• Interview with Christopher McDougall

    Christopher McDougall is the author of Born to Run, a New York Times bestseller.

    Chris, first let me thank you for participating in a second interview with RunColo.com. When we did the first interview ďBorn to RunĒ was a few days from being published and you were starting your book tour. The book has now been out for nine months and currently sits at #18 on the New York Times bestseller list for non fiction. Did you ever imagine that your book would be this successful and spark such a debate in the running community? How many copies have been sold? Also, when will the book come out in paperback?

    Simon, great to hear from you again. Iíll always be in your debt for posting an interview about the book before the book even existed, and for hauling yourself out to hear me yap at Tattered Cover bookstore. I never knew what kind of reaction the book would get, but the one I least expected was this firestorm around running shoes. Iíd spent so much time researching running shoes over the past three or four years that by the time the book was nearly done, I assumed everyone already knew the benefits of barefooting running technique. The argument in favor of proper technique is so simple and powerful, and Iíd already been in touch with so many converts, that I had the feeling that it was old news and I didnít need to include it in my book. Glad I did, obviously. Itís really taken hold and helped a lot of people who, same as I did, thought theyíd never run again. The paperback comes out in August. I donít have the hard sales tally; publishers keep that close to the vest till near the end of the 1st year.

    After ďInconvenient TruthĒ Al Gore became the spokesperson for global warming whether he wanted the position or not. With the success of ďBorn to RunĒ you have been pushed to the front of the barefoot/minimalist movement as the de facto leader. How have you been handling it all?

    Luckily, I can always dish off to Dr. Lieberman at Harvard, or Dr. Irene Davis at the University of Delaware, or Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton, all of them barefoot runners and far more eloquent and knowledgeable on the subject than Iíll ever be. The only real challenge is reminding myself that itís a conversation, not a battle. Thatís why I turned down an invitation from Runnerís World to debate a podiatrist. Natural running is about learning and teaching healthy technique, not about scoring points off a guy who sells orthotics.

    Pete Magill refers to the barefoot movement as a fad. He talks about your legs starting to ache after 300 miles on a pair of running shoes because the midsole shocks on those shoes were actually doing some good. Have there been any studies that you know of that show newer shoes are better for you than older shoes? I used to religiously toss my running shoes at 400 miles, because thatís what I had been told; now I have 600 miles on my current pair and am pain free. Whatís your response?

    I think Dr. Lieberman put that argument to rest once and for all with his study in Nature magazine. He found that the collision forces when you heel strike in shoes are three times greater than when you forefoot strike in bare feet. Hereís the most remarkable part: when you forefoot strike in bare feet, the collision forces are virtually zero! So why not just forefoot strike in shoes? You can Ö unless, like most shoes, the sole is so thick that you have to point your toe up to clear the heel. There is no study whatsoever that indicates that midsole cushioning makes a heel strike in shoes more comfortable than a forefoot strike in bare feet. That 300-500 replace-your-shoes mantra is strictly a marketing ploy. There is absolutely no evidence to support it. And not coincidentally, 300-500 miles equates to about six months, which is precisely when the shoe companies are rolling out their new models and the running magazines are printing their best-selling issues of the year: the shoe reviews.

    Iíve seen a lot of criticism directed towards your book and the barefoot running movement calling it a fad. However, arenít the $160 training shoes the real fad? I guess I struggle to see how getting back to the basics can ever be a fad, what are your thoughts?

    Sure, it sounds freaky and looks funny to see people trotting around in bare feet or wearing bizarre rubber monkey shoes. But thatís only because what we consider normal is what is going on in America in the 21st century. On gigantic portions of the planet, and for the overwhelming majority of human history, back-to-the-basics was and is the ONLY way to run.

    Have any traditional running shoe company reached out to you since the book came out? What are your thoughts of the belated efforts of the shoe companies to bring minimal shoes to the market? Do you have any ties to Vibram financially and have they reached out to you to be a sponsor or spokesperson?

    Nope, no contact from the shoe companies and no ties whatsoever to Vibram or anyone else. Iíve given book talks and done some barefoot demos in running shoe and outdoor stores that sell minimalist shoes, but thatís the same as I do with schools, bookstores and running clubs. I did have a fascinating conversation with the CEO of Brooks Running Company, which Iím about to post on my website. He seemed genuinely befuddled about the way forward, because for him, it is a genuine problem. And the problem is this: ultimately, itís all about teaching safe technique, but whose job is that? The podiatrists certainly arenít helping, as he pointed out. ďI talk to a lot of podiatrists,Ē he said. ďThese guys are selling orthotics like theyíre McDonaldís hamburgers.Ē

    Greg Crowther takes issue with your book calling it Born to Hype and the injury rate of runners, stated in the book, who run in shoes, how would you respond to his assertion? Also, in those studies do you know how they define an injury; is it only an injury if it prevents the person from running?

