Born to Run is Not Only About Barefoot Running: How Christopher McDougall Really Became an Ultra Runner

If you take a poll in most running circles and ask, “What is Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run about?” you will most likely get the same answer: barefoot running.  And it’s simply not true.

Born to Run - Christopher McDougall

Christopher McDougall's Born to Run

Questioning our need for bulky motion control trainers is a central theme of his book.  McDougall gives this topic a lot of attention as he probes the Tarahumara’s ability to run great distances with just a sliver of rubber lashed to their feet.  As he trains for Caballo Blanco’s 50 mile trail run, he transforms himself from injury-prone and out of shape to an ultra runner.

Despite what most think, his transformation had little to do with barefoot running.  He did not learn some mystical secret from a reclusive Mexican tribe.

McDougall focused on the big picture (as should everyone) and improved his diet and form.  He focused on strength by doing hill work and strength exercises.  And yes, he switched to a pair of neutral old school Nike Pegasus’ that lacked a substantial heel.

While most people misinterpret the book, I think it’s still the best running book to be published in years. If you haven’t read it, check out Born to Run.

Injury Prevention Starts with Form

The first thing that Christopher McDougall did to prepare his body for a 50 mile race was fix his form.  I could probably stop writing right now and attribute the majority of his success to proper form.  It’s critical to lessening impact stress, avoiding injury, and keeping a runner healthy.

McDougall focused on short, quick steps.  His goal was 180 steps per minute because this stride cadence is more economical than long, forceful steps.  This is absolutely true and certainly not a secret: Jack Daniels explains this in his book, Daniels’ Running Formula on pages 80-82.  With less landing shock and a more efficient use of energy, most injuries can be avoided.

When his stride rate increased, he fixed other aspects of his form that were keeping him injured.  He kept his back erect, practiced landing on his midfoot, and touched his feet down directly underneath his body.  The problem with modern running is that most new runners are never taught how to run.  They simply lace up a pair of Brooks Beasts and hit the road.  That’s when injuries happen.

Improve Your Diet, Improve Your Recovery

Moving away from the standard American diet can actually make you a better runner.  It did for Christopher McDougall.  Western diets are high in processed carbohydrates and nutrient-poor foods.  And they lack the staple of any high-quality diet: fruits and vegetables.

A poor diet is detrimental to running fast and staying healthy for a variety of reasons.  Not only will crappy food make you gain weight, but it prevents your body from recovering as well as it should from training.  Pizza, beer, and fried chicken sounds good but these foods are inflammatory and lack the nutrients necessary for your body to recover, fight inflammation, and repair muscular fatigue.

McDougall ditched the conventional American diet and started eating more vegetables and seeds.  He even went as far as growing his own corn and having salads for breakfast.  That’s extreme, but you get the point: eat a ton of vegetables. The nutrients from vegetables are vital to recovery and staving off injury.

The Tarahumara are largely vegetarian. I don’t think vegetarianism is the optimal human diet but many of you might be vegetarians for certain health or moral reasons. If so, it’s vital to eat a balanced diet to make sure you’re getting enough protein and nutrients. The Vegetarian Guide to Conquering Your First Marathon is a great resource to make sure you’re eating well as a vegetarian through a hard running program.

Strength Work for Huge Gains

A huge mistake many runners make is not spending time getting stronger.  I am a big proponent of body weight exercises, core work, and general strength routines that can be done in the gym.  When doing gym workouts, I prefer to keep them short but intense.

You don’t necessarily need a gym and McDougall didn’t use one to get in shape to finish a 50 mile race.  He favored basic, compound movements like push-ups, squats, lunges, and ab work.  Many of the exercises were done on a fitness ball to strengthen his stabilizing muscles.  As he says in the book, “Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong.”

His next tactic was to run a lot of hills.  Frank Shorter used to say that “hills are speed work in disguise” and I agree but have to add that they’re also weight lifting in disguise.  Running uphill forces you to keep proper form while strengthening your entire chain of running muscles.  It’s entirely running specific which is why it is so effective.

