Random item from my box of running memorabilia.

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."