The strangest thing Coach Joe Vigil ever saw in any race was a smile. Coach Vigil was 65-years-old at the time and had been coaching Olympians and collegiate elites for more than four decades when he spotted that grin, and it suddenly made him re-think everything he thought he knew about running. He was watching runners from Mexico’s remote Copper Canyons compete in a 100-mile ultramarathon in Leadville, Colorado, and he couldn’t believe how much fun they were having.
“Such a sense of joy,” Coach Vigil marveled, as the Tarahumara tribesmen charged through the Rocky Mountains and dominated their American competition. But in a flash, it suddenly all made sense. Maybe the worst sin we’ve committed against our bodies, he realized, was accepting the idea that running is supposed to be miserable. Humans are actually the greatest distance runners on earth, he knew; because of our ability to vent heat by sweating, rather than panting, and our kangaroo-like quantity of bouncy elastic tissue, humans can out-run any other creature on the planet on a hot day.
But if we’re so good at it, why do so may of us hate it? Most likely because we’ve strayed from some key ancestral truths that the Tarahumara have never forgotten. Luckily, it’s not too hard to find your way back. The first step is learning the “Free Seven” —seven easy tips based on Tarahumara techniques that unlock natural sources of strength you already have and can make running feel playtime again.
1) The 5-Minute Rock Lobster Reboot
Running is really just a series of jumps. All you’re doing is hopping forward from one foot to the other. Easy, right? Except how far are you supposed to hop? And where, exactly, are you supposed to land—on your heels, on your toes, or on your mid-foot (wherever that is)?
Those two basic ingredients—foot strike and stride length—can make things tricky for runners. But not for boxers, who seem to have turned hopping into a fine art. If you’ve ever seen the way fighters skip rope, it looks like they can bounce along all day with almost no effort.
What’s their secret? Two things: rhythm and recoil. Boxers bounce along at a steady cadence that allows them to take advantage of free momentum, just like a human pogo stick. They keep their backs straight and land lightly on their forefoot, allowing their joints to compress slightly and spring back up again.
You can learn the same rhythm and recoil in just a few minutes. All you have to do is pull up “Rock Lobster” by the B52s on your phone, take off your shoes, and run in place with your back near a wall (but not touching it). “Rock Lobster” is 92 beats per minute, exactly the cadence you want for an easy, bouncy stride. Once you get the hang of it, all you have to do is keep the same beat and footstrike in mind when you head out on the roads.
2) Your Fork is not Your Coach
One way or another, most of us begin running because of our relationship with food. How many times have you said, “I only run so I can eat whatever I want”? Or pushed back from the table and thought, “Ugh. I really better put in some miles tomorrow’? But your body is both a hoarder and a fast learner. It still obeys the ancient instinct to store fat in case there’s ever a shortage of food, and it will eventually adapt to any exercise you throw at it in an attempt to run those sweat those pounds away.
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“You can’t outrun a bad diet,” says Coach Eric Orton, the endurance specialist who’s made a science out of Tarahumara-style running (and rebuilt me from a broken-down ex-athlete into an ultramarathoner). Orton is a big fan of the Two Week Test, a simple eating habits reboot that can take the guesswork out of your daily meals. For two weeks, you avoid eating all foods with either sugars or processed carbohydrates. That means no bagels, no pasta, no rice, no oatmeal, not even fruit. At the end of those 14 days, slowly try re-entering some of those foods into your meals. You’ll notice right away which foods make you feel bloated and sluggish, and in what quantities. Once you learn to cut back on those insulin-spikers, you can enjoy your runs without worrying any more about burning off empty calories.
3) Your Run is not Your Own
Hopi and Navajo runners have a long tradition of treating every run as a prayer. Before setting off, they’ll dedicate the run to someone who’s going through a bad time, believing that strength and energy flow toward those who strive for a purpose beyond themselves. Rick Rubin, the legendary music producer and hit maker, only came to exercise late in life and soon discovered that he could make his workouts more rewarding by turning them into an opportunity for directed meditation. To the beat of his movements, he’ll mentally chant:
May my family be filled with love and kindness;
May my family be well;
May my family be peaceful and at ease;
May my family be happy.
