Who needs speed?

In “Born to Run,” I explore the idea that the reason we gather by the tens of thousands to run 26.2 miles through city streets isn’t to survive the experience, but to share it…

Excerpted from “Born to Run”:

The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other, he understood, but to be with each other… That’s why the Tarahumara bet like crazy before a ball-race; it makes them equal partners in the effort, letting the runners know they’re all in it together. Likewise, the Hopis consider running a form of prayer; they offer every step as a sacrifice to a loved one, and in return ask the Great Spirit to match their strength with some of his own…Scott, whose sick mother never left his thoughts, was still a teenager when he absorbed this connection between compassion and competition.

And over on Runningquest, commentator “AQ” adds a startlingly sharp insight. Speed, he writes, is equal to knowledge. The more you know about training and technique, the faster you’ll run. Acquiring knowledge is a supremely important evolutionary trait, so we’re rewarded with feelings of elation and satisfaction. So that’s why we care whether we run a 3:40 marathon or a 3:39.59. That single second is a triumph of the mind, not just muscle. Fascinating. One thing that’s been so great about the booming interest in natural running is the way the conversation is casting light on so many other aspects of human performance.

From “AQ”:

The speed at which we run a race (any race—100 miles or 100 meters) measures our knowledge of running. I think that’s why most of us bother to race at all—to measure how much we’ve learned and improved since the last time. It certainly measures other things (your dedication to the sport, the amount of free time you’ve had in the preceding weeks to train, etc), but primarily it demonstrates how well you understand running (how to train, how to hydrate, how to approach the race itself, etc). As Roger said, there is nothing wrong with running a 5 hour marathon, just like there is nothing wrong with hitting 1 out of 10 free throws, as long as you are enjoying what you’re doing. However, running a marathon at that pace doesn’t indicate any deep understanding of the sport (with the obvious exceptions, such as if the runner was older). A runner who is at the very beginning stages of learning the sport might be someone you would want to swap thoughts with if you were both at that level, but taking lessons from him could lead to real problems. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
My second thought, and I realize that this is provocative before I even say it, is that I am not convinced that barefoot running is a means to an end. Particularly to the end of healthy running. Barefoot running is not a panacea–running barefoot exposes you to injury just like any physical activity does. Certainly the kinds of injuries you encounter might be different than those when wearing shoes, but as Dr. Victor points out, we just don’t have a large enough body of science to know whether it will decrease the rate of injury. The Sapporo Half Marathon study that he cited suggests to me that it is overstriding and inefficient form that causes problems rather than shoes or the way the foot lands—as runners get better at running, they tend to develop a more efficient (i.e. faster and less injury prone) form whether they are wearing shoes or not. I think what Paul called something like “heel roll in” is a very different thing from “heel strike”, and my guess is that these Sapporo study runners were doing something like roll in, although the study didn’t specifically make the distinction between the two.

I have recently been logging all of my miles barefoot and will continue to do so, but I do it simply because I enjoy it. In other words, it is an end in and of itself. In my mind, that is the only reason to do it. It doesn’t particularly make me a better runner (I certainly would never race barefoot), and I am very sure that I will get running injuries in the future regardless of how I run.


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