Do you run as part of your exercise program? Sure, lots of folks do. What did you run today — 20 minutes? 45 minutes? 90 minutes? That’s pretty good!
And if you’re like most runners, you did your run decked out in fancy shoes, an orthotic insert or two, an iPod, and cool workout wear. You were probably careful to refuel with well-chosen lean protein and carbohydrates. You iced and stretched afterwards and — deservedly — high-fived yourself.
But what if we told you that even if you were an elite marathon runner, there are people out there who leave you in their mountain dust… while running barefoot, fuelled by beer, and maybe even flicking a cigarette butt at you as they burn past on their 200-mile jaunt? Kinda humbling.
Those boozy bon vivants who were apparently born to run are the Tarahumara (or as they call themselves, the Rarámuri, “those who run fast”), a remote indigenous group from northern Mexico. And they’ve got legions of researchers scratching their heads over their secret.
How are the Tarahumara able to run dozens — hundreds — of miles easily, either barefoot or wearing simple sandals they made from old tires? How are they able to survive such a gruelling (to us) training regimen on a simple diet that’s mostly corn, with some beans, squash, and small quantities of game (including mice), fish, and eggs?
Oh… and with lots and lots of corn beer as their Gatorade?
Is it their genes? Training? Running technique? The beer? The pre-race smokes that many enjoy?
In this Discovery Channel (US) / History Channel (Canada) special, explore just how they do it with a host of experts including Dr. Berardi, who appears in part 2 at around the 4 minute mark. (And enjoy the dramatic styling of William Shatner in a sweatsuit.)
Weird or What w/ Dr Berardi – Part 1
Weird or What w/Dr Berardi – Part 2
Weird or What w/Dr Berardi – Part 3
Weird or What w/Dr Berardi – Part 4
It’s easy to assume that there is some “secret” to the Tarahumara’s endurance. In a 21st-century world characterized by “magic bullets” and “the next big thing” in training fads, we’re always looking for the one factor that will somehow allow us to perform superhuman feats.
Indeed, you may be hunting in your freezer for a bag of frozen corn right now, hoping to whip up a batch of tesguino corn mash — one of the Tarahumara’s staple foods.
As Dr. Berardi and other experts point out, many important social factors shape the Tarahumara’s physical abilities. Just like playing the piano or learning Cantonese, practice — especially from a young age — makes perfect. In a context where running is both transportation and entertainment, it makes sense that people would be very, very good at it.
One thing’s for sure: Whatever potential genetic advantages the Tarahumara enjoy, they evaporate quickly in the face of a North American diet. A New England Journal of Medicine study that put a group of Tarahumara on a five-week “affluent Western” diet high in calories, processed foods, sugar, and fat found that even this short period made the otherwise-fit subjects gain weight, and increased their cardiovascular disease risk.
So what’s the take-home message? Live actively, stay moving, and push your limits now and again. Human evolution has equipped us for wondrous feats… if we dare to try.
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