The Ultimate Guide to Running

Back in the paleolithic era, we had to chase an antelope to exhaustion just for a decent meal. In the 21st century, running isn't required, it's a choice—one that nearly 30 million Americans make on a weekly basis. But why do we run? Bestselling author Christopher McDougall and a legion of other junkies count the ways.

It Gets You Out of the Cage

Running wild every day could be the key to keeping your focus when you need it. Photo: iStock

It Gets You Out of the Cage

Break out of the office zoo and run wild

“So, because of your own attention deficiency,” Dr. John Ratey was saying, “I’m sure you’ve had to—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “I don’t have ADHD.”

For a few beats, we looked each other over and considered our positions. We were backstage at Harvard University, about to step out for a panel discussion on natural human potential. Ratey is the Harvard psychiatrist who wrote Spark, the groundbreaking book about the brain’s creative mayhem, and I was the sweaty guy whose most vivid memory of grammar school was being sent to stand in the hallway so often that I could walk across the street and buy a hot dog at the convenience store without anyone noticing.

“I’m not trying to diagnose you, of course,” Ratey said, but he didn’t have to. Things were starting to make sense. 

I spent the first nine months that I was working on Born to Run sitting down to write at 5:30 every morning and staying there until dark—and getting nowhere. Eventually, I flipped it: I goofed around all day, running trails and cutting firewood and saying “Yup” to any weird favor from neighbors. The only firm commitment in my weekly calendar was a Tuesday-morning run with my wife on Pennsylvania’s Conestoga Trail. But each night after dinner—after I’d charged around all day—I finally sat down and got to it. It worked: every night, I settled in and turned out a smooth flow of pages.

I was still patting myself on the back for my self-medicating genius when I realized that it wasn’t mine at all. My dad had been chucked out of his parents’ house as a teenager and came off the streets of West Philly to put himself through college on the GI Bill after serving in the Marines during the Korean War. When he had three kids of his own and a day job as a telephone lineman, he decided to muscle his way through law school at night, studying on his feet to stay awake. After he passed the bar exam and had to wear a tie to work for the first time in his life, he began strapping on a pair of black Chuck Taylors each morning before dawn to jog around the block for a half-hour. Those runs got longer and longer, until every autumn he was clocking at least two marathons: always the Marine Corps, plus Philly or New York or both. He invented a training method that’s so ball-busting, to this day I’ve never pulled it off: beginning each spring, he matched his daily mileage to the month and doubled it on Sunday. Four miles a day in April, eight on Sunday; five a day in May, ten on Sunday; come October, he was hammering out 80 miles a week, 30 of them on the weekend. No rest days.

I always figured he was a master of discipline, until I began following in his footsteps and realized that it was the exact opposite. Those were his moments to get naked and go savage. Put any animal in a zoo and more than likely it will develop anger issues, disordered eating, sexual dysfunction, and circulatory problems. In other words, it turns into us. We’ve created our own cages, and we’re paying the same price. Unless, the way my dad showed me, we learn to bust out the door and let ourselves run wild.

It's the Only Way to Tire Out the Dog

Some dogs need more than a walk. Photo: Ian Allen

It's the Only Way to Tire Out the Dog

Even the staunchest anti-runner can't say no to a puppy with energy to burn

“No running.” It’s one of my guiding principles, along with “Stick to dirt roads whenever possible” and “You can never have too much ketchup.” But recently I had to break it when I got a puppy. For her first few months, Bertie’s energy was quickly exhausted by any activity—a romp around the yard, an especially large poo. But around the six-month mark, her legs doubled in size, her ribs became barrel shaped, and she began unleashing terror like an aspiring jihadist. 

So one morning, as I woke to the sound of Bertie pulling a curtain from the bedroom window, I rose, put on my wife’s running shoes (I have none), and headed for the park with the pup. I hacked and wheezed. Something in my knee popped like a wet log in a fire. But Bertie jumped up and down in front of me, so excited that we were doing something other than watching movies on the couch that her big caramel eyes were practically shooting sparks. That was three months ago, and we’ve more or less kept to the routine. We only go a mile to the park and then straight back. But I’ll admit that sometimes I’ll catch Bertie eyeing the leash near the door, and I’ll lift my brows to her, thinking, Whadya say? 

