Monday, 12 April 2010

There's Running, and there's Running

I've recently read two books which have inspired me to think about endurance exercise and Paleo/Primal in a new light: Joss by Keith Richardson and Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. I have also recently read some posts about the possible dangers of running which reminded me how polarised the coverage of this topic can be.

I doubt I would have read either book if copies had not been pressed insistently into my hand by a friend. I'm Paleo, Primal, a caveman, a hunter. I don't run - I sprint or I walk. So don't try to indoctrinate me back into the cardio-obsessed world I escaped from a few years ago.

Flirting with Endurance

Perhaps my friend had noticed that in spite of my supposed opposition to what Mark Sisson in the Primal Blueprint calls ‘chronic cardio’, I had been flirting with distance running by taking part in mountain races lasting up to 3 hours (e.g. here and here.) In fact not so long ago, I hauled my 10kg weight vest up 250 metres of incline, which was 23 minutes of solid, throat burning effort. Not distance running - but not exactly sprinting either. I reported that one here.

In fact my flirting had been inspired by something else Mark says: that long, low intensity exercise is good - and that occasionally busting out five miles or even a half marathon at full pace can provide outstanding fitness benefits without doing harm. It was a second reading of the PB that reminded me. Prior to that I had simply allowed purism to sabotage the potential for a more varied workout portfolio.

And now that I have read these other books, I am more or less sold.

Two Inspiring Books

Joss and Born to run are very different books – yet they share an underlying theme.

You won’t find Joss on Amazon – yet in the English Lake District Joss Naylor – or ‘Iron Joss’ - is such a legend I expect more people know who he is than who is the current prime minister. He is a man whose achievements are almost impossible to do justice to with the written word.

I could tell you that at the age of 50 he ran up 214 peaks in the Lake district (the 'Wainwrights'), a total of 391 miles 121,000 feet of ascent, in 7 days; but this won't mean much to you. It barely does to me. The numbers are too big. It's too far outside the sphere of my own experience.

I once hiked the peaks around Buttermere valley with my brother. There were about 10 of them, it took us 9 hours and we were utterly destroyed by the end.

To achieve what Iron Joss did, we'd have had to do 30 peaks instead of 10 that day, travel twice as fast, then get up every morning for the next 6 days and do the same. Oh - and for the 3 hours each day when we were not running we'd sleep in a matress in the back of a van.

Some of the things Naylor has done will probably never be repeated by anyone, ever. He has a list of achievements so long it occupies and entire section at the back of the book.

One of the reasons they won’t be repeated is because in some cases one suspects he almost killed himself doing them; doctors who supported him during his challenges soon learned that their pleas for him to stop were pointless.

Joss is a Biography of Joss Naylor and a hymn to the culture and history of the English Lakes district. You come to appreciate that he is a product of the very landscape over which he roams with such ease, and that the seemingly unbreakable spirit occupying his body could simply not have been forged in a different environment.

In Born to Run, the author's own journey as a runner is interwoven with the story of a secretive Mexican tribe of virtuoso runners who beat the best endurance athletes in the world. Books about sport often lack a certain literary flair - but you quickly realise McDougall can actually write. He opens with compelling tasters of the story and themes to come, begining with his hunt for an elusive white man, known only as 'The White Horse', who gave up everything to live and run in the desert alongside this tribe.

Two races dominate the story. First, the Leadville 100, a breathtakingly gruelling challenge in the Colorado mountains that has seen some of the best athletes in the world fail. This was the race in which members of the Tarahumara stunned the ultrarunning world by beating many of their most talented members.


A Tarahumara runner trains with ultramarathon athlete Scott Jurek
Then, later, when The White Horse - or Caballo Blanco - is finally tracked down, a second race comes into focus. Caballo wants to stage a seemingly insane ultrarun around the dangerous and more or less inaccessible Copper Canyon where the Tarahumara live, bringing together stars from the ultramarathon scene and the best runners from the tribe.

There is a strong sense that the Tarahumara's running and the landscape in which they dwell are somehow inextricably bound - and that their ability has nothing to do with interval training and power bars, but rather some fundamental state of mind which to some extent we are all hard wired to be capable of experiencing.

Along the way, we learn some startling facts about human physiology that separate us from every other animal and point to our being designed for endurance running. Further evidence points to persistence hunting being a feature of our recent past.

McDougall also takes breaks from the story to educate us about the way running shoes have evolved - not in response to our real need, but in response to problems created by the shoes themselves and, of course, the desire for profit.