    He doesnít dispute the numbers; he just doesnít agree with the forceful way I present them. As he puts it, Iím ďnot incorrect.Ē But itís important to be forceful. Poor technique is injuring a lot of people, and scaring away many others who wonít even try running because theyíre convinced theyíre going to get hurt. I donít care how an injury is defined. If itís bad enough for people to ding a box on a survey, then itís bad enough to make them associate running with pain. And if you want to prevent anyone from performing any action, thatís the way to do it: threaten them with pain.
    I address a lot of these questions in a piece I posted on my website:

    Do you think there is difference in running with Vibrams versus an ultra lightweight racing flat like the Asics Piranha? The Piranhas are actually lighter than the Vibrams but obviously still a shoe.

    Hereís something weird, at least for me. I had this conversation with Dr. Davis recently, and I tried to make the case that minimalist shoes (racing flats, water shoes, moccasins, whatever) were as good as bare feet. She shot me down. She said that once you cover up all those nerve endings in the foot, youíre taking a step backward. Youíre losing ground awareness, stability, balance, all kinds of key input that you can only get from a naked foot. Then, she proved it to me. She had me run three tests on her force-impact treadmill: first in bare feet, then in fivefingers, and finally in the Nike Free 3.0 (the thinnest Frees on the market). When I put on the Frees, they felt so thick and deadening that I had to stop and rip out the insoles. Even that way, I had trouble sticking my landings and finding the sweet spot for footstrikes. It felt like stumbling around in the dark. It was the first time Iíd ever found myself on the losing end of an argument about whether too little is too much. I got her point: sometimes terrain and weather will require you to put on some protection, but given a choice, bare is best.

    Do you have an update on the Tarahumara and have you been back to Mexico since the book has been published? Also, what your thoughts on stretching and core work to reduce/prevent injuries, Iím guessing the Tarahumara donít stretch for 20 minutes after a long run or do crunches.

    The book only came out in May, so I havenít been able to get back to the Canyons since then. I hear from Caballo often, and Iím psyched that heís not only putting the race on again this year, but expecting a staggering number of runners --- hundreds of Tarahumara and more than 60 of us non-Tarahumara folks. As for Tarahumara warm-ups, Caballo likes to say that the Tarahumara stretch is otherwise known as a nap.

    Whatís next for Christopher McDougall, are you working on a new book? Have you had any offers to turn the book into a movie?

    Yes, Iím working on a new book now that I think and hope has as much good raw material as ďBorn to Run.Ē Iím hideously slow and doubt-plagued, so it wonít be out the door for another two years. Film rights for Born to Run were acquired by the same producer who did the Bourne movies and Benjamin Button, but Iíve got no clue what happens next.

    Lastly, do you have any racing plans for 2010 and how has your current running been going? I know you mentioned to me an email that you had broken your small toe twice while running on trails in the Vibrams at night, has that made you switch over to a pair of Brooks Beast?

    Yup, that is one drawback of the Fivefingers: they donít mix well with testosterone. Twice, I was pushing too hard on a rocky trail as the sun was going down, and twice Iíve snapped my little toe (once on either foot). I thought I was the only dumbass out there with that problem, but Iíve heard itís happened to a few other guys as well. I met a Special Forces officer in North Carolina recently whoíd done the exact same thing, and we both agreed that there is no greater pain-per-square-inch than smashing the tar out of your pinkie. The good news is, you can still run with a broken toe in either bare feet or open-toed sandals. The first time I broke a toe, I ran a 10k trail race 3 days later in my bare feet. The second time, I went trail-running the next day in a pair of Tevas with no trouble. Iíve been having a great year of running, apart from the fractures, and itís been a blast to just charge out the door every day with no thoughts of distance, or destination, or upcoming races. Just having fun.
    Comments 7 Comments
    1. georgezack's Avatar
      georgezack -
      Like many other things in life, we seem to have lost the forest for the trees here ...

      Our broader message here is running ... or maybe even more "forest" is movement. As runners, we are encouraging folks to move, or move faster. If a person is more inclined to move / run more without shoes than with them - I am for that. If a person prefers to run with low profile shoes, then I am for that. And if they want to run in combat boots I am for that.

      The forest here is promote running and movement regardless (generally) of how that occurs - to promote fitness (given the health problems we have in our country). In other words, the big choice here is not to give up shoes or not, but to give up other life style choices and embrace running - movement.

      However,I think it is agreed that most people new to running will struggle to some degree to run without shoes to start. So I am inclined to think that getting somebody off the couch and telling them to run without shoes - as everything they know about running is wrong, may not be the best way to introduce them to the sport (but varied by individual).

      At some point, most folks embrace some level of competition in this sport. Again, if you find the best success in running in shoes, track spikes, road flats,combat boots or no shoes - because they make you faster, prevent injury, or you just like the feel of it or the message it provides - great. (side note, I have wondered if since you are able to deliver a greater force through the foot with shoes that translates into more kinetic energy and hence faster running for athletes of equal fitness with shoes over those without). Last I checked, there were no awards for running a race with shoes over no shoes.

