Born to Run Book Review

Elyses ClosetAs someone who loves running books, I was excited to read Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The book, written by Christopher McDougall explores the running culture of the Tarahumara, an Indian tribe in Mexico, known for their amazing endurance and running abilities. The book also touches on the culture and occasional quirkiness of ultrarunning.

When I started reading the book, I was about to be thrown into my first ultrarunning experience, not as a runner, but as an ultra- coach. I read with extra enthusiasm to really understand and hopefully absorb some of the culture. I wasn’t disappointed. McDougall introduces the reader to well-known ultrarunners, brings them into the culture of an ultramarathon race situation, as well as to an understanding of the passion needed to be successful in the undertaking of one of these life altering races.

McDougall infuses the book with many interesting notes and timely topics that appeal to runners across the board. For example, he argues that the sport of distance running becomes more popular during hard economic times because people are literally running away from their problems. He also talks about the business of running and the sometimes negative effects that the shoe companies can have on the sport.

Personally, one of the most interesting aspects of this book was the focus on barefoot running. Truthfully, reading it made me want to get out there and try the Nike Free or hop on the field for some barefoot striders, something I haven’t done since college. After chatting with my coach, who told me that the “running shoe is a wonderful invention.” I decided against it.

On the first day of my ultra-practice, I noticed that one of my athletes had the Vibram FiveFinger shoes on for practice, which offer no support, and are just one small step up from barefoot running. Our practices typically go through technically challenging trails, with a lot of rocks and rough terrain. Unfortunately, he ended up with a third metatarsal stress fracture, and has decided to go back to his normal training shoes upon his return to running.

As much as I enjoy reading running books, I often wonder how much of an effect they have on the culture of the sport, much like a shoe company such as Vibram or Nike. Reading a book like this, makes me want to sign-up and train for an ultra tomorrow, or even think about training in shoes that may not be appropriate for my training. Like the book states, these ultramarathons have exploded out of obscurity, but I wonder how much of that is being driven by books and even some smaller, niche publications.

Overall, I think this was an enjoyable read that was easy to follow, and will appeal to everyone from the casual runner to the competitive ultrarunner. If anything, this will be a book that will be discussed in the running community for awhile. Not only have most of my trail running athletes read it, but I have heard it being discussed on the past few long runs at my road running club.

Trail Goat’s Discussion Questions

  • If you’ve read the book:
    • What’s your overall impression?
    • Who were your favorite characters?
    • Did you agree with McDougall’s premise that less is more in the running shoe category?
    • Do you think the book is dangerous to individuals? To the sport of ultrarunning?
  • If you haven’t read the book, do you plan to do so?

There are 9 comments

  1. Derrick

    I read the book recently and did find it to be quite an entertaining read. However, I felt that it read much like a novel and may have been a little too sensationalized. I wonder how certain characters feel about how they were portrayed in the book? It did make me think of the classic 'Once a Runner' a lot and how there is some truth and some real people in there, but also a great deal of fiction and a story mixed in. It was fun to read none the less. There were a number of facts that were skewed a little too. The one that I giggled about the most was when McDougall mentioned that Matt Carpenter runs with a water bladder under his arm because he finds it more efficient/economical. Funny though as I remember reading Carpenter's race report (from his website) and that he once tried to stuff his bladder into his Camelback but it wouldn't fit so he had to carry it under his arm between aid stations. I'm just wondering now if there is going to be a trend of runners carrying bladders now in races ;-)As for the minimalist approach to running, I am a big believer in adding some barefoot/FF running to a program IF DONE WISELY/GRADUALLY and have recommended that with ‘most’ of the clients I coach. If it’s done properly, it will compliment your running, while helping to improve your efficiency and prevent injuries. I have worked on and off in running shops for over 25 years and just shake my head at some of the beefy shoes I’ve seen introduced and the resulting problems they’ve caused runners. Personally, I wore orthotics for over 15 years, but have gradually moved to the point in the past 5 years of supplementing a lot of barefoot/FF into my training, while wearing lightweight shoes on the trails (La Sportiva Skylites and Crosslites) for ultras. I’m running twice the mileage and much healthier now.Stripped down shoes make a lot more sense to me…having said that however, I probably wouldn’t recommend them quite to the extent that I do if someone were to tell me they had to run exclusively on pavement though.