The common theme between the books is the human urge to run - the running psyche, if you like. I got a sense that this drive is something that transcends the clinical analyses of ancestral behaviour and physiology that tends to underpin our discussions around distance running.

The two stories choose as their centrepieces runners whose cultures could not be farther apart, yet whose lives are influenced in a strikingly similar way by an innate desire to be at one with the landscape through the medium of running; and how that very philosophy seems to unlock abilities beyond those exhibited by athletes trained in the sterile labs of modern athletics.

There’s Running and there’s Running

In recent years there have been a number of studies, articles and blog posts about running and it’s effects on health. Of course for years we had been told it was good for you. Then studies started to cast doubt on that assertion.

Art Devany’s blog post, Top Ten Reasons Not to Run Marathons was my first exposure to an emerging doctrine on exercise, which ultimately led me into the Paleo/Primal arena and to the more general principle that exercise patterns that do not mimic our ancestral ones – such as the kind of training marathon runners perform – are likely to be bad for us.

Recently Kurt at PāNu re-opened the topic in the Paleo blogging sphere with his post, Still not Born to Run. Chris at Conditioning Research added some little insight with his post Long Distance Running – Bad for the Heart and drew some interesting conversations from commenters, some of whom raised the point I am going to make here.

There is a fundamental problem with the debate about whether or not running is good for you, or whether we were ‘born to run.’ Simply - there are different ways of running; and the problem with many of the studies fuelling the debate is that they use as their subjects the types of runners whose training program is about as far from our ancestral activity patterns as it’s possible to get – elite distance runners.

Let's say that once per week I jog in Vibram Five Fingers for 3 hours around my local hills at a pace allowing me to easily chat with my running partner at a sub-150 heart rate. Am I having the same effect on my body as an elite marathoner who spends at least 10 hours per week in Nikes on the road with a much more aggressive heart rate profile?

Clearly not.

Yet we both run; we are both ‘runners’; we are both endurance ‘athletes’ in the loosest sense of the word.

So until someone studies some real people running in all the different ways it’s possible to run, I won't pay too much attention to the headlines and will carry on running, sticking to a pattern that feels appropriate given what I’ve read and my own instinct.

Update: by coincidence, Richard at Free the Animal has posted on the same subject, including an excellent letter from one of his readers. Worth checking out: Born to Run?

18 comments:

Tom said...

This is a superb post.

Thanks for writing it - I agree - do what you want, keep it in balance and don't over cook your self with too much high energy output.

Running trails, forests, hills, bush and plain is truly gift.

As always trust your self!

Chad said...

I've only read Born to Run, a great book. However, when I run, I only go 3-4 miles at a time, maybe once or twice a week, mostly in my five fingers, and mostly on trails...and it's FUN!

I agree with your thoughts. Performance based studies tell us about the subjects, and rarely more. Nice post. Thanks for the reminder to read Joss as well!

Lightning said...

Good post M. Two great books.

AlphaDog said...

Awesome read. Thanks.

Methuselah said...

Thanks everyone.

Lightning - thanks for the original recommendations (and lending them to me!)

AT22 said...

I agree with the others - great post. The conclusion is one I've been meandering towards -- after reading Born to Run but also after remembering when I ran more. I was in better shape and wasn't injured from it (that I know of, at least). In fact, I got injured doing short, sprinting movements!

Doesn't it always seem that comparisons are done on extremes, leaving out the middle? Maybe that is because it is easier to compare extremes...

Anyway, very thoughtful post!

MikeD said...

my brother also pointed out that most of the 'running is bad for your heart studies' studied elite runners not paleo dieters. elite runners are the worst when it comes to eating grain, sugar, beans and every other non-paleo poison. hello gorging on pasta before the big race? so of course they are going to have bad cholesterol, inflammation and heart trouble. There are on the super-SAD diet.

Drs. Cynthia and David said...

I agree completely. One of the things people ignore when they say running can't be primal is that when you are born and live your whole life using your own feet for locomotion, you get very good at it. You get good at training your body to use fat for fuel and reserve glycogen for true sprints, at building strong bones and connective tissues that are not easily injured, and at having an agile and supple body with more range of motion than us sedentary moderns have. Another huge difference is that primal man would have run/trot/sprinted for a reason, and not just to fuel his ego, and would try to keep within his limits to avoid injury and fatigue. There is a risk in pushing your body's limits, which would have been an important consideration for primal man. So us modern humans do need to be careful and only gently stress the body with new challenges in terms of distance as well as intensity. Primal man would have been more careful, and shared the burdens more with the group, since survival is at issue, not winning awards. When people became more "civilized" (read specialized and hierarchized), maybe there were career athletes who trained and competed hard like we do now, with more burnout and injuries. But that's not required for running per se, and really takes away from the joy IMO.