      Given we are "Born to Run", I'd say "Let's Run" and embrace that lifestyle of movement as the general principle first versus making this shoe / no shoe thing the make or break topic in our running.
    1. jmock's Avatar
      jmock -
      George, you mention awards for running a race without shoes - over the past year one of my big ideas has been a Barefoot 5K (or "Five Fingers 5K"). Make it into a national series like SkirtChaser. Have it on a grass course with some hay bales to jump, mud, etc. I think it'd be a hit. I looked into buying the domain "Barefoot5K.com" several months back and someone in FoCo had beat me to it by a few weeks.
    1. Nick Clark's Avatar
      Nick Clark -
      Justin - use your imagination: "unshod5k.com," "barefeet5k.com," "5kbarefoot.com," "myfootisbare5k.com," "barefootmile.com," " barefootfivekm.com," "grassbarefoot5k.com." The options are endless.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -

      I think perhaps you're mistaking one forest for another. What is new about this movement isn't that running and exercising promote fitness. What is new is that it is possible to successfully challenge common perception and marketing (that running shoes prevent injury and make running safer and easier) by, first, referencing an ancient, uninjured running culture (the Tarahamura) and people (Barefoot Ken Bob), and then science (the Harvard study).

      So: yes, movement is important. Movement rooted in ancient biomechanics is probably better than movement in shoes that appear to have almost no proof of worth. Does it not make sense to start out with at the very least the least harmful way of doing something? What is the rush? Perhaps it's best to take 2 months of walking frequently barefeet, rather than starting from nothing and using running as your chosen exercise. Your feet are not the only part of your body that lose mobility and strength from a sedentary lifestyle. In mobility circles they call this "use it or lose it." So until you get your joints mobile and lubricated again, and your feet strengthened and somewhat calloused, it's healthier for your joints and connective tissue to do less impactful exercise. And, as the Harvard study has shown, running in shoes is a quite impactful way of getting movement in.

      What Born to Run showed me is that humans can run without hurting themselves. It did not convince me that running is what everyone should immediately hop up and do. Why? Because running is a skill, and it is a skill that is best learned by running barefoot.
    1. Ridgerunner's Avatar
      Ridgerunner -
      While I throughly enjoyed the book and would like to incorporate the concept of barefoot running to some degree, for me, barefoot (or minimalist) running will simply be a tool I'd like to try to help strengthen my feet which if done properly should only be beneficial. I remember running barefoot quite a bit down in Florida and up until about middle school but that was before I really took up running. The soles of my feet were tough back then but are truly wimpy now. We'll see how it progresses but I don't see myself becoming exclusively a barefoot runner.
    1. ESCO's Avatar
      ESCO -
      Mike, I agree, pretty hard to run exclusively in the Vibrams or barefoot, I think. However, I am now doing all of my running in racing flats and am having no problems, my feet have also gotten a lot stronger from running in flats, Vibrams and going barefoot more.
    1. Unregistered's Avatar
      Unregistered -
      Just ran across this and saw that my contention of a 300-500 miles per shoe rule is disputed as being nothing more than a "marketing ploy" developed by shoe companies - you know, since that equates to about six months of use, the time between new model releases.

      A few things:

      1) Far from letting shoe companies dictate how long we wear our shoes, most runners developed this "rule" independently. Put simply, we noticed back-in-the-day (1970s and 1980s) that we'd start feeling aches and pains when we'd put a certain amount of mileage on shoes. If we were running 100 miles a week, this generally happened about 300-400 miles into a pair of shoes. At less mileage (say 50 miles a week), we could go 500 or 600 miles before developing aches. In fact, since most of us DON'T count the miles on our shoes, we'd sometimes start developing aches and pains and think we were getting injured ... then suddenly realize we were due for new shoes. With new shoes, the aches and pains vanished. Like most of what we do in running, we discovered this without needing a study to tell us what to do.
      2) Far from McDougal's 6 month hypothesis, most of us went through our shoes in anywhere from 3 weeks to, at most, two months. 6 months would have worn right through the soles, midsoles, and insoles ... hey, we would have been running barefoot!
      3) I've never been a heel lander in my life. Most elites aren't. So the contention of heel strike force versus forefoot strike force is a red herring ... it simply isn't relevant to the way most top runners run. And even then, our bodies have an enormous capacity to adjust to the forces involved in running.
      4) My entire team trained barefoot in high school. And we suffered from shin splints, plantar fasciitis, sprained ankles, tweaked ligaments, broken toes, and even bee stings (my foot swelled up so badly after stepping on one bee that I was out for a week). I remember doing repetitions on a golf course where we had to run over sharp gravel for one stretch. We'd all slow way down for that section. Even so, I bruised my foot so badly once that I had to skip the rest of the workout.

      I think there's a lot to be said about getting out of shoe tanks, finding something more natural, and improving our stride. But I also think that argument can be made without twisting facts and creating strawmen out of those who don't support barefoot running as the answer.

      In any case, good luck to all runners - barefoot and shod!

      Peter Magill
      90-100 miles per week in shoes
      No running injuries in 4 years
      2009 USATF M45-49 Runner of the Year
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