Christopher McDougall’s sensational book Born to Run has been credited for an upsurge of interest in barefoot running over the past year, and its publication probably also explains much of the increased sales and visibilty of the once-esoteric and comment-provoking Vibram “Five Finger” running shoes. Besides being a paean to the joys of running without shoes, McDougall’s book is certainly one of the best written, most entertaining adventure books of recent memory. It sucks you in with tales of the mysterious hidden tribe of Mexican mountain runners, the Tarahumara, and an unforgettable cast of hardy and eccentric ultramarathoners. The adventure culminates in two exciting and unpredictable ultramarathons through the wilderness — one in the Colorado Rockies, and the other in the Copper Canyon of Mexico — with the protagonists of the book running shoeless over trails and boulder fields for 100 miles. While I’m not a total convert, after reading this book I’ve adopted a habit of alternating my runs between barefoot, Vibrams, and regular shoes. After some initial soreness, stiffness, and development of calluses, I found that my calves were strengthened in a way that significantly benefited my endurance and speed in running.
Other than recommending this book as a great vacation read or a way to rekindle your passion for running, I’d like to concentrate here on one of its central claims about the biomechanics of barefoot running, because it resonates so strongly with the thesis of Hormetism and Edward Tenner’s theories about the “revenge effects” of technology — and because it has implications that extend well beyond the sport of running. McDougall’s seemingly paradoxical assertion is that running without shoes makes one less susceptible to injury than using modern engineered running shoes, with their high-tech cushioning. Says McDougall: “Running shoes may be the most destructive force ever to hit the human foot.” (BTR, p. 168) …How can this possibly be true?