Glad you're enjoying yourself!

Cynthia

Marc said...

Thank you for this post.

Recently I started running races.
I don't run much maybe once a week, but mostly every two weeks. About 3-4 miles. Once a month, I run a race. Usually a 5k, this past weekend a 10k. I keep up pretty good for not being a "runner"....or am I?

Marc

xtremum said...

I've been going this way for a while and its nice to see some one post about it. I too think the middle is left out. I've started training for a race about 5 weeks ago, switching from short sprints about once per week to about one 20 minute/5k run and one longerer thna a interval once per week in addition to lifting one day. I couldn't believe how out of shape I felt the first day I ran longer than a sprint. I don't think I'll ever run any junk distance (like the ole days), but I'm sold on not being as fit as possible without some running over sprint distance.

AT22 said...

I confirmed xtremum's statement -- "I couldn't believe how out of shape I felt the first day I ran longer than a sprint" -- yesterday.

Did a little running last night (and when I say little, I'm talking well under a mile, done a minute or two at a time), and I felt like I hadn't been working out at all. I was dying! Very surprising.

This also may be an individual thing - some people may be able to keep up the CV endurance with sprinting. And perhaps they are doing harder lifting sessions than I do, taxing their CV system more, etc...

So many variables. (Great comments on this post as well. Very interesting!)

Methuselah said...

AT22 - thanks, and I think you have a good point about running studies on extremes. I guess from a researcher's point of view, they are interested in getting good results, and if I may be slightly cynical, some headlines. Thus, studying the extremes is more attractive.

Mike D - yes, great point, which Jake also made in his comment in the comments on the PNLL post.

Cynthia - thanks for your thoughts, intelligent as ever. We do tend to think we can just start doing something like running and expect our bodies to cope immediately when, as you say, in the wild we'd have had a lifetime to become adjusted and not simply dashed out of the house one day having spent the last 10 years sitting in front of a PC.

Marc - most of the runs I do are races, so your approach sounds similar. I think this is the way forward. Now that I have let go of the assumption that I have to run races as fast as I can, then I think I get the maximum enjoyment from my running. Especially on the longer ones, it's much easier to enjoy the event when you are not going 'all out'. Yes, I think you are a runner ;-)

AT22/xtremum - I think mixing up the distances is the paleo way. If you imagine a persistence hunt, we'd have had to run all kinds of distances at various paces to catch an animal. I reckon now and again we'd have had to run for a mile quite hard. Not often, but it might have happened. I like to balance the frequency and pace of the running I do with the probability that we did it as hunters and let the randomness protect me from any cumulative ill-effects.

PRIDE MAFIA said...

As a former competitive distance runner myself, I'm still looking for one study, just ONE,that shows any cluster of centenarians who Ran distance at ANY point in their lives...Okinawans aren't known for their PR's LOL

Glasgow University Hares and Hounds said...

I think one can run a lot and still be considered for primal exerciser,even doing 100 miles per week.Probably that's the case with Joss from the post.
My concept is running can be considred for primal if it is intuitive.Some people are just not born to run.Other are.If you see a really unfit person want to start running-this means they have the fire inside them,and they are born runners no matter if they are unfit at the moment.Others never enjoy running even if they are naturally fit and fast.
When I started running I was inspired by Arthur Lydiard -one of the most famous running coaches at all times.In his book he was saying that the beginner should run intuitively-as long as they feel pleasure,no matter if that's the challenge of teh comfoertable conversational pace or the challenge ,a bit higher effort that sometimes makes you feel like flying!
At the moment I run lots of mileage and do lots of races(5k-marathon) but literally this does not put any pressure on me,because it all came intuitively to me.I was never bothered to be highly competetive although I enjoy racing ,but I started by running 5 km a day using the Lydiard,then found this too little,then started doing 8 km etc,and now I am 6 miles am and 6 miles pm,but if I feel tired -I never run,I listened to my body or just run as little as I like.All this mileage came naturally and I enjoy every step of my running and and it's all intuitive process of getting to know myself.I also do intensity workouts twice a week and race occassionaly but if I don't feel well I skip.I think there are people like me that are kinda endurance folks who enjoy running for ages and never get injured by mileage whilst other prefer intensity-what do you think about this in evolutuonary perspective?
Also,I would like to tell you about a very interesting case of a friend of mine.We used to train together and she was progressing very quickly because she was very dilligent with her workouts pushing herself to her limits and listening to everything our coach said(I never have the concept of coach really close to me,cause the guy probably knows about running ,but they might give me stuff that eventually gets me injured ,so I think one should ask themselves first if their workout is right for them no matter what some famous person/coach told them).At some point she was trainign as an elite ,but her performance stalled.She became more dilligent yet nothing good happened,and she was fatigued.She changed the coach and the guy gave her much of a different program-he told her:"Do your runs at very comfortable pace,and don't bother about your jogging speed or distance and don't bother with speed workouts.When you feel fit to do something challenging come along."This was dramatic change for her elite-like training schedule of prescribed and predesigned paced workouts.So the new schedule was more intuitive to her,she was always running the way she feels-most of the time easy,with the occasional spice up usually once twice a week.Interestingly,she improved a 3 km PB with 1 min for 3 months training this way.
She is now also much of a happier person ,not fatigued at all.

