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.
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?
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?