found drama

get oblique

the runner’s diet: where’s the beef?

by Rob Friesel

I just finished reading Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run1—which is a great read and a great2 book.  The book has been tremendously popular and has reached many people3, and there are tons of reviews out there, many of them with the same glowing endorsements and focusing on the same synopsis of the book:

…an epic adventure that began with one simple question: Why does my foot hurt? In search of an answer, Christopher McDougall sets off to find a tribe of the world’s greatest distance runners and learn their secrets, and in the process shows us that everything we thought we knew about running is wrong. […] For centuries [the Tarahumara] have practiced techniques that allow them to run hundreds of miles without rest and chase down anything from a deer to an Olympic marathoner while enjoying every mile of it. Their superhuman talent is matched by uncanny health and serenity, leaving the Tarahumara immune to the diseases and strife that plague modern existence.

So aside from that quote from the inside flap of the dust jacket, I’m not going to go on about the barefoot running.  I’m not going to harp on that.

I am (however) going to harp on a certain apparent contradiction.  Or if not a contradiction, then at least an intractable, difficult-to-reconcile inconsistency between points raised in the text.

It hit me around page 243, right around the time that chapter 28 was wrapping up4.  What hit me was:  there seem to be two different messages about what the “good stuff” to eat is.

But let’s back up for a moment here.

Throughout the text, the message seems to lean toward vegetarianism.  The Tarahumara don’t seem to eat much meat; every time McDougall describes their diet, it’s mostly beans and pinole—and aside from a mention of a soup with beef broth, I can’t find another place where they consume an animal product.  There is a passage where Scott Jurek’s diet is described, and how the coaches of his youth insisted on “lean meat” for muscle development but how as an adult he had stripped down his intake to be bean proteins and raw veggies and the complex carbohydrates from stuff like uncooked oats.  Then there is Dr. Ruth Heidrich’s “simple rule” as espoused to McDougall:

…if it came from plants, she ate it; if it came from animals, she didn’t.

In other words, everyone seems to go vegetarian.  Or vegan.  Or “raw”.

And this is a pretty consistent thread in the overall narrative, right up until chapter 28.

When we get to chapter 28, McDougall starts to talk about the human animal as a running animal, and there is a substantial discussion on the advantages of bipedalism5 and quite a bit of speculation on the evolutionary arc that led to the success of Homo sapiens as a species6.  McDougall focuses on a hypothesis by David Carrier7 that Homo sapiens turned into this explosive success because persistence hunting8 gave them improved access to food (i.e., meat)—and persistence hunting would not be possible without a biology that makes endurance running easy.

If I’m following the text correctly, then the basic idea is this:

  1. Homo sapiens and Neanderthal are competing for resources.
  2. Homo sapiens has a more efficient means of running and can use this efficient running to execute this “persistence hunting”—which basically means that they run their prey to exhaustion.
  3. This strategy somehow permits easier access to food year-round.
  4. Not only that, but the improved access to meat provides a concentrated high-protein food source that allow for rapid brain development and an otherwise improved probability of long-term survival.

So… running gave us better access to meat which was crucial for our species’ evolution and long-term.  And yet we argue that a vegetarian diet is the ultra-marathoner’s ace-in-the-sleeve? …the key to longevity and beating cancer etc.?  But the meat is what got us here in the first place?

Hmm…?

Now before anyone goes all Michael Pollan on me9, bear in mind that what I find obnoxious here is that there doesn’t seem to be much effort to reconcile these conflicting ideas.  Page 244 rolls around and it isn’t about diet anymore; diet becomes about running, and running is what carries the narrative.

So instead we’re left wondering:

  • Is the meat just a gateway?  Break on through the big-brain barrier and you don’t need it anymore?  Or, as much?
  • Did it really not have anything to do with the meat, but instead more to do with the improved strategy combined with Homo sapiens omnivorousness?  Because if the speculation is true and Neanderthal really was exclusively a carnivore, then there’s another advantage we would have right there.  (Which minimizes the importance of the easy-access meat.)
  • Do we need to divorce the arguments?  Is the vegetarianism “right” for the runner’s diet?  And the meat is more to do with the brain development?  (That doesn’t sound right to me at all.)

I’m sure there are more questions to be spawned as I continue to meditate on this.  But as it is not nearly reconciled in the text, I suppose I’ll have to work to reconcile it on my own.

  1. Subtitled: “A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen”. []
  2. And possibly even life-changing? []
  3. Especially runners, and people interested in running. []
  4. Not to mention giving me this utterly perverted desire to run.  What the fuck is that all about? []
  5. Especially w/r/t/ the efficiency of respiration in a bipedal running organism. []
  6. As opposed to (say…) Neanderthal or some off-shoot of that species. []
  7. And/or Dennis Bramble.  Pretty sure the idea originates with Carrier, who was working with (for?) Bramble at the time.  Anyway, the truthy tale (as opposed to strict hypthesizing) about running an antelope to death with the Kalahari Bushmen?  That’s all Louis Liebenberg. []
  8. Not that you can prove such a thing in the fossil record. []
  9. I know and love the credo: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” —Michael Pollan, 2007. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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