Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Check It Out: Born to Run

I recently read Christopher McDougall's "Born to Run," a firsthand nonfiction account of a 50-mile race pitting elite American ultramarathoners against the "Running People" -- the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico -- a tribe renowned for running with great speed over incredible distances in nothing more than thin-soled handmade sandals. The New York Times recently wrote about the book's central theses that (1) running is core to the path that human evolution took, and (2) therefore, it does not pose serious risk of injury if done properly:
“The sense of distance running being crazy is something new to late-20th-century America,” Mr. McDougall told me. “It’s only recently that running has become associated with pain and injury.”
The scientific evidence supports the notion that humans evolved to be runners. In a 2007 paper in the journal Sports Medicine, Daniel E. Lieberman, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, and Dennis M. Bramble, a biologist at the University of Utah, wrote that several characteristics unique to humans suggested endurance running played an important role in our evolution.
Most mammals can sprint faster than humans — having four legs gives them the advantage. But when it comes to long distances, humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. On a hot day, the two scientists wrote, a human could even outrun a horse in a 26.2-mile marathon.
So if we’re born to run, why are runners so often injured? A combination of factors is likely to play a role, experts say. Exercise early in life can affect the development of tendons and muscles, but many people don’t start running until adulthood, so their bodies may not be as well developed for distance. Running on only artificial surfaces and in high-tech shoes can change the biomechanics of running, increasing the risks of injury.
What’s the solution? Slower, easier training over a long period would most likely help; so would brief walk breaks, which mimic the behavior of the persistence hunter. And running on a variety of surfaces and in simpler shoes with less cushioning can restore natural running form.
(Despite my antiseptic write-up here, "Born to Run" presents a suspenseful tale and is a fun, exciting read, filled with bizarre characters and fascinating asides. Even if you're skeptical about McDougall's conclusions, I recommend it highly.)

After yesterday's flirtation with running, and given that I was too sore today for any resistance exercises, I decided to just go out and run, using the techniques McDougall described in his book (which are very similar to those detailed in "Chi Running," another terrific running book I read a few years ago).

I borrowed M's iPod, put on some music, and took off. I ran up the Ka'anapali beachfront path north to Honokowai, past a busy farmer's market and a bunch of tired looking resorts, and then turned around and headed back south for a few miles, criss-crossing more resorts, the beach, a golf course and a bunch of hotels.

After about an hour and fifteen minutes, I realized I wasn't tired or even out of breath. And although I've been a severe overpronator for as long as I can remember, my bothersome right knee didn't ache in the slightest. This isn't to say I didn't break a sweat -- I ran at a fairly brisk pace, and my perspiration was heavy enough to drown an unfortunate bug that landed on my shoulder. Even when I used to regularly run, I never ran eight miles on a hot day without feeling at least a little winded. But today, I felt like I could have easily kept going -- except for the fact that I had to head back to the resort to take the kids to the pool.

(By the way, when I say "take the kids to the pool," I literally mean "take my two boys to the kiddie pool to splash around and play on the waterslide" -- not "take a huge dump.")

Perhaps it's P90X that's responsible for getting me to the point where I feel like I can run forever, or maybe it's the new running technique. It's likely both. But whatever the reason, I'm just glad to be running again without pain.