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.

If you liked this article, get more of them by joining the Strength Running Team!

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
Get Stronger & Run Healthy

Join our free course to help you better prevent injuries, develop runner-specific strength, and avoid the big mistakes that get runners hurt