Variety in his training routine was critical to building McDougall’s strength and preventing injury.  A weakness in most runner’s programs is that they stick to the same route at the same pace every day.  By running challenging trails, changing your pace throughout a run, and varying your workouts you can shock your body into becoming more resilient.  This is exactly what Christopher McDougall did: he got off the roads and onto the trails, did numerous strength exercises, and hit the hills.  Of course, he also ran in minimalist shoes.

Lessons Learned from Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Born to Run is an incredible book that reinforces many great principles from a sound training program.  While I disagree with the absolute fervor it has caused in the barefooting community, the book does remind us of how to train more holistically.  Some readers interpreted the message to be “abandon your shoes at all costs!” and have since started doing all of their training barefoot.

I see a huge problem with the direction these runners are going.  They are sacrificing performance for a barefoot ideology.  The vast majority of the population, and I’m even tempted to say everybody, will absolutely not reach their potential if all of their training is done barefoot or in a shoe like the Vibram Five Fingers.  They won’t be able to complete the volume or intensity of training necessary.

Instead, let’s focus on the big picture: fix your form, eat more vegetables and less processed food, strength train to build non-running specific muscles and increase your resilience, run more hills to get stronger, and vary your training.

Most runners don’t need to run in ASICS Kayano’s or other motion control shoes.  Pick a fairly neutral trainer with a low heel and implement barefoot running as a tool: wear flats or spikes for workouts and do some barefoot strides a few times per week.  Most of the injury-prevention and efficiency benefits of barefoot running can be attained with just these two adjustments.

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I want to hear your opinion on the book.  Do you think readers interpret Born to Run too heavily as a barefoot running book?  Has the book inspired you to train differently?  Leave me your thoughts in the comments!

Photo Credit: Stevie Rocco

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Comments

  1. There was a lot in Born to Run that fascinated and inspired me, and other parts that I couldn’t really get excited about (e.g., the dramatic arc of the final race).

    It has inspired me to start running hills — and I’ve discovered that I love it! And the whole idea of running so that it feels good — staying joyful and playful — has made a big difference for me.

    • Kim, I feel the same way. The aspects of the book about physiology, training, and evolutionary biology were really interesting. The final race was not as intriguing in my opinion. Run more hills! Cheers, – Fitz.

  2. Nice post, and I agree with your take on Born to Run. For me, the the most important message that I took from the book was to simply celebrate the fact that we can run, and to focus on the joy that running can bring to us. Unfortunately, much of this message has been lost in the barefoot running fervor that followed its publication.

    Pete

  3. Timothy Steele says:

    My brother read Born To Run, and he told me about it. We were both really excited about it. What I seemed to understand was that running shoes change your form, and that it’s better to run barefoot, or in minimalist running shoes. I just bought Vibram Five-Fingers and wanted to start running in them all the time.
    Is this not a good idea?

    Tim

    • Tim – I don’t think jumping into anything you’re not used to is a good idea, whether it’s a high-mileage program, barefoot running, or lifting weights 5 times per week. As with all things, build up slowly to prevent injury. I think that minimalism should be used as a tool and Alan Culpepper summed it up well in an interview when he said (and I’m paraphrasing), “Barefoot running seems more about lifestyle than about performance.”

  4. When I saw McDougall on John Stewart, I was so inspired that I went out and bought some VFFs right away. Actually, I had a friend bugging me to run barefoot for years beforehand, but I was convinced that I just couldn’t run because when I used to run I got shinsplints so badly that I couldn’t eve move. Anyhow, I actually read Dean Karnazes memoir before reading Born to Run. I found that I ran better in the VFFs, but I have certainly not been injury-free; I just have different injuries than before. I might pick up some racing flats, but otherwise I love running in the VFFs.

    I think that the book wasn’t about just one thing. It certainly wasn’t a manifesto on barefooting. It was about these amazing athletes in the Copper Canyons and about ultramarathons and the interesting bunch of characters he introduces us to. An adventure story.

    Thanks for bringing up the holistic training arguments. You are 100% right. I actually have some major fatigue issues and went off wheat and slowed down the processed foods and feel a thousand times better.

