Born again: Chris McDougall talks Born to Run 2

<span class="caption">Chris McDougall talks Born to Run 2</span><span class="photo-credit"></span>
Chris McDougall talks Born to Run

Back in 2009, there was revolution in the air. Or perhaps more accurately on the ground. Christopher McDougall’s seminal book, Born To Run, inspired a movement that radically reassessed our movement by looking at running through the lens of our evolutionary heritage. The book inspired millions not just to run but to run differently and holds a special place in many runners’ hearts, even if their Vibram Five Fingers have since lost prime spot in their shoe racks.

All that makes the recently released sequel a pretty big deal in the running world, so what can we expect from Born To Run 2? We caught up with the author to find out.

Runner's World: Born To Run was one of the biggest books in running history. What made you want revisit it?

Christopher McDougall: ‘I wasn’t planning ever to do a Born To Run 2 – to me that was a one-off adventure and I felt the curtain dropped at just the right point. I never intended to circle back, but I did for two reasons. I’d actually set out to write a different book titled King of the Weekend Warriors and I was writing it because I was disturbed by the “no pain, no gain”, “run yourself into the hospital” mentality that has been spreading through running. I call it the David Goggins effect – you know, you’ve got to destroy your kidneys or you haven’t really tried your hardest. It’s completely the wrong message to associate with running. So much of running is, unfortunately, associated with this idea that if you’re not uncomfortable you’re not doing it right.

So I stared to write King of the Weekend Warriors in which I focused on people I know who are very high-performing, skilled and accomplished athletes but who go about it with this complete sense of joy and fun and camaraderie. Then after about two years working on that book I realised I wasn’t writing it because I wanted to tell a story, I was writing it because I wanted to win an argument; that all I was really trying to do was to tell David Goggins, “Dude, you’re wrong”. That’s just such a sour way to present a book and I felt it infecting what I was writing. So, I hit pause and asked myself, “What is the opposite kind of book you can write?”. It’s about sharing something you truly believe that people really want to know and that’s when the second thing dawned on me: I’ve been getting requests for advice ever since Born To Run came out. I would say I’ve had in the hundreds of thousands of requests from people asking me for advice, and I never give it because I’m not that guy – I’m not a coach, I’m not a physiologist, I don’t know how to fix your injuries. Then it finally got through to my head that I know those people, so why not write a book that taps into that knowledge?’

RW: So how would describe Born to Run 2?

CM: ‘I look at it as everything that wasn’t in Born To Run is in Born To Run 2. There were two things I felt constricted by in Born To Run. Number one was that there are all these great stories and dramas in our sport but you can only include so many, so I wanted to include stories I thought were great but I couldn’t fit in the first book.

The second thing was that, at the time I researched and wrote Born To Run, I was new to the sport and I really wasn’t positive that any of this stuff worked. When I talked about minimalist running it was a case of, “Okay, I think this stuff works, let’s see…”. And it hit me that 15 years later, it’s working! So I could return to the training advice that after 15 years of putting it into practice I now know for certain genuinely works.’

RW: Do you think any of the messages in the original Born To Run have been misunderstood or misrepresented? And is part of Born To Run 2 about addressing this?

CM: ‘One of the big surprises to me with Born To Run was that people suddenly started to buy Vibram Five Fingers like crazy. I thought that was surprising because the only person in the book who actually wears Five Fingers is Barefoot Ted and he’s the wackiest dude in there. So it was interesting that of all the advice people could take, they zeroed in on Barefoot Ted. That was the one thing that I think was interpreted differently than I would have expected – this sense that you can buy a product and that’s going to solve everything. Or you can just take your shoes off and that’s going to solve everything. Because in the book I don’t run barefoot at all. Eric Orton specifically tells me, you can either train for a 50-mile race or you can radically transform your running form.’

<span class="caption">McDougall’s long-time collaborator Eric Orton (pictured) co-authors Born to Run 2 </span><span class="photo-credit"></span>
McDougall’s long-time collaborator Eric Orton (pictured) co-authors Born to Run 2

RW: How did co-author and long-term collaborator Eric Orton influence shaping the new book?

CM: ‘The idea I had was I wanted the book to cover all the aspects that he and I had been discussing for years. Our belief is that, unfortunately, we reduce running to just being an interruption in our lives – it’s that 45 minutes we carve out five days a week, then we go about the rest of our lives. But Eric and I share this belief that ancestrally, evolutionarily, running was completely woven into all aspects of our lives. It’s a tall order to suggest people do the same thing now because obviously we have lots of other things going on, but our belief is that there are these seven ancestorial sources of energy that we can all still tap into to make our running feel better – to enjoy it more and to get better at it. So I called him and said, let’s do this book and look at what we call the free seven. We’ve been having a conversation about the free seven for 15 years now, and on that initial phone call, in just 45 minutes, we sketched out the entire book. I’d only called him to say, “Maybe you and I can work on the form and fitness section and we’ll find someone else for footwear and someone else for food,” and so on, but he and I realised that we have accumulated such an archive of information that in one 45-minute phone call we had the outline of the book all sketched out.’

