An interview with Chris McDougall about his latest book, “Natural Born Heroes,” which hits bookstores on April 14.
It’s been six years since Chris McDougall helped fuel the minimalist running boom with his “Born to Run” best-seller. He’s back with another title, “Natural Born Heroes,” this time interweaving the fantastical, yet true, account of a band of soldiers on the Greek island of Crete during World War II with explorations of the physical, mental and nutritional tactics the men utilized to survive. While “Born to Run” helped spur minimalist shoe designs, lighter shoes and a mainstream interest in ultrarunning, “Natural Born Heroes” also touches on numerous fitness topics, including running, parkour, obstacle racing and endurance nutrition.
As McDougall recounts in his new book, traveling through the rural Crete of old—with rugged mountains seemingly rising from the sea, steep canyons and sheer cliffs, dense scrub, rocks and mere suggestions of trails —was no simple task. But, as the soldiers found out, the resourceful native islanders moved through the hills with ease, almost floating over obstacles. Traveling between villages for communication and commerce was a necessity, and running became a speedy way to cover long distances. With the development of energy gels a half century in the future, the runners powered their travels by foraging for fresh greens, relying on their intrinsic strength and solving problems on the go.
When the Nazis invaded Crete in 1941, the rest of the world got a glimpse into the adaptability, economical movements and durability of these old-school anti-athletes. McDougall portrays the tale of how, with the aid of a Cretan runner, a ragtag group of international soldiers were able to kidnap a Nazi general and virtually disappear into the inhospitable brush. While telling a war story for the ages, McDougall highlights many of the long-forgotten movement theories, theories unknowingly practiced by native Cretans as a way of life and theories that are now in the midst of a resurrection.
We caught up with McDougall before his book tour to learn more.
How does it feel to launch a new book into the world?
It’s kind of hard to believe it’s done. I feel like I’ve been writing it my whole life. It was such a long process because a lot of it was running through my mind as I wrote “Born to Run.” I had all of these cool elements and at first thought I would include them in “Born to Run.” Then I realized they didn’t fit and were another story. They’ve been stewing since 2007, I guess.
“Burning fat as fuel,” is one of many athlete-specific themes you explore in the book. Why is it significant?
The Maffetone Method, I’m fascinated by this. Food and exercise are the two pillars of his program. Phil Maffetone is one of those teachers, like an ancient Greek or a Yoda that teaches by understanding people. His program begins with a two-week test. There are no real rules. He’s not telling you to do anything. For two weeks you strip away all of the confusion (in this case that means all sugar and high-glycemic, high-carbohydrate foods), see how your body responds and from that point forward you make informed choices. He’s not hitting you with this barrage of life-long rules and restrictions. He’s opening your mind to what your body is really doing. That’s what’s so brilliant about the test. Maffetone insists it’s a test, not a diet.
The consequences for me are that if I eat something starchy or sugary before a run, the blood leaves my head and I feel dizzy. The blood is being shunted to my stomach to process those sugars. I know how it makes me feel and I know what I’m doing to myself. Much like films in the genre of The Matrix, choices have a ripple effect. Food is the same way. What I eat is a choice I make.
I have a relative who is a diabetic and I told Phil that I was excited to have them try the Maffetone Method. Phil just slowly shook his head and said they wouldn’t listen. “A diabetic isn’t going to listen to you.” I was surprised to hear him say that. But it’s the philosophy of a man who’s realized you’re never going to force people to do something they don’t want to do.
The most depressing thing is that the Maffetone Method has been around since the 80’s. This is no secret. The athletes who were following the program and winning got the attention of food and beverage manufactures. Then the athletes were offered a ton of money in sponsorships, and all of the sudden the no sugar/no supplement idea was wiped away by food and drink manufacturers.
Heart-rate training is an important aspect to the Maffetone Method. Diets like Primal and Paleo share some similar characteristics to Maffetone’s eating theories, yet neither focuses on heart rate. Why do you think that’s the case?
Food is a consumable. People get excited about food. Heart rate training has to be learned (to encourage your body to begin using fat as fuel, Maffetone suggests working out at a very low heart rate using the 180-Formula—180 minus your age should be your max during the two-week test period). People don’t get as excited about it.
And exercising at such a low heart rate can be challenging when you always want to do the hard workouts. Athletes have to make a choice to train for their next event or take a long time to build up to burning fat as fuel. That’s a hard thing for a competitive athlete to take the time to do.
Speaking of competition, fitness versus competition—where’s the balance?
It’s very hard to get people out of the competitive mindset. Even with a marathon. A marathon and the idea that I’m going to run as hard as I possibly can for 26 miles is very unnatural for the human body. No hunter-gatherer would do that. You are putting yourself in the red zone, then sustaining it for almost four hours. No animal would ever do that if they could possibly avoid it. But it’s competitive and that’s why people do it.
People need to take a step back from looking at things from the competitive aspect and instead look at situations from a skill aspect. If there is something you can’t do, then that’s what you should be working on.