I think this implies one thing-we can say excessive cardio is bad.Yes ,excessive treadmill ,which is not occuring in the nature ,is really bad.But if someone just like running lots of miles every day without getting tired and like the feeling of flying on their feet-is not the most natural thing to do?

Yulia said...

I think one can run a lot and still be considered for primal exerciser,even doing 100 miles per week.Probably that's the case with Joss from the post.
My concept is running can be considred for primal if it is intuitive.Some people are just not born to run.Other are.If you see a really unfit person want to start running-this means they have the fire inside them,and they are born runners no matter if they are unfit at the moment.Others never enjoy running even if they are naturally fit and fast.
When I started running I was inspired by Arthur Lydiard -one of the most famous running coaches at all times.In his book he was saying that the beginner should run intuitively-as long as they feel pleasure,no matter if that's the challenge of teh comfoertable conversational pace or the challenge ,a bit higher effort that sometimes makes you feel like flying!
At the moment I run lots of mileage and do lots of races(5k-marathon) but literally this does not put any pressure on me,because it all came intuitively to me.I was never bothered to be highly competetive although I enjoy racing ,but I started by running 5 km a day using the Lydiard,then found this too little,then started doing 8 km etc,and now I am 6 miles am and 6 miles pm,but if I feel tired -I never run,I listened to my body or just run as little as I like.All this mileage came naturally and I enjoy every step of my running and and it's all intuitive process of getting to know myself.I also do intensity workouts twice a week and race occassionaly but if I don't feel well I skip.I think there are people like me that are kinda endurance folks who enjoy running for ages and never get injured by mileage whilst other prefer intensity-what do you think about this in evolutuonary perspective?
Also,I would like to tell you about a very interesting case of a friend of mine.We used to train together and she was progressing very quickly because she was very dilligent with her workouts pushing herself to her limits and listening to everything our coach said(I never have the concept of coach really close to me,cause the guy probably knows about running ,but they might give me stuff that eventually gets me injured ,so I think one should ask themselves first if their workout is right for them no matter what some famous person/coach told them).At some point she was trainign as an elite ,but her performance stalled.She became more dilligent yet nothing good happened,and she was fatigued.She changed the coach and the guy gave her much of a different program-he told her:"Do your runs at very comfortable pace,and don't bother about your jogging speed or distance and don't bother with speed workouts.When you feel fit to do something challenging come along."This was dramatic change for her elite-like training schedule of prescribed and predesigned paced workouts.So the new schedule was more intuitive to her,she was always running the way she feels-most of the time easy,with the occasional spice up usually once twice a week.Interestingly,she improved a 3 km PB with 1 min for 3 months training this way.
She is now also much of a happier person ,not fatigued at all.

I think this implies one thing-we can say excessive cardio is bad.Yes ,excessive treadmill ,which is not occuring in the nature ,is really bad.But if someone just like running lots of miles every day without getting tired and like the feeling of flying on their feet-is not the most natural thing to do?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting your thoughts on this. The coincidental timing with my letter on freetheanimal.com is truly bizarre. I am in complete agreement with you in that I am going to continue to run as I choose. I took up running late in life, and I run quite a lot (50-55 mpw), but I have never been injured. Happy trails! Cynthia K.

Gym said...

I couldn't agree more - brilliant post.

Methuselah said...

Pride - good point.

Glasgow - agree that it is, to some degree, a case of different things working for different people. I think doing what feels right is s good approach, provided one has a balanced sense of one's feelings. In other words, for an obsessive person, it might be difficult to be clear on why it feels like the right thing to do and stray into territory that is doing damage.

Thanks Cynthia really enjoyed your letter.

Thanks Gym.