RW: Is that long-term relationship with Eric key to getting the right balance in the new book?

CM: ‘I think the reason why Eric and I work so well together is he is so knowledgeable and so disciplined as an athlete and I’m so limited attention span that I’ll push back. He’ll say, “These 15 exercises are crucial for foot strength” and I’ll say, “Dude, there’s no way I’m doing 15 exercises, you better boil it down to maybe three”. So between us we have that push and pull.

I think often when your coach tells you to do something you pretend that you’re going to do it, then you secretly don’t. But Eric and I have enough of a rapport that he can tell me to do something and I can call it and say, “No, I’m never going to do that. Give me something else”. I know he’s right but I also know that like a lot of people, if something is too unpleasant then after two weeks I’ll never do it again. So with foot strength we recognised that what we call the foot core is crucial, but he came up with these really simple exercises.

Here’s one: in the morning when you’re heating coffee, all you have to do is stand on one foot. Get up on the forefoot of one foot and let the other foot hang loose and just try to balance for a minute or two standing on each foot while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. You can do it for less than five minutes and it will activate not only all the muscles in your foot but all the way up your chain as you’re fighting for balance. It’s a great way to reawaken the system before you’ve even had a sip of coffee.’

RW: Has your opinion on running footwear changed over the last 15 years or are you still a minimalist man?

CM: ‘I think I’m more radical and extreme than even Eric is. The reason behind that is an interesting experience I had here in the UK while working on the first Born To Run. I was in the UK for a conference on fascia, and I started to get what felt like plantar fasciitis but I thought, that’s impossible because I’m a minimalist runner and my form is now perfect, so the theory is I should not have plantar fasciitis, what’s gong on? Then a friend suggested I talk to Lee Saxby.

At that time Lee was quite an unknown doing fitness and boxing training in a little gym in the basement of a small hotel – he was literally an underground footwear expert. So I turned up unannounced at this little gym and explained why I was there, and told him the reason why I wear these minimalist shoes is because I’m a minimalist runner. He looked at my shoes and said, “Those are like sofa cushions; those aren’t minimalist”. He made me take the shoes off and run barefoot outside. Then he said, “Okay, now throw those shoes in the rubbish and run back to your hotel”. I think it was about 3km back to my hotel and I said, “Really? Run through downtown London barefoot?”. And he said, “I would if I were you.”

So I took his advice and did it, and the pain went away. And it was such a lightning bolt moment for me. Firstly I realised I was so capable of backsliding. The shoe I was wearing was not a radically cushioned shoe, but it was enough cushion for my form to degenerate and for me not to notice. I had started to overstride and heel strike and I didn’t realise. The second thing I realised was that changing behaviour could change the outcome so dramatically. So I became the footwear equivalent of a reformed drinker – I can’t feel a drop of cushioning or my form will go to crap.

Eric runs in the Teton Mountains and likes a little more cushioning underfoot. In the new book we compromise and finally recommend a pair of shoes – the Altra Escalante – which to me is way too much shoe, but Eric feels is a great transitional shoe.’

<span class="caption">Eric Orton (pictured) has always been a firm believer in the benefits of hill running</span><span class="photo-credit"></span>
Eric Orton (pictured) has always been a firm believer in the benefits of hill

RW: Is it safe to assume you have no time for the current maximal trend in running shoes?

CM: ‘I think we have to understand that footwear is a sensual pleasure. Putting a different pair of shoes on your feet is like having a different meal for lunch or dinner. We don’t want to eat porridge three times a day, every day, we want to experience something different. So, I totally get it. I have a much broader variety of shoes than I need because it feels good. If I wear a Xero Shoe sandal and then the next day I put on, say the New Balance Minimus, that transition, that new sensation feels good. It can make your run more enjoyable so I understand the pleasure factor of a nice-feeling shoe.

However, to me, this constant bombardment of new stuff takes away from the real message which is the craft, the skill of running. If you go to a martial arts gym they are not loading you up with carbon fibre or cushioning – it’s very minimalist, very bare. If you walk into a ballet studio, again, it’s very minimalist. The idea is to start with nothing, master your body’s performance, and only add implements as necessary.’

RW: You champion a largely plant-based diet in the original Born To Run. What nutritional approach is recommended in the new book?

