My running coach is an 8 lb. chihuahua named Bam. She has arthritis. She also kicks my butt! But with great skill and patience, she is teaching me the ancient art of distance running.
Bam inherited this skill from her remote ancestors:
If you've ever seen wolves run (live or on film) you'll notice that the whole pack rarely runs at top speed. Wolves choose a particular target and then pursues it over a long distance. Wolves run just fast enough to harass their target. Every once in a while, a particular wolf or two will speed up to attack the prey. The rest hang back, saving their strength. The animal tires. When it is tired enough, the wolves close in. Injuries to wolves are rare. Failure is even less likely.
In other words, the wolf is a "persistence predator." This means that it combines two traits: (1) great endurance, and (2) great communication within the pack.
Homo Sapiens is also a "persistence predator." This may be one of the factors that led our species to hook up with dogs (who are really wolves) in the first place: Our styles of hunting are similar, facilitated by similar styles of running.
Many animals run faster than Homo Sapiens. Few can run as far without rest. The San of the Kalahari Desert, considered by some anthropologists to be the world's oldest ethnic group, still hunt in a way devised long, long ago on the grasslands of Africa: Choose your prey, follow it, harass it, don't let it rest. When the San finally kill their prey, it is rarely a dramatic affair. The animal is exhausted. Result: Few injured San. Even fewer failed hunts.
Just like wolves.
Ever seen a San run? They use the same strategy as any good distance runner: Relax, stay loose, don't ball your fists, don't pump your arms, come down into your knees, open up your feet, feel your toes, move from your core. It even helps to smile! All this is because the San are using the human body the way it was originally designed to be used -- taking advantage of our incredible endurance, our efficient and flexible structure.
A very similar style of running can be seen in successful Olympic marathon runners, most of whom come from Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2008, I watched Samuel Wanjiru from Kenya win a gold medal in Beijing, clocking in at 2 hours, 6 minutes, 32 seconds. He approached the finish line with a slight smile on his face, waving gently to his fans.
There is much more than a style of running here. There is a philosophy of life.
But Wanjiru's speed in Beijing isn't the world record for the marathon. That was set by the Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie in Berlin that same year. Gebrselassie clocked in at 2 hours, 3 minutes, 59 seconds. I didn't catch that live. But I suspect that Gebrselassie has the same relaxed, core-based style of running. I've seen it in the San, in Masai, in Kenyans, and in every African runner I've ever watched.
Fact: All top 10 speed records for the marathon were set by Africans. Is this genetic?
Fair question, but I think not. Humans are born with almost identical physical hardware. Our bones and muscles and nerves are based on a genetic blueprint that is eerily similar throughout our species. It has been said that two chimps sitting next to each other on a log in the jungle have more genetic diversity between them than every human on earth.
Unlike chimps, we're almost clones of each other.
What differs among humans is not our physical blueprint or hardware. What differs is our software, the deep cultural patterns that guide our movements. So a great deal of my work consists of repairing bugs in the software of how we move our bodies. This is cultural and psychological, not genetic.
So my advice, if you're a runner, is to remember the lessons of your deep ancestry. Run like a San. Run like a Kenyan. Run like an Ethiopian. Relax, stay loose, don't ball your fists, don't pump your arms, come down into your knees, open up your feet, feel your toes, move from your core. It even helps to smile!
Specifically, you should get the book Chi Running by Danny Dreyer. If possible, find a local instructor who uses his method. Based in Martial Arts, Dreyer's approach offers a wonderful alternative to the injury-prone style of running prevalent in the West today.
If this method is used by more Westerners, the African monopoly on setting records for the marathon may be broken!
Oh, and one more thing:
Get a dog.