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Fast and Injury Free – Secrets from the World’s Best Runners
Part I

By Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN

The Tarahumara Indians of Mexico are one of the few tribes in the world that live well into their hundreds. Another amazing feature of this tribe is that they are well known to be incredible distance runners. In fact, they are able to run more than 100 miles at a time, even in the 60s! In the 1993 Leadville ultramarathon, the winner was a 55 year old man from the Tarahumara tribe.

What’s even more amazing is that they don’t even wear shoes. They simply run in sandals that are attached to the feet by a few simple pieces of leather. And the best part – the runners in this tribe are almost all injury free! So what’s their secret? How can they run so long, in such heat, while only wearing sandals and being?

Here are 2 secrets of the Tarahumara running legends:


Get Rid of the Overprotective Shoes

According to Gerard Hartmann, Ph.D, an exercise physiologist who works with the world’s greatest marathoners and is a consultant to Nike, most running injuries are a result of too much foam-injected pampering in today’s shoes. Running shoes have become so elaborately over cushioned and motion controlling that they cause the foot muscles to atrophy while shortening and stiffening our foot’s tendons. This is similar to core muscle atrophying that occurs with weightlifters that consistently employ waist belts.

The key is to choose shoes that are neutral, low-heeled, and comfortable. They should ideally allow your foot to do what it’s supposed to do. In fact, the optimal running condition is barefoot on grass. When your foot is allowed to move through its natural mechanics its intrinsic muscles will become stronger which will help pull the foot’s arches up into their optimal position. Barefoot training (or free running shoes) also improves proprioceptive (balance and spatial awareness) outcomes.

Land on the Balls of Your Feet

Contrary to traditional heel-to-toe running, the Tarahumara are well known for their forefoot striking tendencies. Many elite running coaches are now supporting the view that poor running form and landing mechanics are significant causes of chronic running injuries. When you land on the heel of your foot you are in essence applying the brakes - slowing down your running stride - and transmitting greater amounts of force through your body’s passive structures (ie. bones, cartilage). After running this way for hundreds or thousands of miles, it can become quite damaging to your body. Think about – if you were to jump from a high elevation and land on your heels your body’s bones would be crushed by the force. However, if you’re like most human beings, you would logically land on the balls of your feet to absorb the shock! The same thing occurs with running.

The forefoot strike of the Tarahumara allows the leg act like a piston-like shock absorber. When you land on the balls of your feet, your leg is never really fully stretched. Therefore, the ground reaction forces are allowed to be absorbed by the active muscles (especially those in the calves).

If you decide to give this running technique a go, there a few things to keep in mind. First, keep your hips dead under your shoulders and dead above your feet to ensure proper form. Second, relax your leg muscles and engage your core so that the momentum is coming not from your quads but rather from your core muscles and glutes. Third, anticipate soreness in your calves after your first few runs. Because you’ll be landing on the balls of your feet, your calves will be eccentrically loaded (contracting while lengthening) during each foot strike. This is what causes muscle soreness – similar to the “negative” when lifting weights. Be sure to stretch them out after each run and to incorporate this forefoot striking technique as much or as little as you see fit during your runs.

Stay tuned for part II where you’ll learn some more life-altering running secrets from the Tarahumara tribe.

© 2007 Yuri Elkaim, BPHE, CK, RHN