December 7, 2011

Born to Run: A Book Review Plus Some Thoughts on "Barefoot" Running

Jeremy on the road in Rock Creek

Ah, just got finished with a 3 hour walkabout through Rock Creek Park!  As you DC residents know, this entire weekend was absolutely beautiful, and it was a pleasure to be outside.

Beautiful Creek

As many of you know, there is a revolution of sorts sweeping the running and walking world.  That revolution is a turning toward “barefoot” running and walking.  I put “barefoot” in quotes because this movement refers both to actual bare feet, and also to the wide range of “minimalist” shoes – shoes that have soles that are only about 1/8″ thick or so.

The most famous is the Vibram Five Fingers shoes.  Yes, the ugly ones!  I swore I’d never get them.  Long story short, I have them.  And love them!  Here they are on my feet, trekking across a stream today in Soapstone Valley Park, a wonderful little extension off Rock Creek Park, just south of Abermarle Street near Tenleytown.

Walking Across a Stream in Rock Creek Park

Born to Run: A Book Review


Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, is a book about many things, one of which is an examination of the modern running shoe industry, and the genesis of the new “barefoot” running movement.

But it is so much more than that.  It is one of the rare books that I literally read for two days straight over a weekend.  (The last was The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman).  It is:

  • An anthropological adventure story into the heart of the Copper Canyons in Mexico in search of the Tarahumara tribe
  • A sweeping history and survey of the ultramarathon movement in the US
  • An amazing discussion of the evolutionary biology of human running – with extremely interesting ideas regarding the connection between the ability to run long distance, our unique physiology and brain structures among animals, and the concept that humans functioned as pack “endurance hunters”, essentially running their prey to death, without using weapons.
  • An inspiring story about a special group of runners and their relationship to running
  • And as mentioned, an indictment of the modern shoe industry, and a litany of scientists and medical running specialists weighing in on the pros and cons of barefoot running (mostly the pros)

Here is a video of Mr. McDougall explaining the whole thing in a TED talk – very interesting, well worth a listen:

Christopher McDougall: Are we born to run?

So, does barefoot help?  I’ll go on my sample size of one – a patient to whom I recommended Born to Run went out and bought Vibram Five Finger shoes before even I had gotten them.  Along with acupuncture treatments, which in his case were very effective for his knee pain, he literally has had no knee pain for months, which he credits in part to running both actual barefoot, and with the Five Fingers.

In my own case, the key was just actually trying them on.  Once I felt the intimate contact with the ground, and their overall feel, I was sold.

However, after wearing these shoes and breaking them in VERY gradually over 3 months, I will say, if you try to do your normal walking and running routines with these shoes right out of the box, you will most likely injure yourself.  It’s essential to adjust one’s stride to accommodate the lack of shoe cushioning.

But back to the book, it’s a great read, very thought provoking.  You can find Born to Run on Amazon if you want to check it out.

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