I’m a real slow learner. Stuff does not drill through my skull for a long time. Eric Orton, my running coach for “Born to Run,” said that the Tarahumara aren’t great runners; they are great athletes. Now I get it. These don’t just get to a finish line fast. They are people who can vault over rocks, carry logs, slither, crawl and jump over creeks. They are all-around athletes. That’s why they have longevity. They are universal all-around athletes, they rely on elastic recoil, not repetitive motion.
Elastic recoil, is that where parkour comes into play?
When I mention parkour to people, before I get to the second syllable, they are already shaking their heads “no.” They think they’re going to get hurt and it’s not for them. Then you try it, and it’s utterly absorbing and you can’t stop. Once you start to do it, you’ll want to do it all day. It requires trust in your body, in the elastic recoil.
The greatest instructional thing ever created for humans is stories. Learning parables. If you tell people stories and remind them of what fitness is all about—it’s not about being cut or losing weight. It’s about being useful. That’s the question I want to stop people in their tracks, “Is your fitness really useful?” Parkour is about adapting and moving in your environment. That’s useful.
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The concepts of functional fitness or natural movement aren’t t new, but they are experiencing a resurgence. What do you think is driving the trend?
I’m getting the same sense with natural movement (“Natural Movement” was the name Georges Hébert gave to the physical fitness method he created in the early 1900s. His credo was: “Be fit to be useful.”) I got with minimalist running a few years ago. There are lots of people all approaching the same truth from different directions. Spartan Races, obstacle races, Tough Mudders, CrossFit—these are all different people around the world who are coming to the same truth, seeking the same thing. We’ve seen that the gym model doesn’t work. There is something wrong with all the miles we log on a treadmill. And people are fixing it. It was the same with barefoot running. As soon as a story came out making it mainstream, people rushed to do it because they had a feeling something was wrong with what they had been doing.
You talk a lot about developing skills and the power of muscle and fascia memory—if a body has experienced a certain motion, it can recall that motion when needed. What’s a skill that every athlete should hone?
I had some friends come visit this past weekend. They are a husband and wife and well-conditioned athletes. The dude had never thrown a knife before, but he could have split an apple from 50 yards. He was amazing. He grew up as a water polo player and that memory of how to torque his body and throw and object was ingrained into him. The first time he had a knife in his hand, he threw like a pro.
His wife had never thrown in her life. She didn’t have that muscle memory. We spent hours trying to teach her and she improved, but it was difficult. She is stronger than me in every single way, but the simple motion of throwing was alien to her.
To throw something well is hard wired into our natural instinct. It’s very fundamental and a really effective movement pattern. If women don’t throw, we cut off an entire gender from that fascia memory. Throwing doesn’t have to be performed just with knives to count. Basic throwing in general works.
How do you encourage athletes to learn new skills?
People need to get out of their comfort patterns. I tell you one thing, what’s cool is that there are so many options now that weren’t around before. Think about the Boston-based November Project. This winter when there was a blizzard, they went out and shoveled snow. That’s a skill or series of movements that people don’t do every day. CrossFit. Training for obstacle races. These are all opportunities to try new things. My problem with obstacle races is that most people don’t actually train for them. They just show up and try their luck. But if they actually trained they would see more benefit.
In the book you say, “When you spot a giant ability gap between ages and genders, you know you’re looking at nature, not nurture.” Why is that important to athletes?
It’s about fitness. The takeaway is let’s look at those activities where men and women are naturally equipped to perform equally well. Look at endurance sports, parkour, any full-range motion or throwing. And if you aren’t doing those sports, they are the things you should be experimenting with. Let’s step away from these preconceived ideas of what real fitness is. It’s more about agility, flexibility and diversification of our movements. We’ve glorified the power sports. Power sports are only good for powerful people.
What needs to change for a return to natural movement to happen?
It’s already happening. What I’m describing isn’t something I would like to happen, it’s something I’m observing. The reason why it’s happening is that we’ve had this terrible obesity explosion over the past 40 years. We tried a remedy—get people to go the gym via the willpower method, “if you don’t go, you don’t have willpower,” and it didn’t work. People don’t go to the gym because it’s ineffective, it’s boring, it feels like punishment, naturally they stop. The key is doing something the body is naturally designed to do. Like the Spartan Race series—the focus is adaptability, agility and teamwork. Those are the things that get people on fire if they want to do it. That’s where I see hope, these things are happening all around us.
After the excitement surrounding “Born to Run,” are you prepared for another wild ride?
I look back on “Born to Run,” and think, “Dude you were just paddling your surfboard at exactly the right time!” The wave was building and I was just happy sitting out there. It feels like it’s happening this time too. I talk to people about natural movement or fat as fuel, and their eyes just light up. I get this feeling that I’m fortunate to be aware of stuff as it’s happening—I hope!
How is the “Born to Run” movie progressing?
It’s a weird beast. It’s interesting to watch how another industry operates. It seems so leisurely and they don’t want to offend anyone. I come at it like a news journalist and don’t care if someone wants to punch me in the face. I hear from the producers all the time. They are waiting for the screenwriter to finish the script. After that, my expectation is that the project will move quickly.