Josh about to pass his grandpa

Josh about to pass his grandpa
Here, at age three, Josh regularly runs a mile or two with me--and I have to work hard to keep up!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

How Do Runners Breathe? "Born to Run" Got it Backward. Why Won't the Author Own Up?

       Chris McDougall, author of Born to Run, is wrong again.  And this time, it doesn't seem to be either his relative lack of experience as a runner or his carelessness in checking the facts about what he writes.  This time, it looks like outright denial that he made a serious mistake--a mistake that could cause a lot of discomfort to other people.
       I don't like bringing this up, because I think McDougall did something quite admirable in writing a book that has evidently inspired many thousands of people to take up running.  As I said in a previous post, his tale about the barefoot-running Tarahumara Indians is quite entertaining.  However, I also pointed out that he was quite mistaken about a few things--such as his suggestion that Nike running shoes were the cause of innumerable running injuries, and that the University of Utah researcher Dennis Bramble had said that we human runners have an advantage over other (quadruped) animals because humans can take more than one breath per stride--as if that were somehow an advantage.
       In my earlier post, I noted that when I read that purported quote, I knew something had to be wrong.  As an experienced long-distance runner, I knew perfectly well that it has to be the other way around--humans normally take two or more strides per breath.  Anyone who tries running the way McDougall implied, in his quoting of Bramble, would quickly hyperventilate.  I e-mailed Bramble to ask if he'd been misquoted, and he confirmed that he had.
       Then, a few days ago, I got an email from a sportsmedicine and exercise-medicine physician, Dr. Rajat Chauhan, who had seen my post and quoted it in a post of his own, on a Wall Street Journal blog.  Dr. Chauhan, like Dr. Bramble, confirmed my point. A couple of days later, Dr. Chauhan sent another email saying that McDougall had commented on his post:
           
        Rajat, you and Ed Ayres are incorrect.  The passage you mention in "Born to Run" refer(s) to   two steps per breath, not two breaths per step.

        Unfortunately, that isn't what the passage says at all, as Dr. Chauhan pointed out in the following reply:

        In hardcover copy of 37th printing, January 2011 edition of book Born to Run: a Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race Never Seen, on page 223, Christopher McDougall states the following:
          "Whenever quadrupeds run, they get stuck in a one-breath-per-locomotion-cycle," Dr. Bramble said. "But the human runners we tested never went one-to-one.  They could pick from a number of different ratios, and generally preferred two to one."  The reason we're free to pant to our heart's content is the same reason we need to shower on a summer day: we are the only mammals that shed most of our heat by sweating.

        Clearly, this passage quotes Bramble as saying humans prefer two to one breaths per locomotion cycle (stride).  But if there's any doubt about that being a misquote that could cause a lot of beginning runners a lot of discomfort or worse, two other points settle it.  First, McDougall's wording "we're free to pant to our heart's content"(!) is an appropriate description for two breaths per stride, but not for two strides per breath. "Pant" is exactly what you'd do if you took two breaths per stride: you'd be like a dog panting with its tongue out after a hard dash.  And second, there's that point about sweat, which McDougall seems also to have misunderstood.  The reason a dog pants is precisely because it does not have the human's bare skin and capacity to get evaporative cooling from sweat, except maybe on its tongue.  And because the human runner has that unique cooling mechanism, he or she does NOT have to "pant!"  Since when is it desirable or comfortable, or even sustainable for more than a minute or two, for us human runners to "pant to our heart's content"?  Apparently, McDougall got quite mixed up about what Bramble was saying about how human runners breathe, and about how that is related to cooling.  Our cooling system means we don't have to pant like dogs with their tongues hanging out.  In other words, a big part of what makes humans outstanding long-distance runners, compared with other mammals, is that we get a lot of distance for each breath we take.  I have no doubt that many of those Tarahumara McDougall admires can run up steep hills with two strides per breath and on easier terrain with four or five strides per breath.  I do it myself, all the time.  Beginning runners need to know that they can too.
       
       Being wrong is undestandable, of course; it's only human. "What's more worrying," writes Dr. Chauhan about McDougall's flat denial, "is his attitude: is he going back on what he says, but can't publicly say he is wrong. That could help the running community in a far bigger way."


       

7 comments:

jillieb2 said...

Disappointed with the book and all the hype it got!

Frew said...

I read the book and listened to the audiobook as well and to me it was clear that it was inferred that we could take 2 strides to 1 breath... or as many strides as was comfortable to one breath. Seems a bit of a small point that clearly was misinterpreted to try and discredit the entire philosophy. Having a masters in biomechanics and being a long time runner an coach, I had no problem giving it a critical chance... After 4 months I'm only enjoying running more.

Ed Ayres said...

Meanwhile, Frew, the Wall Street Journal blogger we cited earlier reports that Chris McDougall is injured and now unable to run. Glad to hear you're feeling good after four weeks, but let's hope you still feel that way after four years.
As for the strides per breath, suggest you go back and read the passage in the book again. My guess is that you read it as two or more strides per breath because that's the way you naturally breathe when you run, and subconsciously expected that's what you were reading. But that's not what the book says.

Robin said...

Ed, I am a couch potato that has been inspired by Born To Run. I have read all your post on McDougall's books and have really enjoyed them. I decided a few weeks ago to read the book again and found myself skipping ahead to get to the mechanics/evolutionary portion of the book as I was most fascinated by this portion although I didn't realize it my first time through.
I would venture to guess that Bramble is quoted accurately (and McDougall understands it as per his reply to Rajat) and is referring to humans 2 strides per 1 breathe. In the quadrapeds quote it was breath per stride but the human quote switches and is strides per breath. A bit of editing would have worked here and perhaps cleared the confusion. I remember when I read this and the next day when I was out running I tried taking more breaths per stride because that is how I read that passage. It didn't work very well but I just thought that he meant we could breath more if we needed to whereas quadrapeds can not. McDougall may know what it means but it tripped me up when I first read it.

VipinG said...

The objective of that particular paragraph in the book was not be set a benchmark for breathing but to bring out facts in support of his theory that humans are born to run. The whole point being made by McDougall is that compared to quadrupeds (read animals)we humans have more options and we could choose how much we want to breathe or the way we want to cool down (say by taking a shower or may be by drowning in cool beer). Whereas animals have been programmed to breathe in a certain way , which they cannot change, which limits their ability to run any differently than what they have been designed for. I would rather leave it here than get into trivia on the semantics of whether it is one step or two steps or more.

23 Skidoo said...

I thought I was the only one that noticed that little discrepancy. When I swim, and absolutely can't take a breath between strokes, I often INHALE every 3rd stroke. That way I manage to turn my head in both directions and not favor one side or another..during the strokes between my INHALES, I am exhaling slowly the entire duration so that I am ready for a full, deep INHALE when I surface again on the 3rd stroke. Sometimes, I change it up to 5 strokes between INHALES...

23 Skidoo said...

I thought I was the only one that noticed that little discrepancy. When I swim, and absolutely can't take a breath between strokes, I often INHALE every 3rd stroke. That way I manage to turn my head in both directions and not favor one side or another..during the strokes between my INHALES, I am exhaling slowly the entire duration so that I am ready for a full, deep INHALE when I surface again on the 3rd stroke. Sometimes, I change it up to 5 strokes between INHALES...