CM: ‘The real revelation to me in that area came with Natural Born Heroes, the book I wrote after Born To Run. It presented kind of a dichotomy for me because in Born to Run I was down with the Tarahumara who are by necessity largely vegetarian, living on a diet of mostly homegrown squash and corn. And the first ultra runner I met, Scott Jurek, has a very disciplined vegan diet. So for Born To Run my thinking was that this seems to work – people who eat real foods, mostly vegetables, tend to do very well.

Then I became aware of these resistance fighters during WWII who were pulling off these extraordinary physical feats on the island of Crete. They were living 60 miles up in the mountains, running 60 miles down to the coast, fighting the Nazis, stealing their weapons and then running 60 miles back up into the mountains. These guys were doing a 120-mile ultra marathon with some mixed martial arts in the middle. What were they fuelling themselves on? So I went over to Crete to check out what they ate and it turns out that their diet was radically different. Theirs was actually largely meat-based.

I was trying to figure out the connection between the two approaches and what it essentially comes down to is the glycaemic index. What foods are jacking up your insulin rates? What foods have that fast burn? So where we land in Born To Run 2 is a very simple, feeling-based orientation for diet. In the two-week test you eliminate all high-glycaemic foods for 14 days – pasta, rice, breads, sugar, anything that will be a fast-burn food. You eat things like salmon, meat if you like to eat meat, tofu if you don’t – all the low-burn foods. Then after two weeks you gradually reintroduce some of the high-glycaemic foods. After two weeks of no rice you have a little rice, wait an hour and see how you feel. If you feel fine, good, your body can tolerate half a cup of rice. Then try a full cup of rice and see how you feel. If you feel sluggish, bloated, then that’s your limit. What we try to do in Born To Run 2 is to make everything very feeling-based, so you can tell by your own body’s reaction how you react to footwear and food as well.’

RW: It seems that simplicity and the pursuit of what feels natural are recurring themes in your work?

CM: ‘What’s interesting is that all the things I become interested in like footwear, or diet, or running form, these are things that have really long, deep roots – great long ancestral pedigree. The shoes Barefoot Ted recommends, which I also feel are great shoes, those very basic sandals have a 10,000 year CV. Greek warriors wore them, Roman centurions wore them, the Tarahumara wear them and minimalist runners today wear them. The same is true of the eating plan we suggest in Born To Run 2 – it’s basically the Mediterranean diet. This is a healthy eating system that has been pursued by the healthiest people in the world for thousands of years.’

RW: What type of runner would you say this book is for?

CM: ‘We were aiming the dart right in the centre for everybody and we had a really instructive moment by accident. Eric and I were dedicated to having pictures in the book that show the diversity of running that’s often not visible – lots of different people, lots of different body types. We ended up doing the photos before the final text and we got a bunch of people together for the photoshoot, the majority of whom are very accomplished runners. But when we were putting them through some exercises for the purposes of illustrations for the book, we realised they were struggling. One elite half marathon runner’s glutes were so completely deactivated she couldn’t do the glute exercises. And what we realised is that no matter how successful a runner is, they are usually deficient in something. Essentially every runner has a potential catastrophe waiting to happen if they don’t look at their whole, universal approach. So we were aiming to thread the needle where we can do a reboot for every kind of runner: if you’re a beginner just starting out this is perfect; if you’re a veteran with a nagging Achilles pain you can’t figure out, this is perfect; or if you’ve plateaued so you’re not getting faster or longer, you’re just kind of muddling along in the middle, the idea is this could bring you back to a kind of factory preset and you can then build up from there.’

RW: Is part of that reset a change in attitude and approach in a more general sense?

CM: ‘Unfortunately there are two things that we’ve adopted as part of running, one is being solitary and another is accepting pain as the price of admission. But when you look back ancestrally neither of these were ever a part of how humans ran. You would never go off into the wilderness by yourself – if you did, you didn’t come back. Ancestrally we always ran as a group. And you would never drain your energy tank unless absolutely necessary because our legs were the only thing we could rely on for survival. If you went out and you ran your hardest for an hour and then trouble arose and you were all out of energy that was it, you were done. So ancestrally the way we ran was in a group and always within our aerobic threshold. We kept our heart rates low, we kept our effort moderate and we ran communally. Unfortunately that’s kinda gone, but when you return to it it’s very powerful. You see the success of parkrun – when we reintroduced the aspect of showing up in a group with a smile on your face, people loved it. In the US we’re seeing a lot of groups springing up where running is based around neighbourhood and community and they’re mushrooming really quickly. What we recommend is embracing the comfort and the fun of running, and that anything you can do to run with another loving creature – be it a person or a dog – will benefit your running. The key is bringing back that sense of joy, and of community. If you have those two elements you will go a long way to accomplishing whatever you want from your running.

Born To Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide, by Christopher McDougall and Eric Orton is available now

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