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May 17, 2010

The US’s Scott Jurek, seven-time winner of the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run with

Arnulfo Quimare, Tarahumara ultrarunner.

Notice Jurek’s heel strike and Quimare’s forefoot landing, consistent with the the phenomenon observed in many runners today. The built up heel cushioning in many shoes compels the foot to land there, instead of the forefoot, which would be the case if the runner was transversing barefoot or wearing minimal footwear. like the Tarahumara Run Sandal. This is supposedly the proper way to run.

This issue has been thoroughly analysed by  Danny Abshire of Newton Running, a passionate advocate of “natural” running form. If you’re interested check out the older posts on this blog or the Newton website itself. As always, I’m expressing these opinions from an unbiased perspective, based  on what’s quite commonly known in the running community. It is still difficult to ascertain what’s right and what’s wrong and I believe there isn’t a fixed answer despite what many say. So don’t misquote me!

So on to the topic at hand. As I’ve slowly progressed in my running career, which has been rudely interrupted by insertional patellar tendonitis on both my damn knees, I’ve started to realise how far-reaching the effects of materialism and commercialisastion are. They’ve permeated many aspects of my life (  I love shoes and clothe and hair wax. I’m shallow, yes, I know), including the sport I so love. What with the latest apparel, shoes, accessories  and nutrition to make myself look cooler, more professional, more intimidating and FEEL faster. And yet I still think that I haven’t fallen too far, when I see men and women covering every extremity with compression fabric and decked from head to toe in all sorts of paraphernalia ranging from night vision Oakleys to Polar footpods with retro boosters. “Getting ready for war”, is what Andy commented to me once and I totally agree. It’s especially necessary when you’re setting off for a 5km jaunt round the neighbourhood…

Another bothersome thing that has emerged is the increased frequency of injury which seems to plague more and more of us. Damn, what happened to  joyous, pain-free running, where you could leave your troubles behind and return refreshed, with the strength and determination to face them? These days we seem to meet worse things on our runs such as shin splints and runner’s knee. It feels like we’re putting more and more into running and getting less and less out of it…

Was there ever a time  when things were less complicated? A time when running was just you, your mates and the wind in your face? Sure there was. If you want to experience that first love again and keep it with you for the rest of your natural existence, then step back in time (not really…) and meet the people who started it all.

The Tarahumara Indians are Mexican natives residing in the remote Copper Canyons. They are the world’s best runners ( yes, even surpassing our modern day heroes such as Gebreselassie, Bekele or Wanjiru), with ultra-distances being their forte. No one and no animal can beat them when it comes to endless running These guys bring running to a whole new level and essentially transform it into a work of art that becomes part of their entire way of life, but unfortunately, has been lost to the rest of the world with ever increasing modernisation, industrialisation and globalisation.

I thought there were four interesting areas of comparison between a modern-day runner and a Tarahumara runner. Well first and foremost would be what you can see on the outside. Usually we wear




Our Tarahumara compatriots wear this.

With regards to running shoe technology, I’m not trying to say that it’s bad or anything. Shoes cushion our feet, protect them from dirt and glass and give our friends something to oogle at. However, the advent of such protection would obviously led to a sharp drop in the robustness and durability of our feet and lower limbs. I mean if you think about it, ancient man didn’t have Nike Air, Asics Gel or Action-Reaction membrane tech. All they had were their God-given feet which they had to rely on to chase antelope, walk across the fields and journey from one settlement to another. I woder why, with advancements in shoe tech increasing at an exponential rate, are runners still encountering such a variety of disabling injuries. Some authorities say that a lack of proprioception is the culprit here, and that large chunky, cushy shoes are more of a bane than a boon in the long run, no pun intended. Why is proprioception so important? Because it comes packaged with good form and running economy. All that stuff which you’ve been hearing lately about landing under your center of gravity and not over-extending your stride? Surprise it’s actually not crap and should be taken seriously. “feeling the ground” is what some call it and being able to do so may help to repair various running gait anomalies  According to Eric Orton, an American endurance sports coach, people have to learn essential and fundamental form whenever they pick up a new sport. The same logic applies to running. Just that most people run any old how and that causes all sorts of problems.  So what we should do back to bare-foot running? Maybe. Let’s see what the Tarahumara’s wear.

The Tarahumara Runsandal. You’d think people’s feet would fall off after 10km of rocky terrain in these. Well they seem to work fine for our Mexican Indian counterparts. Perhaps thats why some very radical people from Vibram invented this.

If you ask me, minimal is good, but this is bordering on absurdity. One has to place the situation in context. If you spend your whole life running on rocks and sands barefoot, then fine. But us denizens have been pampered by parquet floors and smooth concrete. What’s more most society’s demand that we wear shoes. I don’t think that our feet are gonna be as tough as the Africans or the Tarahumara’s in this life time. We could train them to a certain extent, but in the end, better to stick with shoes and stay safe than to risk  ending your running sojourn prematurely. Besides did I mention that I love shoes? ( So in order to simulate barefoot running, we have brands like Newton, Nike, New Balance, Vibram and others coming up with shoes that help you to feel the ground but offer good protection at the same time. We’ll discuss this next time.)

Now, running barefoot or with minimal protection may not be entirely feasible for most of us. However there are other aspects of Tarahumara “training ” that we can incorporate into our own workouts. Firstly, we have to realise the importance of strength training, balance and coordination. Many don’t see the need to establish a strong foundation in these areas. Consequently, many exercises prescribed by physiotherapist usually serve to “wake” muscle groups which for some reason are not being actively utilised or perhaps establish neural connections which were probably overwhelmed by stronger ones. Eric Orton says that the Tarahumaras aren’t just outstanding runners, but superb athletes on a whole. It’s because there everyday lives involve so  much impromptu running, jumping, climbing, crawling and other Standard Obstacle Course look-alikes that Singaporean men only carry out a few times during their NS. This strengthens and injury-proofs their bodies against running mishaps. Tarahumara children build coordination and reflexes by passing a wooden ball with their feet as they dash through the forests. So you see, the main thing is to have a strong, efficient and agile body  to bolster your running prowess and minimise the drama caused by aches and pains that could have been cleverly avoided.

Right, we’ve taken a look at attire, foot-wear and supplementary training. The last thing I wanna talk about, and I’ll try to be very brief, is nutrition. In contrast to our rich diets of meat, processed foods and refined carbs, the Tarahumaras subsist mainly on whole grains, fruits and vegetables such as beans, squash, chilli peppers, and corn. Low glycemic index foods mostly. Their most potent food is apparently a seed called chia, which is crazily packed with omega 3s, proteins, fibres and antioxidants. While we drink

They drink

home-brewed corn beer, or this, a supersoldier serum made with chia seeds, water, sugar and lime juice. Zouk should start serving this.

In the end, if we’re game enough to try these things, we may just be able to obtain a fraction of that resilience and tranquility which is often so elusive. Then people could call us Tarahumaras as well.

Oh ya as an exemplary student from NUS, I must cite my references or risk disciplinary action, expulsion or imprisonment. The main sources of inspiration are Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, the 220 Triathlon July 2009 issue,the TrailRunner March 2010 issue and the Men’s Health (Singapore) December 2009 issue =)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    May 19, 2010 8:45 pm

    Sweet bro! Love reading your articles!

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