The Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance

Book Review

Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall (Alfred A. Knopf 2015)

51fN0mD37nL._AA160_ Anyone on the trail either hiking or running invariably wonders at some point, “How far could I go if I had the time?”. With a subtitle of “How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance”, Christopher McDougall attempts to answer the question of just how much we can endure, both physically and psychologically, when put to the challenge. And in answering those questions he aims to understand “the art of the hero”, and to explore the “foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action.”

The book, which follows his 2011 best-seller ‘Born to Run’ about endurance running, retells a war story that occurred in April 1944 during World War II on Nazi occupied Crete, an island known for its isolationism, spirit of rugged individualism and adherence to what resembles a “paleo” diet since they eat mostly home raised meat plus vegetables which were either grown or foraged in the surrounding mountainous forests.

McDougall opens his book with a retelling of how a band of British Special Operations soldiers together with Cretan resistance fighters kidnapped the Nazi General Heinrich Kriepe. The kidnapping occurred near the general’s Nazi headquarters with a daring display of “chutzpah” on the part of the kidnappers. Once the general and his car had been commandeered, the British-led team than spent more than two weeks navigating the very rugged Cretan backcountry on little sleep or food while they transported  the general to a point where he could be conveyed off the island as a prisoner of war.

The journey was arduous and required truly superhuman physical skill and nerves and resolve of steel. And the mission proved fatal for some of the resistance fighters as well as Cretan citizens of the town of Anogia who were massacred by the Nazis as they struggled to re-capture their general. But it is the endurance of the soldiers that McDougall explores in the book and the topic of endurance in general often in a zig zagging manner darting between the main narrative and long diversions into ostensibly related topics.

Weaved between the narrative, McDougall details a history of military survival training and takes a questionable detour to look at the world of Parkour, and finishes with several chapters devoted to a history of nutrition especially as it has been practiced by endurance athletes. McDougall contends that the gods of Greek mythology learned to survive adversity while dealing with human scale challenges even as they inhabited a godly abode. Some of those gods such as Zeus originated on Crete and they created a Grecian zeitgeist of heroism that was embodied in Crete during the war where men, women and children of the Crete countryside embodied paideia, arete and xenia (skill, strength and desire) but understood that “heroes are protectors” but, “your’e only strongest when you have a weakness for other people”, McDougall writes.

And he discusses the ancient Greek military technique of pankration, a type of free form wrestling, which has its roots in Greek mythology and dates to the Olympic games of 648 B.C.  He touches on ancient martial arts and “The Natural Method of Training” published by Edwin Chekly in 1890, among other techniques, after introducing us to suburban English women who have mastered the art of Parkour. Named for the French parcours,  Parkour acolytes learn to turn an urban landscape into a playground in which they have taught themselves to scale brick walls by running up them, balance and jump off of railings, landing in a somersault, only to spring back up and over the next obstacle. Parkour, McDougall posits, proves that humans have an innate ability to overcome physical obstacles tapping the ‘elastic coil’ stored up in our tendons, ligaments and even our fascia. (see a video of these Parkour moms here).

McDougall strains at times to make the case that the British special ops and Cretan resistance fighters were successful because they harnessed the skills and spirit embodied in these ancient techniques that have some Grecian roots. But one of the main focuses of the author’s thesis rests in his theory about the benefit of the Cretan diet, essentially a paleolithic meat and vegetables diet. McDougall interviews and visits with world renowned  South African exercise physiologist  Timothy Noakes Ph.d as well as tracking down the enigmatic chiropractor turned nutritional  consultant both to the stars and to star athletes, Phil Maffetone D.C.

Both Noakes and Maffetone eschew our mainstream carbohydrate laden diet as unnatural, unhealthy and down right dangerous. They both explain that from an evolutionary point of view humans have evolved to eat meat and plants and if those plants contain carbohydrates, then they are at least complex carbs, not the simple sugars that appear in almost all of our processed food, from Ketchup to soda to breakfast cereals and even packaged bread. Our consumption of large amounts of sugar, they explain, stimulates our body to release insulin, which stores the sugars in our bodies as fat and than drives us to consume even more sugar laden food to repeat the cycle.

When you retrain your body to burn fat as fuel, and not carbohydrates, you can increase your endurance and remain more satiated for longer periods of time, the experts explain. When Dr. Noakes adopted the eating lifestyle he professed, he lost weight and cut his time in the famous South African Comrades 56 mile ultra-marathon by two hours and reduced his time to run a 5K race by more than 20%, all that at the age of 56. Even the entire Los Angeles Lakers basketball team finally cut sugar out of their diet, began eating grass-fed beef, nuts and  kale chips. The exercise and nutritional guru Phil Maffetone went a step further and maintained that not only was the no carb or very low carb diet healthier but combined with some training tips, the eating lifestyle changes would reboot the subject’s metabolism to start burning fat as its primary fuel source instead of glycogen and sugars.  And since the body stores much more fat than sugars, endurance will naturally improve. He is even beta testing an app to help make the switch.

