Talking with Christopher McDougall, author of Born to Run, it's easy to see what has made him such a great interpreter of athletic prowess for the general public.
Born to Run -- part travelogue, part sports narrative, part anthropological sketch, and part investigative report -- was a book about super-athletes written for the average athlete. Today, despite his celebrity among fans and running enthusiasts, McDougall continues to approach the quest for the best way to place one foot in front of the other with an amateur's humility.
"I feel like I'm still working this out in my head, so I'm glad to have the chance to talk about it," he said when SF Weekly reached him by phone to discuss his recent story on running form in the New York Times Magazine. "I feel like I struggle with form all the time."
The article, "The Once and Future Way to Run," expounds on one of the central premises of Born to Run: Efficient, healthy, and speedy running form is much easier to achieve barefoot, or in minimal footwear, than in expensive and over-engineered sneakers.
This idea, which has steadily gained currency in athletic and academic circles, is based on a simple observation -- for much of our history as a species, human beings ran without shoes, and did so across hard-packed, gravelly terrain that's actually tougher on the feet than today's city streets. The truth is that you don't even have to go into deep rewind to find people running beautifully in bare feet. Just take a look at this video of 1960 Olympic marathon champion Abebe Bikila:
Some disclosure: After reading McDougall's book about a year ago, I took up barefoot running -- fully barefoot, that is, only rarely using "barefoot shoes" such as the popular Vibram FiveFingers -- and never looked back. It hasn't always been an easy road, and I still find myself constantly adjusting my form. But the benefits have been abundant.
I'm running lighter and faster, and running is ... well, just more fun. (McDougall once likened running with proper technique to the "human equivalent of flight.") My legs, which have strengthened to better absorb shock in the absence of a cushioned shoe-heel, are perhaps in better shape than they've ever been. In fact, my left leg, which for a decade had suffered from weakened musculature after a blown-out knee and surgery when I was 20, is once again as strong as its counterpart.
In short, barefoot running, if you can forgive the saccharine phrase, is fun and good for you. But it's extremely difficult to teach. "The lingering question I had for a while is how you actually communicate proper running form," McDougall says. "It always seems like language is a terrible way to communicate movement." We might be born to run, but most of us need help recovering those instincts.
That's where the latest Times Magazine story comes in. More or less by chance, McDougall has discovered an astoundingly straightforward exercise that trains the muscles and the mind to run well.
It's called the "100-Up Exercise," and was invented by English distance runner W.G. George in 1874. McDougall explains it in this video:
That's all there is to it. But there's a lot of unspoken instruction packed into this deceptively simple drill. Plank-straight torso poise. Forefoot landings. Proper balance -- shoulders stacked over hips stacked over ankles. "It really emphasizes erect posture, rhythm, that sense of the leg hanging naturally right underneath the butt," McDougall says.
In the week I've been practicing it, the most immediate technical benefits of the 100-Up that I've noticed have been related to cadence. It's all too easy for a journeyman barefoot runner, trying to tread softly, to tense up and over-concentrate on his landings. That can lead to slower steps -- what respected barefoot-running coach Lee Saxby calls a "sticky" stride -- and unnecessary torsion on the ankles, knees, and hips as the legs are stretched beyond their naturally compact range of motion. By contrast, the 100-Up emphasizes the light, rapid patter that experts say characterizes appropriate running cadence.
But the best part about the 100-Up, as McDougall points out, is that you don't really need to describe why it works -- it just does. "That's why I think this is so cool," he says. "You don't need words. You just do it."
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