Many people that are into trail running would like to become better. This is where a person should look at history as trail running has been around for thousands of years.
A great example is the Rarámuri or Tarahumara which are a group of indigenous people of the Americas living in the state of Chihuahua in Mexico. They are renowned for their long-distance running ability.
Originally inhabitants of much of Chihuahua, the Rarámuri retreated to the high sierras and canyons such as the Copper Canyon in the Sierra Madre Occidental on the arrival of Spanish invaders in the 16th century. The area of the Sierra Madre Occidental which they now inhabit is often called the Sierra Tarahumara because of their presence.
Skilled Athletic Runners
The Tarahumara word for themselves, Rarámuri, means “runners on foot” or “those who run fast” in their native tongue according to some early ethnographers like Norwegian Carl Lumholtz, though this interpretation has not been fully agreed upon. With widely dispersed settlements, these people developed a tradition of long-distance running up to 200 miles (320 km) in one session, over a period of two days through their homeland of rough canyon country, for inter-village communication, transportation, and hunting.
The Tarahumara’s use of huaraches, a traditional form of minimal footwear, when running has been the subject of scientific study as well as journalistic discourse. In his book, Born to Run, author Christopher McDougall argues in favor of the endurance running hypothesis and the barefoot running movement based on his time with the Tarahumara people and their running in huaraches. The award-winning documentary GOSHEN Film, features Christopher McDougall speaking about the Tarahumara tribe’s athletic abilities linked to their footwear and diet.
The long-distance running tradition also has ceremonial and competitive aspects. Often, men kick wooden balls as they run in “foot throwing”, rarajipari, competitions, and women use a stick and hoop. The foot throwing races are relays where the balls are kicked by the runners and relayed to the next runner while teammates run ahead to the next relay point. These races can last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days without a break.
The Tarahumara commonly hunt with bow and arrows but are also known for their ability to run down deer and wild turkeys. Anthropologist Jonathan F. Cassel describes the Tarahumaras’ hunting abilities: “the Tarahumara literally run the birds to death. Forced into a rapid series of takeoffs, without sufficient rest periods between, the heavy-bodied bird does not have the strength to fly or run away from the Tarahumara hunter.”
4 Secrets of the Tarahumara That Will Improve Your Running
1. Do not waste energy.
American ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek, who won seven straight Western States Endurance Run and set numerous American ultra-records, spent time with the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyon in 2006. He observed that nothing is wasted with these runners. “What really stood out to me when I ran with them is the efficiency with how they live their lives as well as the efficiency while running,” he says. “They are really about not wasting energy or calories. When I was in the Copper Canyon hiking with Micah True and the Tarahumara for 16 hours, I didn’t particularly notice that they had the perfect stride—not that they didn’t—but I noticed how they didn’t waste any energy. We would take a water break, or a rest and they would all sit down right away. They didn’t stand. It was all about conservation to them.” Jurek also points out that this focus on efficiency translated into all things for the Tarahumara, from water conservation to their running stride to pacing. “A lot of people think there is some magical secret around the Tarahumara, but it really comes down to simple things like how you use your energy and when you are consuming energy, being in that present moment,” he says. Jurek also notes that the Tarahumara don’t subscribe to the philosophy of “putting time in the bank” for long runs. “As a culture they have to be able to have the energy to run over a canyon after transmitting messages or trading with another tribe,” he says. “Their pace can’t be haphazard, because they don’t have a lot of extra calories to waste.”
2. Work as a team.
McDougall points out that the Tarahumara benefit from running together as a tribe. “Anyone who’s ever joined a running club has already learned one of the most important lessons of the Tarahumara: collaboration makes you stronger and happier,” he says.
The Tarahumara always race as a team, not as individuals. They feed off each other’s energy and camaraderie, but there’s also another benefit: by pacing yourself to the group, you reduce the risk of going out too hard and blowing up. “These days, I run with friends as often as possible and it’s made a tremendous improvement in my mileage and enjoyment,” McDougall said.
3. Run with a contagious joy.
Dana Richardson and Sarah Zentz recently completed a documentary, Goshen, about the Tarahumara and picked up on their love of the sport. “What we noticed when filming the Tarahumara men running the traditional ball race [Rarajipari] and the women running their hoop and arrow race [Ariweta], that for the Tarahumara running is a joyful and sacred experience with a powerful spiritual significance,” says Richardson.
“Their traditional running is about working together in teams, celebrating as a community and honoring one another. Their laughter while running their traditional races was not only contagious, but inspiring. When we came back to the States and examined the faces of people running, we noticed pain, suffering, and unhappiness. I believe we get it wrong firstly by running without having correct form. Therefore, we do experience pain from injuries and loose the joy that can be found in running.”
4. Embrace simplicity.
The Tarahumara don’t rely on GPS watches, heart-rate monitors, pace calculators, detailed training plans or a special shoe that best matches their running stride. Keeping things simple allows them to focus exclusively on running. McDougall contends that most runners today are too focused on the wrong things: the ‘getting’ instead of learning—i.e., getting new shoes, getting into Boston, getting a PR, getting ahead of that other guy on Strava—all that acquire and conquer nonsense. “The Tarahumara treat running as a fine art, something to be learned slowly and perfected over a lifetime,” he says. “The goal isn’t necessarily to become fast; it’s to become good. Artists don’t obsess over speed; they obsess over mastering skills. For runners, that skill is form. The more you learn about moving your body lightly and efficiently, the closer you’ll be to running like the Tarahumara.”
Tarahumara people or ‘Running people’ are a group of Native American people living in the north-western Mexico who can run 400+ miles in around 50 hours!
Another thing that sets the Tarahumara apart from most of the rest of us, is that running is a big part of their culture. In other words, they do it a lot and from an early age they will run hundreds of miles. The body has an incredible ability to adapt to the demands we place upon it, so if you do this regularly enough it follows that you will gradually become a more and more efficient runner.