It'll Get You Promoted (I Hope)

When the boss runs, you run, too. Photo: Ian Allen

It'll Get You Promoted (I Hope)

Running-junkie boss? Lace up.

Within a week or so of starting at Outside, I was invited to go on the office’s traditional lunch run. Wishing to ingratiate myself with my coworkers, I went along.

It was then clear to me that all the running I had done up to that point in my life was mere jogging. We covered about three miles on steep, rocky trails under the roasting desert sun. My fingers tingled; I walked up the hardest sections; I literally foamed at the mouth. My colleagues, bless their hearts, blamed Santa Fe’s altitude when I finally caught up.

I can’t say I loved running then, but I didn’t want to be left out. And the boss is a running junky. So, like a plucky first-year lawyer hacking away at the golf course to fit in at the firm, I started running solo after work to get in passable shape. It was slow going, but I was eventually able to join in at lunch without embarrassing myself. And then I started to actually enjoy it.

I’m not exactly Mo Farah—currently, I’m logging a little more than 20 miles per week to get ready for my first real race, a trail half-marathon—but the lunch runs that used to be daunting are now my easy days. And if I’ve got a great idea for the higher-ups, I’ll pitch it on the trail. 

It Could Save Your Life

Brown post-run. Photo: Ian Allen

It Could Save Your Life

It may be the best natural medicine there is

Poll a group of endurance runners anywhere and at least one will tell you that he or she came to running not as a hobby but as self-prescribed medicine: ultrarunner Rob Krar to manage depression, his teammate Timmy Olson to replace a cocaine addiction, and countless others without sponsorships or fast race times who still see it as salvation.

I found running in the process of trying to crawl away from a decade-long eating disorder that had isolated me from everyone I loved and left me an emaciated shell of the vibrant, engaging person I’d once been. For years I was unable to reconcile the desire to be strong with the fear that every extra calorie I put into my body would somehow make me weak. The way I saw it, being thin made me an exquisite dancer and a competent athlete, and nothing could persuade me to the contrary. I was terrified of food. By the beginning of my sophomore year of college, I weighed 87 pounds.

Two things finally motivated me to try and get better: the university health department’s threat to kick me out of school unless I promised to gain some weight, and my dad’s newfound obsession with ultramarathons. It was captivating to watch him head out for long runs in the Montana mountains on Sunday mornings with half a dozen friends. When I promised to gain weight, it wasn’t so I could survive my early twenties. It was so I could learn to run. 

It’s a frustrating road, coming back from starvation. When I started eating again, my energy levels were suddenly inexhaustible. But I promised I wouldn’t exercise until I gained at least ten pounds, which I finally did, just before summer break. With my nutritionist’s permission, I bought a pair of lime green trainers and went running my first day home. While I didn’t go particularly far or fast, the sense of freedom was everything I imagined it would be. I ran every day that summer and into the following fall. Two years later, I signed up for my first trail race and won. My parents, once fearful I was running to lose weight, have come around. 

You could argue that I’ve simply swapped one obsession for another, which in some ways is probably true. But given the choice, I’d rather be putting in 80-mile weeks and loving every minute of it than wasting away to nothing. I’m replacing something painful with something beautiful. 

It's Healthy. And I Can Stop Any Time.

"If the source of my high were nicotine, alcohol, or cheese puffs, I’d clearly be labeled an addict. But it’s running, which is obviously healthy, so it’s all good—right?" Photo: Ian Allen

It's Healthy. And I Can Stop Any Time.

Seeking the high all day, every day

In a perfect week, I get high Monday through Sunday. A decent week means I’m high at least five of those days. Less than that? You probably don’t want to be around me. After 48 hours without my usual dose, such as right now, I radiate what an ex-girlfriend once described as “an aura of black sludge.” My post-high positive outlook is gradually replaced by anxiety, cloudy thinking, and general negativity, and the more time that elapses after each high, the more my thoughts are consumed with getting the next one. Often my only desire when I wake up is to get my fix, and I’ll ignore my family until I achieve my altered state, if I have to. I can’t help myself. I need to lace up my shoes, slip out the door, and run. 

