What Can The Tarahumara Indians Tell Us About The Importance Of Running Long Distances?
Today’s article is coming from a Skribit question. It is:
Exercise? DeVany says no long endurance, contrast with Tarahumara Indians running.
I’m assuming that the question is something along the lines of “How do we reconcile DeVany’s (and others’) advice to do no long distance with tribes like the Tarahumara who run marathon distances daily?”
Just How Much Do The Tarahumara Run?
The simple answer: A LOT! If you’d like some clarification on just how much though, read on. From a Lehigh University term paper on Ultra Marathon Running comes a bit of information. The Tarahumara live in a rather rugged mountainous area with deep canyons, making travel by wagon and horseback difficult or impossible. That means foot travel is the mode of transportation. But why walk when you can run?
For the people to whom running is a lifestyle, ultra marathon running seems an old phenomenon, one that has been a part of daily life since its beginnings. Running more than twenty-six miles a day seems a menial task to a Tarahumara, a daily chore, while to the Americans running next to them it is an all consuming feat. …. The Tarahumara routinely run distances only covered by only the most advanced ultramarathon runners today.
We’ve all heard tales of hunter-gatherers running animals to death by simply not letting them stop to rest, known as persistence hunting. While a human can’t outrun a deer over one hundred meters, but continuing to run and forcing the deer to keep moving, a human can exhaust a deer. The Tarahumara are apparently excellent at this.
Tarahumara running is based on endurance not speed. This fact is exemplified by their hunting practices. In order to catch such wild animals as deer, wild turkeys, and rabbits, the Tarahumara simply chase after the animal until the animal drops from exhaustion. Their hunting practices are widely known in Mexico and ranchers have been known to hire the indians to chase down wild horses .
And What Does That Mean For Our Own Training?
The human body is almost infinitely adaptable. As I’ve mentioned before, cultures have survived on both low-carb and low-fat diets. And it’s easy to see that there are people that do quite well running miles upon miles while there are others that are just as healthy doing no distance work at all. How do we put it all together?
For the answer, let’s look back at this post listing the 10 physical skills of basic fitness. Notice the first one: “cardiorespiratory endurance”. That to me says that there is a place in a training program for distance training. The major failing of most training programs, however, is that they place the ability to run mile after mile as an ends in and of itself rather than as a means to achieving a well-rounded fitness profile. Remember, there are 10 physical skills and this is but one of them, holding an equal weighting in the overall profile.
Lyle McDonald has touched on this twice, first in his post Pole Vault Your Way To A Hot Body (looks like someone didn’t appreciate him hotlinking the photo of Allison Stokke) and then again in a Q&A dealing with the first article. As Lyle points out (and as I can attest from my own sprint training), sprinters do a good bit of low intensity work. Much of it is tempo work rather than miles on the road, but nonetheless, it’s not all max speed interval work. (In fact, max speed work typically involves exceptionally long rest periods). The benefit of a run, say heading out for 3-4 miles, is that it allows a low intensity active recovery day. The body is still in motion, but without being overly taxed.
So the answer is “yes, there is a place for including low intensity endurance work in your training.” You just have to be careful not to let it become your training program, unless endurance running is your sport. How often? No clue. I very rarely put in ANY miles, not even a 5k, yet I can go out and cut a 5k in an 8 minute/mile average. While that’s FAR from blazing speed, it’s at least average for most people that run 5ks. You can actually build quite a decent aerobic base from intervals, but to be able to run a marathon, you’re going to have to train specifically to run a marathon.
Closing It Up
We should be careful not to confuse the necessities of survival with being optimal for health. Why do some of us choose a diet based on that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors? Is it because that’s what our ancestors ate or is it because we allowed our ancestral diet to be a starting point for experimentation? For me, it’s not about dogmatically choosing something from pre-civilization; it’s about choosing what works best for the body. If a Paleolithic diet didn’t work for my body, I would frankly care less what historical basis it held.
The same goes for the Tarahumara and their running. There’s no guaranteeing that they are the beneficiaries of prime health. Remember that all that’s required for a trait to be beneficial in an evolutionary sense is to achieve an age of procreation. I’d bet that the Tarahumara’s natural lifestyle, complete with a strong social structure and what I’d bet are relatively low-stress lives, helps them in staying healthy. Their diet, while very high carb (to the tune of 80% carbs, 10% protein, and 10% fat) is made of real foods. They aren’t gnoshing on low-fat pseudo-foods and processed garbage.
The only information I could find on the health of the Tarahumara points out that they have a life expectancy of only about 44 years old. But they also have an exceptionally high infant mortality rate and are unlikely to have access to modern medicine for curing infectious diseases and healing traumatic wounds. We can’t take a single data point, an average, and assume anything from it.
I’d also bet that along with lots of running, the Tarahumara lifestyle is active in other ways. Given their diet of predominantly corn, beans, and squash, it’s likely there is some heavy lifting and agricultural activities. When they chase down an animal, they then get to carry it back home. It’s all around a different lifestyle than most of us lead, not just a life with more running. That’s not to downplay the amount of running they do. It’s obviously a predominant activity for them, with competitive races between villages up to 150 miles in length (yes, they consider that “fun”).
In the end, you have to “exercise” for what your life requires. If your life requires moving long distances on foot, then running isn’t an optional exercise for you. If your life doesn’t require running marathons everyday, you can build a more well-rounded fitness profile.
What are your thoughts on the place of distance work in a training program? Is it a needed component? If so, how often would you prescribe it? If not, why?