Chris McDougall on “the one true way” to run


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- Alex Hutchinson (@sweatscience)


[UPDATE Nov. 8 : Chris McDougall sent me an e-mail asking that I correct several errors in this blog entry. His description of the errors, along with my response, is here.]

I’ve had a few e-mails asking what I thought of Chris McDougall’s piece “The Once and Future Way to Run” in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, so I figure I might as well share those thoughts here.

1. Chris is a great storyteller and an engaging writer. I really enjoyed Born to Run, and I enjoyed this piece too. I think the running world is better off now that there’s greater awareness of the potential benefits of running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, and people have another option in the search for a running approach that works for them. I’d go so far as to say that McDougall has done more than anyone else in the world over the past two years to bring new people to running and create excitement about its possibilities.

2. What about the science in the article? I can’t really critique it, because there isn’t any science there — it’s all anecdote. For a thorough and balanced take on what the science does (or, more accurately, doesn’t) tell us about the quest for running perfection, read Pete Larson’s response to the article. He’s the evolutionary biologist quoted in the opening scene of McDougall’s article. Larson’s cautious middle ground is probably not what you’d expect if you’d just read McDougall’s article without knowing anything else about Larson.

3. What about W. G. George’s 100-up exercise, a century-old drill that McDougall suggests may be the “one true way” to develop perfect running form? This is where I start rolling my eyes, when he attributes a series of personal best performances to this magic drill:

“I don’t get it,” [he says at one point in the article,] “I’m four years older. I’m pretty sure I’m heavier. I’m not doing real workouts, just whatever I feel like each day. The only difference is I’ve been 100-Upping.”

Oh, please. For one thing, four years ago was, by his own account, roughly when he finally “learned to run” for the first time. If he’d been unable to run for years, and then learned to run, his improvement now compared to four years ago is likely due to something we call “training.”

Incidentally, the 100-up is a drill that modern runners call the “running A.” Virtually every competitive runner I know has done it at some point, and it’s a basic staple of every elementary school track camp. I was first introduced to it more than 20 years ago. So does that mean that McDougall is right, that it’s the secret that makes good runners fast? Of course not. It’s one of the many, many tiny ingredients that can add up to running success. There’s no secret, and no short cut.

4. The one part of the article that made me kind of angry was this passage, about McDougall’s visit to the Copper Canyon in Mexico that led to Born to Run:

I was a broken-down, middle-aged, ex-runner when I arrived. Nine months later, I was transformed. After getting rid of my cushioned shoes and adopting the Tarahumaras’ whisper-soft stride, I was able to join them for a 50-mile race through the canyons. I haven’t lost a day of running to injury since.

I actually interviewed McDougall back in 2009, shortly before Born to Run came out. And that’s not the story he told me. Here’s what I wrote then:

Long plagued by an endless series of running injuries, he set out to remake his running form under the guidance of expert mentors, doctors and gurus. He adjusted to flimsier and flimsier shoes, learning to avoid crashing down on his heel with each stride and landing more gently on his midfoot. It was initially successful, and after nine months of blissful training, he achieved the once-unthinkable goal of completing a 50-mile race with the Tarahumara. But soon afterwards, he was felled by a persistent case of plantar fasciitis that lingered for two years. “I thought my technique was Tarahumara pure,” he recalls ruefully, “but I had regressed to my old form.” Now, having re-corrected the “errors” in his running form, he is once again running pain-free.

I’m in New York right now, and won’t be back home until Monday night, otherwise I’d see if I can dig up my actual notes from the interview. But I remember McDougall telling how stressed out he’d been, because he’d spent all this time working on a book about the “right” way to run — but as the publication date loomed ever nearer, he’d been chronically injured for two years. It was only shortly before publication that he was able to get over the injuries and start running again.

