Book Review: Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

A fresh glass of iskiate, the wonder drink of the Tarahumara. I promise it tastes ever so much better than it looks.

My cool younger sister is training to run her first half-marathon next weekend (Go Shannon!). She has been asking me for a while to join her in training for a big run, but I always had an excuse at the ready: my knees and feet can’t take it; it’s too cold/hot/humid here to train like that; or it’s too risky with my heart condition. None of those are, strictly speaking, what you might call true, though for a while I did honestly think that my knees and feet weren’t up to the task. I just didn’t realize that I was running really, really wrong.

At her urging, I recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (available for Kindle, iBook, and Nook as well as on paper). I was so inspired by the tales of ultramarathoners, who are insane people who run seemingly insane 50-mile, 100-mile, or more races for fun, that I hit the pavement the next day with the intent of fixing my form and getting in shape to try one of these crazy-long races. 50-mile race, here I come!

Born to Run weaves an amazing yarn which leads to the conclusion that we humans not only can run extreme distances without pain, but that we evolved specifically to do just that. McDougall offers as evidence the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, a reclusive community of people who run for fun–run 300 miles in one race for fun. They do it smiling, barefoot, and without injury, perhaps because no one ever told them that running is supposed to cause misery rather than joy.

The book asserts that our modern problems with running come from the very shoes we wear to cure our modern problems with running. McDougall makes the argument that learning to run barefoot or with minimalist shoes will lead to running with a form that maximizes efficiency and minimizes the injuries that come from wear and tear. Too chicken to commit to running fully barefoot, I ran out and got a pair of low-cushioning shoes to try, and I unwisely pushed for a full three miles my first time out with them trying to run on the balls of my feet rather than striking with my heels. While my knees certainly felt much better, my calves hated me for days. And days. And days. Clearly I must still have been doing something very wrong.

To help me further refine my form I checked out ChiRunning, a website (and book, DVD, and training program) that McDougall mentions. This site and support material deal in greater depth with the biomechanics of painless running. Where Born to Run has served as an eye opener and inspiration to run, ChiRunning will, I hope, help me get there. I have a lot more work to do on my form, but it has improved quite a bit. Today I ran 6 miles in under an hour, and I did it with only a little discomfort in one foot. A year ago I would have thought that was impossible.

Born to Run tells us that the Tarahumara have a secret weapon that helps them run their impressive distances. It is a chia seed drink called iskiate, and I have been experimenting with it over the last two weeks before my big work outs. McDougall describes it as looking like dirty water from some kid’s aquarium science project, which is about right, but he’s also right that it tastes great (like limeade) and helps keep your energy level up during a long workout. If you can get over that it looks vaguely like pond water and frog eggs, I really recommend giving it a try. Here’s how I make it:

Iskiate
makes 1 glass

  • 1.5 tbs raw chia seed
  • 10 ounces or so cold water
  • 1 tsp or so honey* or agave nectar
  • juice of 1 lime (you can use 1/2 lemon, if you like, but I really prefer the lime)
  1. Put the chia seed in a tall glass. Pour the water in and stir. Add honey or agave nectar and lime juice and stir well.
  2. Let it sit for 5 minutes (in the fridge, if you want it really cold). The chia seed will gel. Stir it up and enjoy.

*a note on honey–most vegans don’t eat honey because it is an animal product. I am vegan for health reasons, and as such honey is no better or worse than any other natural sweetener.

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