Born to Run – no pain, no gain?

Like many people, for me the thought of running for pleasure was oxymoronic.  It was never something I enjoyed and did only when required, like Phys. Ed. class in the 8th grade or as part of Physical Training when I took Junior ROTC my sophomore year of high school.  When my oldest daughter discovered running during her 8th grade year, a running culture started to flourish in my family.  My daughter’s enthusiasm reignited my wife’s dormant running desires and before long everyone in the family was running, except for me.

What changed for me was my dad’s heart attack in 2005.  I realized that unless I did something to alter my lifestyle, I would probably share his destiny.  He survived his heart attack, but I reasoned it was better not to have one in the first place, so I started running.  It was hard.  The slogans I saw on t-shirts at my daughter’s races came back to haunt me:  “My sport is your sport’s punishment” and the like.  But I persisted, ran my first 5K and in a matter of months, started craving running.  If I didn’t log enough miles for a given week, I experienced a little anxiety.

Then I got hurt.  Just a nagging little hamstring injury at first, but it slowed me down.  The coup de grace for my running career was a back injury – a compressed disc as it turns out – that running may have created but certainly aggravated.  I was hopeful that after back surgery that I could run again, and indeed, my surgeon even assured me that I could.  But after only two weeks of running again, all the same pain returned.  I knew I had to stop.

Christopher McDougall describes a similar experience in “Born to Run”.  His amazing tale begins with a running-related injury that multiple doctors examined.  All gave him the same advice:  stop running.  Unwilling to take “no” for an answer, McDougall began a journey that led him to the rugged Copper Canyons region of Mexico, home to the Tarahumara Indians whose entire culture is built on running.  From the youngest to the oldest, they run everywhere.  They race, not for a mere 5K, but 50 or even 100 miles.  And they love it.

The Tarahumara don’t wear $135 state-of-the-art running shoes, but sandals or no footwear at all.  They seem immune to injury, and as you can imagine, are very healthy, both physically and emotionally.  They seem to know something we don’t.  McDougall chronicles many discoveries about humans and running, but these two resonated most deeply with me:  shoes and technique.

The modern running shoe became widely adopted in the early 1970s.  Since that time, it has improved by virtue of better materials, more research and refinement through usage.  The modern running shoe really is an engineering marvel.  So I was surprised to learn that since its adoption by the masses in the 1970s, running injuries have actually increased.  We’re cushioning our heel plants with space-age gel now, so how is this possible?  Yet the numbers don’t lie – we’re hurting ourselves more while wearing better shoes.

Technique then becomes the suspect.  Unlike the Tarahumara, most of us have learned to run by planting our heel and rolling the foot forward the push off on the next stride with our toes.  But the accumulated force of those heel plants, even cushioned by gel, is hurting us.  It isn’t the way we were born to run.  How then should we run?  The Tarahumara plant the ball of their foot, not their heel, when they run.  Try this by running barefoot.  It hurts too much to land on your heel if you’re barefoot, so you will change your stride to run more like a Tarahumara.  In fact, this revelation has given birth to a barefoot running movement.  The difference in strides is the ball of your foot can handle the force because it uses the built-in shock absorption ability of the arch.  When landing on your heel, even in running shoes, the force has no place to go but up your leg and affect your knees or your back.  These joints can only take so much pounding before something gives.  I offer myself as Exhibit “A”.

McDougall’s findings and theories are not universally embraced in running circles.  They represent radical change and challenge the status quo.  But they do seem to work for McDougall, a handful of ultra runners described in the book and generations of Tarahumara Indians.  Even if you’re not a runner there is something here for the organization that doesn’t want to plod along wearing blinders:

  • What’s the source of innovation?  Often it is pain.  We structure our personal and professional existences to eliminate or at least minimize pain.  But do we consider that unless we feel some, or at least feel someone else’s, that we are denying ourselves the most powerful fuel for innovation?  Inspiration is a wonderful catalyst for innovation, but it’s hard to beat pain.  I’m not talking about a “no pain, no gain” mentality here where pain is the goal.  Instead think of pain as the means to an end.  McDougall’s pain led to a period of intense learning and reinvention, and it worked.  He continues to run today.
  • Have you let conventional wisdom limit you?  It’s hard to argue against conventional wisdom.  But when was the last time you even questioned it?  True, 99 times out of 100 it is the best approach.  Usually, desperate circumstances are required to force us to think out of the box and consider an unconventional approach.  Let me suggest that we’re better off to question it almost every time, even if we end up going the conventional route in the end.  Conventional wisdom is the path of least resistance, but don’t let expediency rob you of opportunities to think outside the box.  That one time in 100 when you pursue the unconventional approach might change the outcome of the game.

Competition in the corporate arena is like running an endurance race where finishing is as important as winning.  You won’t finish by running someone else’s race – you have to run yours.  If you can gain an advantage by running barefoot, then why not do it?

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About Jerry Rackley

An avid reader, mostly non-fiction, I read great books and think how the lessons of history have contemporary application. Most of these thoughts are work related, but sometimes about faith or family. This blog is my first attempt to allow some of these thoughts to escape the rather thick skull in which they were born.
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3 Responses to Born to Run – no pain, no gain?

  1. Jody Burns says:

    I’m not a fan of pain. Your insights provide good food for thought.

  2. ERack says:

    “path of least resistance”… Sick. Taking this path in life scares me.

    Born to Run is somewhat of a life-changing book. I really like your point about questioning conventional wisdom. Tenzing Norgay, one of the first human beings to climb Everest, once said that the north face of the Eiger was “too difficult, too dangerous.” A Swiss climber, Ueli Steck, recently climbed it in 2 hours, 47 minutes. While I may be unfamiliar with the business world, your two application points seem like solid advice for just about any pursuit.

    So glad you wrote about Born to Run! Keep the blogging goodness coming.

  3. jessica says:

    I love Born to Run!! John and I read it after our marathon last year. Soon after, we both bought the Vibrams five finger shoes and gave barefoot running a try. While I had knee pain throughout the entirety of my marathon training, I am also a testament that barefoot running works. In starting out, while I didn’t run even close to the long distances I was up to, 2-5 miles in the Vibrams felt great. No more knee pain for me. I have slacked off this winter in wearing the shoes, but I am excited to get back into training.

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