Monday, September 12, 2011

Running and Breathing

"Christopher McDougall's hugely popular book, Born to Run, tells a very entertaining story. McDougall is a dazzling writer, at least in the arena of gonzo journalism. But as a long-distance runner, it seems that when he wrote his book, he was something of a newbie. Nothing wrong with that, but when someone attempts to explain a complex process to hundreds of thousands of others who include many other relative newbies, there are some risks. Like getting it quite wrong about how a good runner breathes."


  1. pretty interesting, especially that he got a reply from lieberman. but of all the things i took away from born to run, the breathing aspect was certainly not one of them. would love to hear what lieberman has to say about some of the book's other postulations. i heard an interview with him on NPR about barefoot running before i read born to run. the paragraph on his barefoot study website doesn't seem to make an argument for or against at first glance, but i'm sure there is good data under the covers; "If impact transient forces contribute to some forms of injury, then this style of running (shod or barefoot) might have some benefits, but that hypothesis remains to be tested."

  2. Ayres has some other tough things to say about BtR here.

    As a good postmodernist, I don't take anything as gospel without trying it out first. As such, i'm always taking what i like about different theories and things and combining them into something that works for me as an individual. This whole thing about breathing is one of them. On my run last night, I paid attention to my breathing and don't think I ever took just one breath per stride. Like Eric, I just skipped over that portion of the book when I read it, focusing on the more important things, like the theories about running form that i've made a real effort to take to heart (as my continually sore calves will attest). Take what you like and/or need, and leave the rest.

    One last thing: I don't think Ayres is being entirely fair when he calls him a relative newbie. From my reading of the book, McDougall is not only a life-long runner, but also one that takes his training serious enough to work with a dedicated trainer and also finishes the 50 mile Copper Canyon race. I get what Ayres is saying, and perhaps McDougall could have paid more attention to the science behind the entertaining story, but calling McDougall a newbie makes him seem like an old-school baseball guy making fun of the Sabermetrics crowd.

  3. I think that Born to Run is a great book. Very fun to read, and very inspiring.

    But here's the reason that I think Ayres's criticism is important. The central thesis of the book is that we are physiologically built to run long distances. If the basic descriptions of are physiology are wrong (and breathing is just one of them; he cites many others) then maybe our bodies aren't perfectly suited for this activity. Which doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't do it - but perhaps things like shoes can be helpful.