If you happen to follow my blog, you’ll know that I am slightly obsessed with the book Born To Run by Christopher MacDougall. I am on a tear about it, and have suggested it as reading material to every runner I know. And some non-runners too. Although it’s not, in my humble opinion, particularly well-written, it is an astonishing story. But even more than that, the author is right about a great many things, in particular how the human body is perfectly designed to run long distances. And he has managed to spark a huge debate about the running shoe industry and whether or not they are good for us or bad for us. I find myself falling into the bad-for-us camp, and have started to embrace the idea of barefoot/minimalist running.
But at the moment, that’s neither here nor there. As many of you are new runners, I don’t want to overwhelm you with thoughts of ultra-marathons and minimalist running shoes. I want to address another point altogether, a point much more suitable for beginning runners. It’s a question of motivation, and really, it’s one that applies to all of us, no matter how new or how seasoned we are. And it comes at a point in the book where the author has successfully illustrated that humans are actually evolved for long distance running. We may be much slower than our four-legged counterparts, but we can outrun them in the end. We can, quite literally, run our prey to death. Then the author asks “Then why do so many people hate it?…If we’re all born to run, shouldn’t all of us enjoy it?”.
Chances are, you’ve asked yourself the same question. You’ve just managed to complete your first 5k, and you know how much work that took. You’re wondering how anybody runs more than that, because those 3.1 miles took everything you had. How does anyone ever run a 10k, let alone a half-marathon, a marathon or an ultra-marathon? Those people are crazy. Born to run…whatever!
But the problem isn’t our bodies. Those are, in fact, perfectly designed for running (I see you shaking your head…but I will convince you in the end!). The problem is our heads. Or rather, our brains. Along with our talent for long distance running, we evolved these enormous brains that consume vast amounts of energy. They are only 2% of our total body weight, and yet they consume 20% of our energy when we are at rest.
But our brains also happen to be conservationists. They are always trying to find ways to conserve the energy we have, because back in the day, our survival depended on it. Now it’s no longer a matter of survival, but our brain doesn’t really know that. It’s still constantly scheming to keep us low key and resting, keeping any extra energy on hand for a time when we need to chase our prey or to avoid being eaten by lions. One expert in the book described it thus: “You’ve got this fancy machine, and it’s controlled by a pilot who’s thinking ‘Okay, how can I run this baby without using any fuel?’”.
Now that we live in such a sedentary society, we (the collective we) have gotten out of the habit of running. We don’t need to run to catch our food and we don’t need to run away from becoming food for other predators, so the brain’s insistence on conserving energy takes precedence. When you start a running program, you are retraining your body to ignore your brain. All of those whispers in your head about how hard running is, how tired you are, how you just want to stop? That’s your brain faking you out. Tell it to shut up. Tell it that you are born to run.
Because you are. After you stick with it, and you get back in the habit of running, you will find that your brain does shut up…at least some of the time. And in the end, both your body and your brain will thank you.