  2. Trail Clown

    I loved the book, it captures the spirit of ultrarunning in a good way. I think it has a "sensationalized novel" feel as well, but mainly because the Cooper Mountains are a dangerous place not only because of the terrain, but because of the wacko local thugs, etc. I think the characters–from crazy Barefoot Ted to heavy drinkin' Jenn Shelton, to the uber-strange Caballo Blanco, all serve the book's purpose well. Which, for me, was to highlight the off-the-beaten-path nature of ultra trail running. Regarding the minimalist theme, Trail Goat knows that I ran the Bull Run 50 in Vibram Five Fingers, with both positive and negative results. Training (and ultimately racing) with the FF's cured my plantar fasciitis, but gave me a neuroma that only "healed" when I returned to more padded shoes. I truly think that if you are in super shape and there is no glass around, then going barefoot is great, even on rocky terrain. Shoes will help prevent injury if you are not ready to go barefoot, but the problem is, when you get in pretty good shape and want to start running fast in races, shoes can really hurt your feet, because they allow the feet to go faster than they normally would be able to. Much like all assistive technology (from airplanes to running shoes), going faster is possible, but it has an affect on the human's natural rhythms. It's not bad or good, it just is what it is.

  3. Michael Valliant

    I have read Born to Run and have to call it my favorite running book in terms of readability, storytelling, and inspiration. It was a great approach–McDougall can tell a great story and I wish I had his job :)Character development and narrative were great. I also wonder how the real people feel about how they were portrayed. I am a fan of the minimalist approach to shoes, but personally find I need a little bit of protection from stepping on and kicking things (have a friend who broke his toe in VFFs by kicking a hard-to-see root while we were trail running).Hard to read the book and not want to go out and ramp up your own running. Don't think I would look at it as a how-to typed running book, a la Lore of Running, but I've never wanted to sit and read Lore of Running cover to cover.

  4. Steve Bohrer

    I too really enjoyed the book. I've been battling plantar fasciitis for a year or so off and on. I know how to get rid of it (stop running), but don't want to without a path forward for getting back to running again while addressing the underlying cause. The shoe discussion rang true to me. It has never made sense to me that over half of the running population needs some kind of motion control or stability shoe. But I've faithfully rotated my shoes and always recommended that other runners do the same to avoid injury. Yet somehow all of us still get these running injuries. Watching my 10 month old learn to walk reminded me of all the baby advice to keep them out of shoes as much as possible so their feet develop properly. Then I watch my other kids run around barefoot. Then I started wondering about when exactly we make that switch to needing shoes to walk to the mailbox. So I ordered a pair of VFFs and I'm going to slowly start incorporating some barefoot running. Maybe I'll be trading for a different set of problems. But barefoot worked for millenia for our ancestors, why not for me?

  5. Sara

    I loved Born to Run. A great read. I took all 'facts' with a grain of salt, but did learn a lot and found it inspiring and entertaining.I agree with the 'less is more' as long as you go gradually and know your limits. I limit my barefoot running to a few short runs a week and keep it to smooth dirt and grass. I like that it gets me in tune with my own natural running stride and it strengthens my feet and lower legs. Plus, it feels amazing, very primal. I've introduced it gradually, and even that after a few years of wearing Free's and Slingshots for speedwork and shorter runs. I have a pair of Five Fingers, but I find that barefoot works better. Now that I've gone down this path toward more minimal shoes with a bit of barefoot thrown in, my feet no longer scream at me during long runs. I never thought in a million years they could ever feel this good. Also, my stride has improved, and I can wear less bulky shoes even for long runs now, which in turn helps my stride, strengthening and enjoyment all the more.

  6. Kate Braner

    Nike Frees + Five finger shoes are great for TRACK workouts. I would never use them for anything elseThe shoes are have been shown to strengthen natural muscles in the foot, which can be beneficial for any runner. However, like one of your runners found out, they can be pretty harmful if not used correctly. Great article Elyse, I'm so proud of you!

  7. Jeremy

    I loved the book. I too like most of you found myself wondering if it were in fact a novel. Great read though and perfect motivation!

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