The author Christopher McDougall helped make barefoot running mainstream with his best-selling book “Born to Run,” a tale about a tribe of endurance runners and an annual 50-mile footrace in the mountains of Mexico.
Now Mr. McDougall returns with another tale that he hopes will again upend the fitness world, this time by getting people out of the sterile gym environment to run, jump, throw and climb outdoors. In his new book, “Natural Born Heroes: How a Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance,” Mr. McDougall writes about the benefits of exercising outdoors on trails, creek beds and rocks, where footholds are uncertain and paths contain obstacles like rocks and fallen trees that need to be climbed or hurdled.
For this month’s Well Book Club, I spoke with Mr. McDougall about the problem with indoor fitness routines, what kind of workout he has been doing lately and what it really takes to climb a rope. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It came out of “Born to Run,” but by accident. I was researching indigenous and ancient runners, and I came across a reference to the Cretan runner. He was a foot messenger during World War II. I put it aside but I was intrigued. What was this guy’s story? I circled back and found this whole other fascinating story about people doing these superhuman feats on foot, behind enemy lines, running 40 to 100 miles at a time on a starvation diet.
Achieving that level of fitness seems so unattainable. Is there a lesson here for a regular person?
The big reveal to me was that they’re not superhuman at all. Where we have really gone off the rails in our modern concept of the hero is this Hollywood assumption that they are all like Hugh Jackman. In reality, the classic Greek ideal of a hero was a common person. It was a virtue, a responsibility, that every person should be able to develop these natural, very attainable skills to be reliable in a crisis, to be capable of helping someone else out.
What are the skills of a natural-born hero?
It’s about developing your natural abilities so you have dexterity for throwing, climbing or crawling. Strength is about using that natural elastic recoil in our body to tap into these latent reservoirs of strength. They are there; we just don’t use them.
One of the skills you write about is climbing. Can you tell me more about that?
Kids love to climb. They want to get off the ground all the time. After the age of 5 or 6, we stop practicing the ability to get our bodies off the ground. One of the things I never could do was climb a rope. Climbing a rope is not a muscular challenge; it’s a dexterity challenge. I got a 30-foot rope, slung it over a branch in my yard and started studying climbing techniques. Within a day, I was climbing. You trap the rope between your feet. You don’t pull yourself up by your arms; you step up with your legs.
Why do you think people have lost these natural abilities for throwing and climbing?
At age 5 or 6, we stick kids in a class and say: “Sit there. Don’t move until 3 p.m. and then go home and do homework.” We take these physical animals and turn them into sedentary animals. And one of the things I’ve really come to believe passionately while researching this book is that most recreational sports are created by men for men, and they use male attributes like body strength. But the real skills, the human skills, are the ones where the differences between men and women are the slimmest. Humans have great dexterity and adaptability. Some of the greatest rock climbers in the world are women.
So how should people change their exercise habits in the modern world?
Add things to your workout that you don’t think you can do. Try to climb a rope. Walk on all fours. Get outside and do things you’re not expecting.
Why is an outdoor workout better than a workout in a gym?
In a gym, you are stationary and artificially balanced. You’re on a padded seat, strapped in and isolating one muscle. All of the uncertainty in the range of motion has been stripped away. In the real world when you move, you don’t isolate one muscle. We have been trying the stationary machine model for 40 years, and it’s failed. It’s based on body building. Size was never the goal of the hunter gatherer. You never wanted to be big; you wanted to be mobile and agile.
So many people embraced barefoot running after your first book. What is the ultimate advice in this book?
I think it’s that we should be fit to be useful. What’s the point of your exercise? Why are you getting big or lifting stuff if it’s not useful? Can I use this skill to pick up a child who needs help or use this to pull a rope? There is this group called the November Project. In Boston when they got hit by the blizzard, they got snow shovels and dug out subway stations. How cool is that? They probably got the best workout of their lives, and so many people were benefiting from it.
So what kind of training do you do now?
I’ve become infatuated by Parkour. People think it’s daredeviltry on rooftops, but it’s about learning how to shift our body weight and using parts of your body you tend to ignore. I also take my runs off of trails and into creek beds. That uncertain footing allows you to work on agility and nimbleness. An immediate benefit is that it focuses you on the present.