So does this prove that barefoot running is a sham? Of course not. Injuries happen, with or without shoes. But it points to a fundamental dishonesty in the way the story is being told. He’s not disinterestedly sharing with us the results of an experiment he performed on himself; he’s deploying all his rhetoric to make as convincing a case as possible for one side of an argument that (as Pete Larson explains) is much more nuanced than he pretends. I’m not a big fan of “science by anecdote” under any circumstances — but if you’re making up the anecdotes, then what have you got left?

40 Replies to “Chris McDougall on “the one true way” to run”

  1. Beware of successful writers. There’s a tendency, irresistible for some, to bend the facts to make a point, especially if it’s a bright, shiny one. E.g., McDougall sets up Ann Trason at Leadville in “Born to Run” as the icon of the evil western winner-at-all-costs approach to competition, and the Tarahumara as the oh-so-sweet natural primal creatures of nature. Well, the Tarahumara spend one-third of their waking lives either making or consuming beer; individual differences allowed – not my role models. And the Trason that I knew was incredibly generous with advice and encouragement to slower runners. You probably won’t find McDougall standing at the turnaround in the Quad Dipsea, handing out drink cups to old farts like me, for no gain at all except the implicit satisfactions of expanding her awareness to embrace others’ realities. That said, I liked the Times article, even thought the 100-ups seem likely to accomplish not much more than Lydiard hill exercises or Pete Magill’s plyo/skipping. I believe McDougall is generally a force for good; just wish he would focus more on serving others rather than on getting them lined up behind him.

  2. I agree that with one point McDougall makes in his article – you need to lean forward from the ankles. I find that most barefoot runners essentially run like they did with shoes. There might be short term improvements, but old problems often return or new ones develop. It is less the shoe and more the form.

  3. Nice post. I hate dishonesty, it only sets us back. Chris McDougall was dishonest for not revealing his plantar fasciitis injury and I’m glad you brought it up. I’ve been having Achilles/calf problems ever since I’ve switched from a heel to a forefoot strike.

    It wouldn’t have stopped me from switching my form though. I had a lingering knee injury that prohibited me from running when I was heel striking. I tried everything. Saw doctors, got an MRI, did physio and nothing helped… until I switched to a forefoot strike. Even with my Achilles struggle, I can’t imagine ever going back.

    Okay, so I just gave you another anecdote :). But that’s where it usually starts. The science to support it comes later.

    Denying some of the pro forefoot evidence shown by Lieberman would be just as dishonest. It would also be dishonest to not reveal all your injuries as a heel striker. You seem to be on the fence about foot strike but there’s always a subtle “pro heel striking” nuance in your writings.

    There are two reason why I forefoot strike.

    1. I don’t get sore knees and I don’t get sore quads when running. Anecdotal and subjective, I know. But until a study that shows the damage to my muscles while I’m running, that’s the only thing that I can offer.

    2. Long distance running performance is highly dependant on the capacity of tendons to store and release energy like struts.

    Here’s a better description of what I mean.

    The results of this study make it clear that the spring-like action of the Achilles tendon acts to significantly lessen the metabolic expense of running by reducing the work load on the muscles (which consume calories, generate heat and require removal of waste products such as lactic acid). By passively storing and returning energy, the Achilles tendon allows the leg to behave like a very efficient pogo stick.

    Managing Achilles Tendon Injuries

    A forefoot striker engages the largest and strongest tendon, the Achilles, much more than a heel striker.

    During running, muscles and tendons must absorb and release mechanical work to maintain the cyclic movements of the body and limbs, while also providing enough force to support the weight of the body. Direct measurements of force and fiber length in the lateral gastrocnemius muscle of running turkeys revealed that the stretch and recoil of tendon and muscle springs supply mechanical work while active muscle fibers produce high forces. During level running, the active muscle shortens little and performs little work but provides the force necessary to support body weight economically. Running economy is improved by muscles that act as active struts rather than working machines.