    • Hey Sarah,

      Thanks for stopping by. Born to Run is definitely a great story and is about so much more than barefooting. I own a pair of VFF Sprints but I don’t run in them. Sometimes I go for short hikes or do errands in them (grocery shopping in Five Fingers is hilarious!). I hope your injuries are being kept at bay and I’m glad to hear your fatigue problems are getting better! My fiancee has some of the same issues and she feels great on a paleo diet.

  5. Nice article Fitz, but just one point, i think many new runners infact have a way too short a stride, the problem is that many runners reach out in front of themselves leading to increased braking and impact forces!
    i think it’s much better to say ‘Don’t reach out in front’ that shorten your stride!
    Look at the really good african runners they have not only a very long stride but also a fast turnover, they have very good hip extention.
    Many runners have very tight hip flexors [ due to; sitting at work, in the car and at home] work on dynamic hip flexor stretches and your stride will increase without effort.
    Remember as your foot lands it stops on the ground [ zero speed] but your body keeps moving forewards [ lower leg rotates forward over the ankle joint, the faster you go the more momentum moves you forward over your foot, increasing hip extention, think of running on a treadmill with your feet being pulled back by the rolling road!
    A long stride is a good thing as long as you do not reach out in front and your stride increases behind you!

  6. P.S. most runners can improve not only there running but reduce injury by having a good posture, it’s not just about running tall, but means addressing the muscle imbalances many people have, just watch any local race and see how many runners have poor posture.
    i recommend the Trigger Point Performance workouts, really good and have helped me sort out a few issues i had with muscle imbalances and I’d been doing core training for many years!
    http://runwitharthurlydiard.blogspot.com/p/trigger-point-performance-self-massage.html

    • Rick – I agree 100%. I think advising new runners not to “reach out” with their legs instead of taking shorter strides is probably a better strategy. Thanks for your input – very valuable for all the new runners here.

  7. I enjoyed Born to Run when I read it in 2009. I think more than anything it opened up the possiblity of running long for me. Before then, I’ll I’d heard is that doing a marathon was bad for you, that it broke your body down, etc, mostly from my cousin who is a nurse. Born to Run opened up the whole ultra distance world for me and I found it fascinating.

    I think once I changed the way I thought about running (as bad), then my running became more fun and less stressful. I used to run with the notion lurking in the back of my mind that a knee problem was just around the corner. Instead, I started looking at how to train and make myself stronger so I could go longer and longer.

    I did buy a pair of Five Fingers. They have become my weekend shoes. I’ve always been the type of girl who kicks off her shoes as soon as I get home (they are often off under my desk as well). I walk around barefoot anywhere I call home and the Five Fingers let me “walk barefoot” into public places now (much to the embarassment of my nieces)! I do run in them a few miles a week but it really made me think of how much shoe I really need. I now run in the Five Fingers for easy, recovery runs, Adidas Adizeros for speed days, and Kinvaras for my tempo and long runs (used to be Brooks Adrenalines for my 1st marathon and Brooks Launch for my 2nd). It’s a work in progress but so far so good. My legs and feets seem to enjoy the variety and so do I.

    • You’ve certainly adopted a minimalist runner’s approach to shoes, that’s great. I think your shoe minimalism is helping you enjoy running and prevent injuries – it’s so much more fun, isn’t it?

      Like you, Born to Run opened a lot of doors for me and made me seriously consider doing an ultra marathon. It’s very inspiring to see what’s possible. I’ve even reread the book recently (and it’s just as good the second time around).

  8. I stumbled onto this thread a bit late, but I wanted to add what, to me, is the elephant in the room of BTR which no one ever talks about: the sandals that the Tarahumara run in are made of recycled tires. If you think about it, these have got to be thicker and more protective than the Brooks Beast! Yes, they’re flat (no heel rise), but there’s nothing minimal about them. They have absolutely nothing in common with the paper-thin high-tech sandals sold by Barefoot Ted and others.

    Don’t get me wrong, I own those and every other variety of minimalist shoes, and love them. But after attempting to run in nothing but that kind of footwear, I fractured my 2nd metatarsal. This is becoming known as THE 5 Fingers injury. During my 6 weeks of down time as it healed, I decided that it happened because I was forcing a forefoot landing and running on trails without enough protection. And this is after doing the transition just right (on the surface, anyway). I eased into it very very slowly over the course of a year or so.

