Maximalism, Minimalism, and the Nature of Running

Here in Iowa, snow piles are melting, daffodils are peaking up through morning frost, and the daytime temperatures have hit highs so long forgotten we thought maybe spring and summer were just fables passed down from our grandmothers. This, of course, means 5k season is upon us. In the next six weeks, several dozen local races will be held with varying fanfare and runners will shed their winter layers and hit the trails/streets/sidewalks with renewed sense of purpose. Special issues of Runner’s World and Running Times are touting the newest accessories and hottest races.

Between organized races, specialized nutrition products, books and magazines, clothing and accessories, and (most importantly for this post) shoes, “running” is a multi-billion dollar, profit driven industry. As such, hotly debated consumer trends come and go, explained away by the laws of supply and demand. So called maximalist running shoes are the latest incarnation of these consumer driven trends. With their high profiles, bulky midsoles, and cushy feel, maximalist shoes are purportedly the “answer” to the minimalist trend of the past decade. In turn, minimalist shoes, with their low-profiles and very little cushioning, were purportedly the “answer” to the stagnation of a sluggish, inflexible running shoe industry.

Mafate Speed             vs.                

For the past five years, I’ve had the opportunity to teach physical activity classes. Despite having little experience running, students in my Jogging classes have been quick to argue that minimalist shoes are the best type of shoe for running. They launch into monologues about heel-toe drop, EVA midsoles, and foot strike patterns. When asked why minimal shoes are the best, they inevitably answer, “because it is more natural.”

But, what counts as “natural” and how is that measured?

Paradoxically Unsurprisingly, proponents of minimalism and maximalism evangelize their running philosophies as more natural through a reliance on scientific and medical research. Citing a bevy of biomechanical, physiological, and orthopedic studies, maximalists and minimalists alike use the frames of science to understand and discuss running. Key terms like footstrike phase, energy displacement, submaximal velocity, and metabolic functionality are used to establish a runner’s biomechanical efficiency and running economy.

Within these highly technologized and scientific discussions of running, “natural running form” is established over and against technological advancement. As Christopher McDougall writes in Born to Run, “Before the invention of the cushioned running shoe, runners throughout the ages had identical form: Jesse Owens, Roger Bannister, Frank Shorter, and even Emil Zatopek all ran with backs straight, knees bent, feet scratching back under their hips” (p. 180). McDougall’s invocation of these well-known runners from different eras, geographical locations, and race & ethnicity establishes a universal “we” through running form. And, the inclusion of Emil Zatopek who had a looping, gangly, pained running style seals the deal, working to smooth out the differences in their running styles.

Thus, the trajectory goes like this: we (humans) used to run with good form. But, in our quest for speed, we began to develop technology which would help us run faster. Shoe companies quickly developed complicated foot platforms and propulsion systems for their specialty running shoes. As more people took up running through a series of running booms, we became reliant on these specialty shoes. And unfortunately, the specialty shoes (and the technological advances which generated them) only created problems for the human body – deterioration of foot musculature, knee pain, hip misalignment, etc.

Therefore, both the boom and bust of running is situated within its increasing popularity over the second half of the 20th century. Historians of running and running historians have outlined the 1970s running boom. In Kings of the Road, Cameron Stracher argues that it was the rivalries between Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar which boosted the popularity of running. Televised races where they raced head to head, combined with the allure of Steve Prefontaine and Bill Bowerman’s development of the Nike waffle sole running shoe, created a perfect storm of consumer demand for both running shoes and organized races. In Tread Lightly, Peter Larson and Bill Katovsky argue that Instead of encouraging runners to practice proper running form, running shoe developers created technologically advanced shoes which could support the millions of novice feet hitting the road for the first time.

This construction of natural running form vs. technologically aided running form relies upon linear progress narratives. These narratives hold that US society, and human culture more broadly, have positively progressed over time, becoming more civilized and advanced. However, in this case, technology has crippled the human capacity to run naturally. Consequently, the solution is to return to natural running. And the proof, according to Christopher McDougall, is in a group of “superhuman primitives” living in a desolate and remote Mexican canyon.

McDougall goes to visit the “hidden tribe” of Tarahumara Indians – who represent both the universality of natural running and the locatable pre-modern, pre-technological past. When describing the meeting between Scott Jurek, an American ultra-marathoner, and Arnulfo, a Tarahumara Indian, McDougall writes, “Even though Scott had never seen the Tarahumara before and Arnulfo had never seen the outside world, somehow these two men separated by two thousand years of culture had developed the same running style. They’d approached the art from the opposite ends of history, and met precisely in the middle” (p. 252). After an extended discussion of Jurek’s training style and running philosophy, McDougall arrives at this epiphany, “Arnulfo wasn’t going up against a fast American. He was about to race the world’s only twenty-first century Tarahumara” (p. 254).

Writing about Tarahumara, as if they have not “seen the outside world” is not only disingenuous, but is simply wrong. With the 1904 Anthropological Days haunting the spectacle, Tarahumara runners had been invited to run in several super-long-distance “ultramarathon” races in the 1990s. Further, this narrative conveniently obscures the roles of colonialism and imperialism in constructing North American political economies and nationalistic boundaries. McDougall talks of drug lords, unemployment, and alcoholism in Born to Run, but fails to connect those to US foreign policies such as NAFTA, the War on Drugs, and increasingly militarized borders. As Mary Louise Pratt would argue, the Copper Canyons are a geographical contact zone where cultures meet, yet McDougall constructs an imperialist tale of conquest and discovery which reinforces racist notions of Indians as backwards savages.

McDougall, of course is not alone. And the Tarahumara are not the only group singled out for their “natural running abilities.” Controversy and racialized nationalist sentiment abound when the topic of African runners, especially Kenyans, is broached. Headlined by Ryan Hall, a long list of great white hopes have been lauded as the next American champion. These (white) Americans are underdogs by default, as whiteness is constructed as a biological disadvantage. Scientists have long been invested in race-based biological advantages, and racialized understandings of bodies shapes our collective view of sport. The intricacies of our fascination with Kenyan running, examined by Theresa Walton and Ted Butryn, is the topic for another blog post. However, it is useful here in examining what Joe Feagin would call running’s white racial frame.

The white racial frame shapes the way we view seemingly innocuous topics, such as “natural running form.” Running form and the debates about its nature, are always already rooted in racialized (and gendered) modes of understanding. Colonialsm and imperialism greatly shape our understanding of “nature” as something which is premodern and inaccessible. Further, they shape the ways we understand and interact with people of other cultures. To be sure, the story of McDougall’s ongoing relationships with Tarahumara Indians, would be different if we paid attention to the ways colonialism and imperialism shape our understanding of ourselves and our actions. But, so too, our understanding of ourselves as actors within ongoing imperial projects would change. Should change.

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