In May this year, news broke that a 22 year old Mexican woman from the Tarahumara tribe ran a 50km (31 mile) ultramarathon equipped with nothing other than a pair of sandals made from recycled tires. Moreover with no professional training María Lorena Ramírez beat 500 other runners to the finishing line.
For years there has been intrigue surrounding the Tarahumara tribe and in 2009 after sports journalist Christopher McDougall wrote about them in his debut book ‘Born to Run’ their story has generated awareness around long-distance, minimalist and barefoot running.
I first heard of the Tarahumara after stumbling across a TED talk by McDougall whilst attempting to motivate myself to go for a run. In the talk McDougall poses the question ‘are we born to run?’, referring to the relationship between long distance running and human evolution. I remember feeling inspired, but also a tad doubtful. It was, essentially, a far-fetched theory by a sports journalist trying to plug his new book.
Nonetheless I bought the book, read it and ‘running’ suddenly clicked into place. Not the annoying, tough and demotivating running that is hard work and a quick fix to weight loss. No, instead I discovered the motivating, uplifting and enjoyable running. I highly recommend you read the book, if nothing else it’s well written and a great story, but it also reveals the main obstacle to a happy relationship with running – attitude and mindset.
The Tarahumara tribe have been, for the most part, isolated from modern day society since the 1500s. When the Spanish explorers came across what is now called Mexico, the Tarahumara retreated to the northern Mexico sierras to live within the intricate network of Copper Canyons.
They call themselves the Rarámuri, meaning ‘runners on foot’ and over the last 500 years they’ve developed a tradition of long-distance running within their community. The Tarahumara people are spread out across hundreds of kilometres in the sierra and running is their only way to communicate or trade with each other. They run up to 200 miles (320km) spread out over a period of just two days.
McDougall believes that the trick to their long-distance running lies partially in their footwear. Whenever they run they wear ‘huaraches’ which as you can see from the picture above are minimalist sandals. These shoes only serve to protect their skin from the rocks so they’re basically running as close to barefoot as you can get (without actually going barefoot). Because they don’t have any support from their footwear and aren’t wearing cushioned trainers it’s physically impossible for them to have bad running form as they’d feel the impact straight away.
Seriously – take your shoes off and just jog 5 metres in front of you. Did you land on your forefoot? Now try running barefoot and heel striking! It feels so unnatural!
So because they run predominantly on their forefoot they minimise any risk of injury from impact allowing them to run further.
After reading the book I actually gave barefoot running a go. I got some very odd looks bouncing down to Richmond park without any shoes on. It is genuinely a great way to figure out what your form should be like when you run. However, I have resorted to wearing trainers again and being more conscientious about my foot placement – but that’s something for another post!
Another reason McDougall believes the Tarahumara are such accomplished runners is down to their attitude. They love running, they enjoy it and when they aren’t running hundreds of miles to trade or communicate they have running competitions. Perhaps that’s why we find it hard to run (or at least begin running) in Western culture. We’re constantly hearing how bad it is for us and it’s always portrayed as a chore – something you’d only ever do to loose weight or tick the cardiovascular box in your exercise regime.
Here’s the interesting thing though, humans have a long history with running – it actually helped us evolve! We have neck muscles that only running species have, we can breathe out of stride unlike any other mammal and our feet are incredible pieces of engineering. Our bodies are efficient and as a species we have a great running economy – in that respect we are born to run.
If I can recommend one thing which completely changed my outlook on running – stop viewing it as a means to an end, it’s only going to make you miserable.