Conversely, most of us will spend most of our time sitting completely still either at work or watching Game of Thrones at home. Not only does this lead to a weakened cardiovascular system, but it also weakens the muscles in the leg and back and creates several imbalances.
Unfortunately, you’re not going to catch up with the amount of practice that the Tarahumara have had at this point in your life. That said, if you gradually start running more and more, you might be surprised at the changes that occur in the body.
Finally, some of the Tarahumara prowess may be a result of their diet. This diet consists of largely beans, squash, greens, corn, chilli and chia. Chia is a seed which can absorb over 12 times its weight in water.
On top of that, the Tarahumara also like to drink. Specifically, they enjoy a home-brewed corn beer which is made from chia seeds.
Not only is this diet high in all manner of vitamins and minerals, fiber, protein and more – but it’s also possible that the chia seed helps to provide a supply of water to keep the Tarahumara running for longer.
Combine this with the relatively high calories of the beer (and the fact that it isn’t particularly alcoholic) and you potentially have a very good source of energy and hydration before a long-distance run.
You can buy chia seeds on Amazon if you want to give them a go yourself, and likewise you can try stocking up on calories of one form or another (try bananas) next time you head out.
Again, having chia beer is hardly going to turn you into a super athlete overnight. The real take-home message then is just that you could be running farther and faster. And while you might think it’s normal to be completely out of breath and in pain following any kind of running or jogging, this is in fact very far from the truth. You might not be able to get to Tarahumara standards, but you could certainly do better!
Because they run in bare feet or rudimentary sandals, they run differently from most modern long-distance runners. This could be key to their apparently superhuman endurance. In running shoes, the heel strikes the ground first, and ground reaction force travels from heel and foot through our center of mass. In the last few years, there has been much speculation and research going on about this very issue —whether wearing running shoes works for us, or perhaps, against us.
When it comes to going ultra-distances, nothing could beat the Tarahumara – not a racehorse, not a cheetah, not an Olympic marathoner. Very few outsiders had ever seen the Tarahumara in action, but amazing stories of their superhuman toughness and tranquility have drifted out of the canyons for centuries. One explorer spent 10 hours crossing a mountain by mule; a Tarahumara runner made the same trip in 90 minutes.
One reason the Tarahumara squeeze so much mileage out of their feet is because they don’t baby them. Nicholas Romanov, PhD, a running technique specialist who has coached British Olympians, explains that cushioned shoes throw off your center of balance, allowing sloppiness to creep into your posture. They also cause you to rely on air-injected foam to absorb shock, not the natural compression of your joints – meaning, your legs become more rigid and less responsive. Strip down to bare feet and you’ll instantly notice two sensations: First, you recenter yourself over the balls of your feet. Second, your body regains its innate gyroscopic ability – whenever you step on a pebble and flinch, your legs instinctively twist and bend, and then shift back to perfect balance again.
According to Eric Orton, an endurance sport coach in the US who has studied Tarahumara lore, the Mexican Indians aren’t great runners. “They’re great athletes, and those two things are very different,” he says.
“Your body needs to be shocked to become resilient,” Orton believes. Follow the same daily routine, and your muscular-skeletal system goes on autopilot. But surprise it with new challenges – leap over a creek, leopard-crawl under a log, sprint till your lungs are bursting – and scores of nerves and ancillary muscles are suddenly electrified into action.
For the Tarahumara, that’s just daily life. They step into the unknown every time they leave their caves because they never know how fast they’ll have to sprint after a rabbit, how much firewood they’ll have to haul home, or how tricky the climbing will be during a winter storm. Before the Tarahumara run long, they get strong.
Strength drills aren’t as fun as running a fastbreak drill through the forest with a pack of Tarahumara kids, but they’re nearly as effective.
Why to take up Trail running
It’s a chance to get your nature on
Much has been written on how running benefits our brains as well as our bodies; some studies show that running in nature benefits the brain even more than running in the city. You’re bound to see some interesting wildlife and birds, and who wouldn’t rather breathe in the scent of wildflowers than bus fumes? And with all that birdsong, who knows, you might even leave your earbuds at home and embrace the sounds of nature.
You’re already out there, so why not switch it up?
We could be mistaken, but we suspect very few people take up trail running who have never run before. Most people start on the roads, and then hear about this thing called “trail running” and they want to give it a try. So, there’s not much new learning happening; if you can run on the road, you can run on a trail. It’s the same activity even if one has more tree roots.
You might seriously boost your fitness level
We almost forgot to mention trail running involves serious ups and downs in elevation. The word to describe this is “technical,” and you’ll soon find out it is sometimes a euphemism used to describe scrambling on your hands and knees, grasping at anything that’ll hold you as you try to ascend terrain that was clearly not designed for bipeds.
The swag at trail races
Trail races offer some of the grooviest swag out there. And we’re not just talking massive belt buckles. Trail races have partnered with everything from brewers to potters to beekeepers to wrought-iron workers in the search for unique trail race souvenirs and prizes. (And no, you don’t have to run 250K through the Sahara Desert to earn it. Though that option is available.)
You can choose and train for a variety of distances
Did we lose you just then, with talk of 250K races? No worries. Though many ultramarathons are run on trails, trail running is not synonymous with ultramarathoning. There are trail races as short as 5K, if 380 miles (the 6693 Ultra, from the Eagle Plains Hotel on the Klondike Highway to Tuktoyaktuk), and just about everything in between. So no, you do not have to run a marathon. Or an ultramarathon. Unless you want to.
You’ll meet some interesting folks
Dedicated trail runners are a special bunch. And we admit that some become so hard-core that they look down their noses at road runners. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.