Another key difference between the Tarahumara and us is that the former run on dirt, whereas we run mostly on pavement. I believe the fact that the Tarahumara run on surfaces soft enough to permit comfortable running in minimalist footwear is more important than the fact that they wear such footwear. In other words, I believe that pavement is a bigger problem than our shoes, and that we would get injured just as often in huarache sandals on pavement as we do in our running shoes.
This is all speculation, because injury rates on different surfaces have never been formally compared. A few years ago there was a message board thread on letsrun.com concerning personal experiences in injury rates during periods of running mostly on dirt compared to periods of running mostly on the roads. It was completely one-sided. Virtually every runner who had a basis for comparison and who volunteered his experience said he ran much healthier when running mostly off road.
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Yet another key difference between the Tarahumara and ourselves is that they are a unique population of running specialists, whereas we are not. There is no evidence to support this dewy notion that today’s Tarahumara are the last vestiges of a lifestyle that was once universal to humanity. To the contrary, all of the evidence indicates that their zeal for running is as unique as the ancient Hebrews’ zeal for male circumcision once was.
Long-distance running was probably never a population-wide practice in early human societies as it is among the Tarahumara. Rather, it was the province of a select few specialists. Consequently, the genetic underpinnings of the gift for long-distance running were never terribly widespread in most human cultures from our very beginnings until today.
The practice of long-distance running is more widespread in our culture today than it has been for centuries. As we know, participation in running has increased tremendously over the past three decades. Most of that growth has come from the bottom, as it were, with millions of slower, non-competitive types flooding into the sport.
I’ve been a part of the running scene since the early 1980s, and I can tell you this transformation has been striking to witness. When my dad was running road races back in the day, those events were filled with runners — relatively fast men and women (mostly men) who ran primarily because they were good at it. They were running specialists. Today the starting corrals are dominated by what we might call non-runners who run. They are not running specialists.
Which is great. However, the same genetic package that gives a person the ability to run relatively fast over long distances also gives a person the capacity to run a lot without breaking down. Naturally gifted runners get hurt much less often on a per-mile basis than less gifted runners. Therefore, the high injury rate seen in running today is certainly due in part to the fact that, as whole, today’s running population is less “born to run” than yesteryear’s.
Back To Tradition
If weight, sedentariness, hard surfaces, and popularity all contribute to running injuries in our society today, how much blame is left for overbuilt running shoes?
Let’s be real: running’s high-impact nature is indeed the true reason the injury rate in running is so high. Footwear characteristics do affect the amount of impact the body absorbs during running and how that impact is absorbed, but it does not change the fundamental high-impact nature of the activity. Thus, if you fall for the seductive idea that running shoes are entirely to blame for all running injuries and that getting rid of your shoes will enable you to run infinite distances without injuries forevermore, you’re bound to be disappointed.
If you really want to reduce your injury risk as much as possible, by all means, consider your footwear, but also lose weight (if necessary), switch to soft surfaces, and do stuff besides running to strengthen those stabilizing muscles.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.