    Muscular Force in Running Turkeys: The Economy of Minimizing Work

    The problem with testing efficiency between a heel striker and a forefoot striker is that the heel striker’s Achilles is not trained. So you can’t just take a heel striker, put him on a treadmill and compare the efficiency of both forms. We’re still years away from having indisputable scientific evidence that a forefoot strike is more efficient for long distance running but that’s the fun part. It’s what makes this subject exciting.

  4. I love anecdotal evidence — when I’m the one gathering it.

    Or to put it another way, if it feels good, I must be doing something right. It’s easy to experiment when I’m running, try out different ways of doing things, get feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

    As long as you’re not making crazy, radical, sudden changes (especially with shoes), it’s not like your leg is going to fall off if you make a mistake.

    So good for McDougall. I’m glad it’s working out for him. But if he really thinks that I should assign his experience more value than my own, he really needs to get a better grip on reality.

  5. Last paragraph in #3 is key to me here. NY Times article calls the form drill a “lost secret.” It’s neither. I would give McDougall the benefit of the doubt that an overeager editor had came up with the hyperbolic description, but with McDougall’s track record, I bet it’s all him.

  6. G’day Alex, good response. Chris McDougall is an engaging writer, but the solutions put forward, as you and Pete have pointed out, are narrow and one dimensional. Just shucking off the shoes ignores the fundamentals that all good runners share, which has more to to with hip strength and stability than footwear or foot-strike. Having said that I reckon wearing less shoe can help stimulate improvements, but it’s a relatively small piece of the puzzle and one that should be adopted in a very gradual step-down approach. Going straight from traditional trainers to barefoot or zero drop is a recipe for disaster – there are plenty of good light weight flexible shoes in between that give many of the benefits without the risks. Cheers Brian.

  7. I enjoyed Born to Run, but it was really loose with facts and critical interpretation. Trying to correlate running with moments of social anxiety might have been his most ridiculous example, but there were just pages of insanity.

  8. Great article! I had the pleasure of meeting Chris McDougall while we were both attending a course with Tom Myers. Chris seemed to be on the search for the “cause” of his running problems and his book hadn’t come out yet. I loved his book and found it useful for some of the variety of info he provided, but none of what I found useful had anything to do with barefoot running itself, instead I found the insights from the fellow who studied the tribe in Africa and some others to be interesting. I lent the book out so don’t have it to reference exactly what I’m writing about.

    He told me that when he wrote the book, barefoot running seemed to be the “answer to his foot problems”, but they returned and now there he was at an Anatomy Trains class trying to understand what may be the cause of his pain. So, the book was obviously a personal journey.

    I think barefoot running is great, but it is also a fad in the sense that runners will buy Vibrams and then run their usual 15-20 mile runs three times a week without any barefoot experience. That in itself is cause for injury. Quite common from what I hear from chiropractors, ART practitioner, physicians and PT’s as they are all seeing an influx of feet & calf issues from wearing those shoes. You can’t expect that a person who has worn shoes all their life can suddenly stress their feet out barefoot and not get flak for it. Personally, I have gone many years barefoot and wear the Vibrams at work with no problems, but again, I’ve spent enough years barefoot that my feet have developed the strength to handle those shoes on a regular basis with no problems. And, I’ll add, that barefoot running certainly has NO place on asphalt or concrete surfaces no matter how used to being barefoot.

    My opinion of the book was that Chris was excited to learn about a new way of running and as it helped (temporarily) ease his pain, he was excited to share it with the rest of us. Unfortunately, his pain returned, but we are still left with an engaging story and some interesting things to think about the human race.

  9. It is good to finally shed some light how the things with the barefoot running of the main hero really were … This was the main thing I was wondering during the reading of the book, how for the goods sake, the runner could transfer to barefoot running without any injuries and health problems ? It was a little bit unfair from the author to picture the whole running theory so black and white … Anyway, I have to say, I enjoyed the reading 🙂

  10. I agree with you Alex. McDougall is a very entertaining writer but has a flair for being overly dramatic. The 100-up is a fantastic drill but its certainly no long lost “secret”. The 100-minor is a range of motion and hip flexor strengthening drill and the 100-major is a neuromuscular plyometric exercise. Running coaches have been doing this for decades as you pointed out.