“Attaching something bigger to it gives the exercise a higher purpose,’ Rubin says. ‘And it feels completely natural.” Plus, taking a few moments to focus on a friend who’s struggling also serves as an inspiring reminder that no matter what discomfort you’re experiencing, the ability to explore the world on your own two feet is a luxury not everyone can enjoy.
4) Don’t Let Those Sleeping Dogs Lie
The two most important pieces of running equipment aren’t your shoes. It’s those wiggly things inside them. “You’re always told to train your abdominal core but never your foot core, which is probably even more important,” Coach Eric Orton points out. “This crucial bit of muscle-craft is key to health and performance, because we can eliminate so much athletic dysfunction simply by training the feet.” How we stabilize on the ground, he explains, affects how we activate other muscles.
You can wake up those dormant foot muscles in those idle minutes you’d otherwise waste standing around waiting for the coffee to perk. Simply slip off your shoes and balance on the front of one foot, allowing the other leg to wobble around wherever it needs to go for you to balance. At first, you can use the wall for support. But as you get better, see how long you can balance on each foot without help. When you can hit one minute per foot, you’ll be giving those arches and supporting muscles a terrific workout.
5) Crawl First, Fly Later.
“The Tarahumara aren’t great runners,” Coach Eric once told me. “They’re great athletes. Their entire bodies, from head to toe, are synced to their strides.” But you can’t loosen up your chain of movement by, say, grabbing your foot and pulling it up behind your butt, or any of those other static stretches. You need a dynamic movement that not only activates your entire body, but gets both left and right sides moving in unison. That’s why high-flying Parkour athletes like to begin each session with a bear crawl. Their stunts allow no margin for error, so to make sure they’re fully warm and ready, they’ll often begin a session by forming a wide circle, then walking on their hands and feet like grizzlies until they meet in the center.
Then they’ll high five, and bear walk in reverse to their starting point. You can always bear-crawl on your own, of course, and when you pop back to your feet, your entire body will be loosened up and ready to run.
6) Don’t Fear Your Top Gear
The first time I ever ran with Coach Eric, he baffled me with a strange command. “Okay,” he said, as we were jogging around Denver’s City Park. “Let’s see you sprint.” Sprint? Some quick mental math reminded me that the last time I’d run at flat-out, lung-scorching speed was when I arrived late for basketball practice in high school. Since then, all my runs have been geared to whatever semi-comfortable pace could get me to that day’s finish line. Sprinting seemed unnecessary, at best, and a sure recipe for a torn hamstring at worst. But I followed Coach Eric’s orders and sprinted as hard as I could for 30 seconds, then eased off and jogged for a few minutes before sprinting again. I soon discovered that the faster you run, the better your form. It’s actually harder to run sloppily when you’re going full tilt. And secondly, nothing can open up your lungs and electrify your nervous system than reminding your body how fast it can go.
7) We Were Born to Run—Together
Something else Coach Joe Vigil was struck by as he watched the Tarahumara tribesmen racing in Colorado: they stuck together as a group. They weren’t huffing along on their own, their eyes stuck on their watches and their ears stuffed by Air Pods. The Tarahumara remembered that humans have always run best when we’ve run together. For most of our history, we would never run off into the wilderness by ourselves. If we did, it’s doubtful we’d ever make it back again. Instead, we formed into hunting packs that allowed all of us—young and old, male and female, fast and not-so-much—to unite and support each other. Of course, our hectic lives these days require most of us to slot in a solitary workout whenever we can, but consider following in the footsteps of Guillermo Torres, who spends one day each week running with rescue dogs at his local shelter, or the Santa Mujeres Run Crew, who turn out every Thursday—rain or shine—to support Latina women who are newcomers to the sport. Because think back: isn’t every run you ever did with a friend better than one without?
Adapted from McDougall’s new book, Born to Run 2: The Ultimate Training Guide, written with Eric Orton. Published by Knopf