Overall, Chris McDougall presents a compelling argument that anyone could probably push themselves much harder, set higher standards and tap in to inner resources. You hiked 10 miles today? You could definitely push on. You ran a marathon?  Start training for an ultra. The key to ‘mastering the lost secrets of strength and endurance’ then, would be to understand human evolutionary history and make a course correction in one’s nutrition. Assiduous training and having resolute confidence in your abilities like the Parkour moms would also help. And having a tantalizing goal like kidnapping a Nazi general right from under the noses of his hapless soldiers would help as well.

Howard E. Friedman

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Trailer for Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco

Born to Run, the best selling book by Christopher McDougall, published in 2009, introduced readers to the enigmatic Caballo Blanco (the White Horse),

 Caballo Blanco in the CopperCanyon. Photo by Leslie Gaines.

aka Micah True who lived and ran in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. He was inspired by the native Tarahumara people who lived there and ran long distances just for fun. Micah True went on to host races in the Copper Canyon to bring revenue and support to these indigenous people. He died in 2012, while running in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico.

A documentary is making its way across the festival circuit this year about this inspiring person who required little for himself all the while working to make the world better for others. The trailer has been released.

Trailer | Run Free – The Story of Caballo Blanco.

To be or not to be Barefoot. Is that the Question?

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Ge...

English: Barefoot hiking south of Penzberg, Germany (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Barefoot running and barefoot hiking have been discussed continuously since at least May 2009 when Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run was published and fueled nationwide interest in running very long distances barefooted, or, at least with only a flexible piece of rubber under one’s foot and nothing more. McDougall chronicled the ultra long distance runs of the Tarahumara Indian tribe of Mexico who’s members, men, women and children routinely logged long distance runs in a type of sandal.

And barefoot running received a further boost in 2010 when Harvard Evolutionary Biology professor Daniel Lieberman published an article in the respected science journal  Nature  about foot strike patterns in habitually barefoot runners compared to shod runners. In fact, Dr. Lieberman’s work was cited in McDougall’s book.

And since that time ‘barefoot’ has been a hundred million dollar word.

Every major shoe manufacturer and many less well known have marketed ‘barefoot’ running shoes, admittedly an oxymoron, Dr. Lieberman has noted. The shoe sole manufacturer Vibram introduced the iconic Vibram Five Fingers  a cross between a glove and a rubber soled moccasin. New Balance and others heavily marketed ‘minimalist’ shoes invoking themes suggestive of running barefoot.

And bloggers and newly minted experts cropped up overnight inveighing the virtues of the barefoot gospel. If it was good enough for Austrolapithicus, it must be good enough for us, was a general sentiment. Indeed, the modern running shoe as we know it only dates back to the 1970s (of the common era). And even according to anthropologists  who date shoe wearing among Homo Sapiens as far back as 40,000 or so years (Trinkhaus and Shang,  “Anatomical evidence for the antiquity of human footwear”, Journal of Archealogical Science 2008), ancient man’s shoes surely did not include motion controlling ethyl vinyl acetate heel cushions and a thermal polyurethane reinforced arch support.

And so authors Tam, et. al of the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town rightly questioned many of the commonly accepted notions about barefooted running in their October 2013 article, “Barefoot running, an evaluation of current hypothesis, future research and clinical applications”, in the British Journal of Sports Medicine published first on-line.

A woman wears Vibram "Five Fingers" ...

A woman wears Vibram “Five Fingers” shoes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tam, et. al thoroughly review much of what is known about barefoot running, making their article an important one for someone new to the discussion about this ongoing phenomenon. Their central question remains, however,  Does running barefooted reduce the rate of injuries? And toward that end they quote Daniel Lieberman from his most recently published analysis on the topic. “How one runs is probably more important than what is on one’s feet, but what is on one’s feet may affect how one runs”, Lieberman writes near the beginning of a 2012 article.

However, what Lieberman writes at the end of his lucid, organized and thorough review of barefoot running is perhaps more cogent. In “What We Can Learn About Running From Barefoot Running: An Evolutionary Medical Perspective”, published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Review (April 2012), he writes: “My prediction – which I readily admit is nothing more than hypothesis that could be incorrect – is that shod runners with lower injury rates have a more barefoot style form…Likewise I predict that injury rates are higher among barefoot runners who either lack enough musculoskeletal strength in their calves and feet…or who still run as if they were shod with long strides and slow stride frequencies.”

It seems than that many questions about barefoot running remain outstanding. But some truths have been established. Lighter weight shoes do reduce the oxygen need of the runner with a one percent decreased need for every 100 gm decreased weight of the shoes. A mid foot or forefoot strike avoids the high pressure impacts of a heel strike. And shorter strides with a higher frequency cadence do seem to be correlated with a reduction in injuries.

So while one is vacillating about what shoes to buy, in the meanwhile run like a hunter gatherer may (or may not) have run: shorten your stride, land on the middle or front of your foot and increase the number of steps you take per minute. Unless of course you develop pain in your foot, leg, hip, back or elsewhere.  In that case, go back to whatever you were doing before!