspective on the other side. Run form, however, as you pointed out, can always be improved!!!

  2. It's interesting that you know people who've been injured. I've wondered about that. My chiropractor is also an athletic trainer and does PT and is really knowledgeable about form and the minimalist running thing since he sees people with all kinds of injuries. He did a talk on the minimalist shoe thing and I missed it but heard that the conclusion was that minimalist shoes can be good if you have good form but it's important to have good form if you're going to wear them.

  3. There are a lot of runners around here using Five Fingers. I personally haven't heard of any injuries, but most people I know of took months and months to work up to wearing them for any length of time, and started out on grass exclusively. And, I'm not a runner, so I'm not truly connected to the local running community--I just see a few acquaintances now and then and ask occasional questions. I have a pair of Five Fingers and I love wearing them in the summer to replace actually going barefoot. They don't get much more use than that, although I have walked a trail in them occasionally (about one mile). I'm mindful of my form in my normal running shoes when I do run (honestly, I'd rather be biking.) But the whole fad feel also bugs me; some seem to think that running shoe manufacturers are involved in a conspiracy.

  4. It's funny, I know more dog agility people who wear the Five Fingers than runners. I see lots of runners every day out on the trails in Boulder and I almost never see them in Five Fingers and I don't know any runners who wear them.

    There was a bit in the book about Nike sponsoring a track team back in the 70's and a rep went out to see the team and none of them were wearing the cushioned shoes they were given. The coach explained that they started getting injuries when they switched from old school uncushioned shoes to the fancy new cushioned shoes. But Nike still pumped the shoes out anyway even though they knew their shoes were causing injuries and many other companies jumped on the bandwagon. So maybe that's where the conspiracy idea came from. There was mention of force plate studies as well, where people wearing cushioned running shoes actually had more force going through their legs because they were able to hit the ground 'harder' without feeling it. Or something. And the shoe companies knew about this.

    Still I like my running shoes and for me and my particular issues I think they're a good choice. The answer of course is that we're all experiments of one and we need to figure out what works for us as individuals.