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McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run, New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.  pp. 304. 978-0307266309 Hardcover. $24.95 (list)

DESCRIPTION: What’s Inside?

Born to Run - McDougall

Propelled by the question Why does my foot hurt?, Christopher McDougall goes in search of the answers that could turn the running world on its head. The adventure begins in Mexico’s Copper Canyons with an investigation into the secrets of the Tarahumara runners, who run for miles and miles with little or no injury… in little or no footwear.  As the journey continues, we meet many interesting characters, each with their own running secrets, learn of amazing athletic feats and what cutting-edge science can really tell us about running.  Enjoy the Runner’s High!

McDougall has been a wartime correspondent for the Associated Press (AP) and a contributor for Esquire, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, New York Times Magazine and Outside. He recently contributed a forward to Running on Empty, which was written by Marshall Ulrich; the book will be released on 14 April 2011. McDougall is also working on another book, “that has as much raw material as Born to Run“.

DISCUSSION: How is this relevant to the sport of Ultimate?

Well, this title really isn’t directly related to the sport of Ultimate or any Disc Sports, per se; however, after my previous blog post about buying cleats the idea of minimalist running footwear stuck with me.  I was in the middle of reading this book at the time, so it was suggested that I should include Born to Run in my disc sports book list to do some additional pondering about Ultimate players’ comments concerning tossing disc barefoot, which was started in the Ultimate Facebook “What cleats do you wear” survey. This is where I find relevance between the book and the sport of Ultimate. A title like Born to Run offers convincing arguments about improving your endurance and minimizing your injury by approaching running from a different angle, while possibly wearing a different footwear. So, are all of those barefoot and Five Finger wearing players on to something?

At the beginning of chapter 25, McDougall writes, “…running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot” (p. 168). And later adds, “before [Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman (founders of Nike)] got together, the modern running shoe didn’t exist. Neither did most modern running injuries” (p. 179). One of my reasons for not playing Ultimate barefoot is the fear of injury. Injury comes in two forms in my mind: being cleated or stepped on (which this book cannot dispute) and the belief that due to the lack of support I will be more prone to roll my ankle or experience other serious injuries. Not necessarily true. What McDougall learned from his research was that our feet become weaker from too much support, and “in fact, there’s no evidence that running shoes are any help at all in injury prevention. In a 2008 research paper for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Craig Richards, a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia, revealed that there are no evidence-based studies–not one–that demonstrate that running shoes make you less prone to injury” (p. 171).

Now does this remove all doubt in my mind that we should start competing barefoot? No, but it does make me wonder. Can going barefoot, or close to it, improve the strength and health of my feet and legs? Maybe. Is there a better way to run? Possibly. I’ve hucked disc with a number of players who choose to always go barefoot. And I’ve also seen Vibram Five Fingers used regularly as well. In both cases the player is quick and fairly sure-footed. Does  it make them a better athlete? I wouldn’t go as far as putting money on it. But the choice to do so works for them, and that is the most important thing. I can respect that. And when I’ve played in sand, barefoot, I always feel like I’m getting more of a work out. But is that the difficult surface or lack of footwear… probably both.

One factor for not going barefoot has to do with cutting and quick changes in direction, something cleats help with greatly; however, that isn’t something that this book addresses, so I won’t go into it. All I will say, concerning that point, is that traction is an advantage that cleats can easily claim and defend.

CRITICAL EVALUATION: Am I sold on his message?

Born To Run is a fun and thought-provoking read. The pages turn pretty quickly, and it isn’t bogged down by a lot of the intense, dry scientific research. What it does well is tell a good story about Ultra running. It introduces some unique and gifted athletes who are part of the long distance running community, and it brings a subculture of “barefoot”, minimalist-footwear running in to the spotlight. Maybe it is all good marketing, but I enjoyed the book. I liked the inspiring ideas related to being a “running people”.  Am I now a disciple who will join the movement…? I can’t say. I am intrigued enough to learn more, though.

That is one thing this text is lacking. McDougall doesn’t explicitly describe the Tarahumara’s mechanics, so his book doesn’t give you the specific answers or any major secrets. Occasionally there is a mention about form, but not much more.  In fact, I do not think it is his aim. Rather, McDougall hopes to open the reader’s mind to other philosophies on and approaches to running. So, I won’t cite this as a “make it or break it” short coming of the book; it still delivers a good story. If that is what you are looking for, you’ll find it. If you want answers and a personal training routine, you’re not going to get it. Still, I wish he had an appendix citing the studies he mentions in chapter 25 done by Dr. Craig Richards (a researcher at the University of Newcastle in Australia), Dr. Daniel Lieberman (professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University), or Bernard Marti, M.D. (University of Bern in Switzerland; here is an article of his).*

If you would like the book for your very own, you can buy it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Borders or at your local bookstore.

*Some of this material was added after the initial publication.

READERS ADVISORY: Keep Reading and Learning!

Not knowing a lot about Ultra Marathon running or the literature on the sport or its subculture barefoot runners, I can’t give you too many suggestions. However, these are the titles I came across that deal with the topic: Barefoot Running by Sandler et. al., ChiRunning or Natural Running by Dreyer, Running on Empty by Ulrich and Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner by Karnazes.

Also check out these sites: Barefoot Running Debate, Barefoot Running, Running Barefoot, Runner’s World,  Barefoot Ted’s Blog and Vibram Five Fingers.

Thank you for reading another one of my posts. Maybe this entry will increase my scope when selecting books to review, but I don’t plan on enlarging it too much because I still want the focus of my book reviews to be on Disc Sports. Cheers!