    I think the minimalist/barefoot approach has been very effective at emphasizing the role of running form/technique for the average runner. But I think the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction and form is being presented as the be all and end all to prevent injuries and maximize performance.

    The reality is the best method to do either (or both) is to have a well-thought out training program that is individualized to your particular abilities, experience and response to training. Running form/technique is part of that but so are many other factors (volume, recovery, nutrition, strength work, flexibility). You can run with perfect form but if you exceed your particular musculoskeletal limits you will get injured.

  11. @Sean Thanks for the study and it was done in 2004!

    The knee power absorption and eccentric work were significant lower (P < 0.05) in Pose than in either heel-toe or midfoot running. In contrast, there was a higher power absorption and eccentric work at the ankle in Pose compared with heel-toe and midfoot running.

    Pete Larson posted a video of his 18 month old son running in slow motion. The running was interesting but what really caught my eye was his foot strike while walking. Surprisingly, it was a forefoot/midfoot strike!

    So I decided to do an experiment. I went for a brisk 90 minute walk with a forefoot strike. I’m sure I looked strange and a little light in the loafers to the bystanders. At first, it didn’t feel natural but it felt really good and smooth. During the walk I would occasionally and intentionally land on my heel to compare the impact and the heel strike was awful. I could feel the impact of my heel drive into my hips. Maybe we should be walking on our forefoot as well.

  12. This post just shared with me. I’m the doc in the story. and yes it is a story, not a scientific paper. a good story stirs emotion and opinion…so love the comments.

    a clarification. the “100 up” much different than “A” skip, which is an elastic skip. I do A skips and they are great for range of motion and keeping elastic recoil awake. the “major” of 100 up is much harder. you land on ball of foot and stick the landing…you stabilize and then take another step. Massive amounts of foot control and strength with perfect balance. this equates to running as foot control and balance are critical.
    Chris shared my NYT comment here which is some story telling, but lots of truths of experience come out.
    We are all experiments of 1. mine continues in 2 weeks with a 50 milers after 2 quick marathons as a 45yo.
    Get out and run and try something new.
    Mark Cucuzzella MD

  13. Regarding “the one true way”, an interesting TED Talk was posted this week by Daniel Wolpert explaining how through evolution the human body moves in such a way as to limit large forces, and more to his point, minimize negative consequence of noise in our sensory commands. It would be interesting to see a study on the variation of a foot plant when heel striking and when forefoot striking to see if barefoot running allows for more predictable and therefor more specifically trainable movements.

  14. Thanks Alex, I really enjoy reading all your posts but found this particularly interesting because I have been thinking about barefoot running a lot lately. I think it is a great training tool to help people learn to run more effectively, but I believe that if you know how, you should be able to run properly in any type of footwear. I think the problem is many people now see Chris Macdougall as an expert when he has really just popularized a topic in a similar way to books like Talent Code or Talent is overrated have used other poeple’s research and brought it to the mainstream and benefited from doing so.

  15. Thanks for all the interesting comments, folks. A couple quick points:

    @Richard: “You seem to be on the fence about foot strike but there’s always a subtle “pro heel striking” nuance in your writings.”

    I like to think of it not as “pro heel striking” but as “anti making things up.” I hoped that the very first point in my blog post would make it clear that I think the “barefoot revolution” has been, on balance, a very good thing for the sport. What I object to — and this is true whether we’re talking about barefoot, paleo diets, dietary supplements, ergogenic aids, training techniques, or whatever — is when people take a good idea (running barefoot can help you shift to a better, less injury-prone running style) and turn it into a blind religion (running barefoot is the “one true way” to run).