    So be careful. And heed Jason’s advice: don’t get too ideological about minimalism!

  9. I recently read BTR. Found it very entertaining, and inspiring. Bought VFF and have two 1/2 mile runs completed in VFF. My plan is to slowly build up distance as my feet and muscles adjust. My question/concern is whether it is more dangerous to switch back and forth from VFF to my other shoes (standard New Balance) for training (will this confuse my feet/stride and increase chance of injury?), or just do all of my runs in my new VFF. Any thoughts for me?

    Btw, thanks for a great post!

  10. I agree people misinterpret BtR and that proper form is the point and not just ditching the shoes. However, going completely barefoot is the best way to get proper form, and once you get proper form you can wear whatever shoe you want (or continue barefoot like me!). Vibrams and the like HINDER proper form because they tend to cause people to do more than their weak feet muscles and tendons allow. I started in vibrams and ditched them when i saw that my hurting calves and foot pains disappeared when i went barefoot. When barefoot, if youre running with improper form (like too far up on the metatarsals and toes, not bending the knees enough) youll it will feel uncomfortable or get blisters right away, whereas with Vibrams you wont notice till your calves hurt A LOT and you might injury your achilles tendons (Ive seen it happen many times). Going barefoot lets you know immediately if you-re doing it right or wrong. I was cautious and i built up to 5k barefoot in TWO MONTHS… at month six I can now run 15k barefoot, no blisters no hurting knee. Everyone who starts out in vibrams, or the like, gets hurt because they do too much too soon. Start barefoot, start SUPER short (less than 3k bf a week, less than 1k bf per session) and add only 10% bf a week. Once you know you got the form down, wear vibrams, huaraches, or regular big cushioned shoes!

  11. What I took from BTR was that the human body is wonderfully made for running long. We all have the potential to do precisely that. The problem, I think the book points out, is that we too often get in our own way. Poor diets, harmful lifestyle choices, loss of community and meaningful social ties and a reliance on technology for quick fixes. When truth be told we already have all the necessary tools at hand.
    Perhaps above all, I took from it that trail running is one way to strip away some of the impractical crap, to reconnect, reinvigorate and have fun. The trails, compared to the road, are less about competition and more about community. I have not and likely won’t purchase any VFFs. Instead, I have moved from Brooks Beast to Defyance (neutral) and Racer ST and am eagerly awaiting the release of Pure Project. I have tweaked my form, embrace hills and live for trails now where it’s less about the finish and more about the journey. I think that would bring a smile to Caballo and the Raramuri.

  12. I have to say, i agree with much of what you said.
    I have just finished ‘Born to Run’, and I totally loved it. It was a beautiful reminder of the joy of running, and why we like to do it.
    The characters that were introduced to me were amazing and inspiring – more so, I think because they are real people, capable of mistakes but also capable of the most amazing feats – as a relatively new runner my eyes are constantly being showed how extraordinarly far people can push themselves, especially when it’s a joy not a push.
    On the barefoot topic, I did find myself occasionally picking spots I would argue with, but was also intrigued to try barefoot running in small doses, with the aid of someone who’s knowledge on the topic and human running form is far vaster than mine, to help correct my runing technique.
    Mostly, what I got from the book, was about how much I enjoy running outside and seeing the world go by, and yep, it has definitely inspired me to try some trails!

  13. I thought BTR was a great book. I enjoyed reading about people that love to run. I don’t agree with the claim that landing on one’s heel was led by Nike and the shoe companies. Runner’s World did more to promote that running style than anyone else. They used to publish article after article about heel to toe running. Look at many of their books – they feature pictures of runners landing on their heels! They used to rate shoes annually. The annual shoe issue was a huge seller. They rated them on all the features that have contributed to the injuries that runners experience. Other than that it is a great book!

  14. I find Born to Run more of a celebration of running than a how to guide. That being said, I’ve ditched my Brooks Beast, changed my form via Chi running and run barefoot occasionally.

  15. running is great

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