    @Phil: Ha! Yes, love that parachute “study.” Just to clarify, though, I’m certainly not saying that the lack of studies “proving” the injury-reducing benefits of running barefoot means people shouldn’t run barefoot. After all, there are essentially no studies “proving” that ANY footwear option reduces injury! Of course we have to make the best decisions possible in a world of uncertainty. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t pretend to more certainty than we have.

    @Jeremy: Cool — thanks for the link, look forward to checking it out when I have a few minutes.

    @Luke: I think the comparison to Talent Code is a good one — in both cases there are some really good ideas and great research being discussed, but what’s lost in the popular discussion is the context, and all the research that supports other perpsectives.

  16. @Mark Cucuzzella wrote:

    “a clarification. the “100 up” much different than “A” skip, which is an elastic skip.”

    And the A-skip is very different from the A-run (which is what I compared the 100-up to). Mark and I have exchanged a few e-mails about what, exactly, the 100-up consists of. Mark says the 100-up involves freezing temporarily each time you land, compared to the A-run, which is more akin to running in place with high knees.

    My understanding of the 100-up is drawn from Tim Noakes’s description in the edition of Lore of Running that I bought in 1991:

    “By modern standards, George trained only very lightly. For the first 6 years of his running career he trained only with his ‘100-up’ exercise. This exercise basically involved running in place so his knees were alternatively flexed to hip level. The goal was to repeat the exercise 100 times at the maximal possible speed.”

    Noakes’s source is George’s “The Hundred-Up Exercise,” published by Ewart Seymour in 1908.

    Whatever the precise details of the drill, the claim that this is some long-forgotten secret drill seems a little silly given that it’s thoroughly described in what was, until Born to Run came along, probably the best-selling book about running of all time.

  17. Also… I notice that Competitor has posted a link and brief summary to this blog entry (thanks, Mario et al.!) Here’s a line from that summary:

    […] The first question he raises has to do with the purported science in McDougall’s article. ”I can’t really critique it, because there isn’t any science there — it’s all anecdote,” Hutchinson writes. […]

    To be fair, I should point out that I don’t think McDougall really “purports” to be writing about science. He wrote a story. I generally write about science, but in this case I couldn’t offer any comments on science, since there wasn’t any. There’s nothing inherently wrong with writing a story about running technique that contains no science. Tales of personal salvation have their own kind of validity — just not the same as tales of large-scale randomized trials!

  18. From the article: “The data suggests up to 79 percent of all runners are injured every year,” says Stephen Messier, the director of the J. B. Snow Biomechanics Laboratory at Wake Forest University.

    Is this true?? Is it really that bad, with zero positive trend?

  19. @Josh: You’ll notice the very next sentence in the article is “Messier is currently 11 months into a study for the U.S. Army and estimates that 40 percent of his 200 subjects will be hurt within a year.” That’s quite a bit lower than 79 percent!

    In general, these numbers are very “soft.” It all depends on the characteristics of the group of runners you study, and how you define injury (does a bit of soreness/fatigue that makes you decide to take one day off and then disappears count as an injury?). I often see 50% as a typical number thrown around for annual incidence.

    In terms of trends, it’s very hard to compare apples to apples. If you looked at the BMI and training history of the average Boston Marathon finisher in 1975, you’d see some extremely dramatic differences compared to the average Boston Marathon finisher in 2011. And less “elite” races like Marine Corps didn’t even exist back then. So how do you compare the injury rates of those two groups?

    Having said all that, I think the basic point is beyond dispute: a high proportion of runners get injured, and all the fancy shoe technology developments of the past few decades have done little or nothing to reduce the incidence of those injuries.

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  21. Chris McDougall may be responsible for more stress fractures than any human being in history.

  22. McDougall’s writings all read like a cheesy, late-night infomercial. And just like those cheesy, late-night infomercials, there’s always a certain number of people out there who will buy into it based solely on anecdotal evidence. Barefoot running is not for everyone. That doesn’t mean it’s not for ANYONE … it’s just not for EVERYONE. Beware of anyone who tells you they’ve found the next big thing … especially if they want you to buy their book to learn about it.

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