If the source of my high were nicotine, alcohol, or cheese puffs, I’d clearly be labeled an addict. But it’s running, which is obviously healthy, so it’s all good—right? Maybe I’m paranoid, but I’m starting to wonder. After all, the ingredients of my black sludge include the common signs of drug withdrawal, which might lead someone to believe that my habit is really a dependency. Meanwhile the bible of professional psychiatrists, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, was updated in 2013 to include gambling in its list of addictive conditions—the first time an activity has been filed alongside substance abuse in that category. I can see where this is going. Sex and Internet addiction are already on their radar. It’s only a matter of time until they consider my running a subversive condition. We need to stop them! But why do I feel so alone?

[Goes for a 35-minute run.]

Please disregard everything I previously wrote. All I was trying to say is, The world is So. Freaking. Awesome. And so is running. I love you, man. 

Not Sold? Five More Reasons to Run.

Make the morning grind a lot more fun by running to work. Photo: Ian Allen

Not Sold? Five More Reasons to Run.

From eternal youth (kind of) to GPS genitalia, a whole world of perks awaits

Back in the Paleolithic era, we had to chase antelope to exhaustion just for a decent meal. In the 21st century, running isn't required, it's a choice—one that nearly 30 million Americans make on a weekly basis. But why do we run? Let us count the ways.

It’s Better than Sitting in Traffic

Six years ago, Gareth Williams started walking to work to lose weight. Now he run commutes ten miles round-trip each day to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, in California, where he works as a structural biologist. “It gets the blood pumping to your brain,” says Williams. Recently, he converted his girlfriend, Anna Liao, who runs to her job as a scientific-engineering associate at the lab a few days a week. Liao doesn’t always look forward to the return trip. “But once I start running, I feel great,” she says. “It’s very de-stressing.”

If you want to run commute, first do some recon on your workplace amenities—Old Spice helps, but it’s no replacement for a shower. If you can, take public transit in the morning, then “just run home,” where a shower awaits, says Williams. “It will grow from there.” 

It Goes Well with Beer

Beer and running are unlikely soul mates. The Beer Mile is run by everyone from college kids to Olympians. (Current world record: 4:57, with Budweiser.) There are nearly 2,000 chapters of the Hash House Harriers across the world. (Slogan: “A drinking club with a running problem.”) Countless local groups, like Run Wild Missoula, routinely gather to crank out a few miles with stops at breweries along the way. Maybe we all think it’s hydrating. (It’s not.)

Last year in Longmont, Colorado, a few buddies opened Shoes and Brews, a running-footwear store with a tap house—or vice versa, depending on your priorities. Try on a new pair of Hokas, then grab a pint of Dry Dock raspberry porter from the bar’s 20 rotating taps. “Beer and running are both social experiences,” says co-owner Ashlee Velez. “They just work so well together.” Being active makes you thirsty: “Then you don’t have to feel bad about the beer,” she says. “It’s a circle.” 

It’s Simple

Step one: Run. 
Step two: Repeat as desired. 

It’s the Ultimate PED

Running lowers the risk for Alzheimer’s mortality. It grows brain cells in the region tied to making and recalling memories. It can slow down mental decline in old age. It produces an enzyme in muscles that purges a molecule linked to depression. It prevents the loss of bone density. It’s associated with reduced risk of death from all causes and drops the chances of dying from cardiovascular disease by 45 percent. It improves knee health. (Seriously. Look it up.) It’s associated with lower risk of some cancers. It slows down the aging clock, reducing disabilities later in life. On average, running keeps you alive for five extra years. 

It’s the World’s Newest Art Medium

Now that fitness trackers like Strava, Garmin, and Nike+ display your route on a digital map, some cyclists and runners have started using city streets to draw everything from marriage proposals to job applications. Perhaps the most prolific running artist is Claire Wyckoff. “It didn’t start as a running endeavor but as a creative one,” says Wyckoff, an advertising copywriter. One day in 2014, she ran around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the surrounding neighborhoods until she had outlined a corgi. Since then, the Portland, Oregon, native has made more than 20 street drawings, including an alien from Atari’s Space Invaders, a Mennonite, a middle finger, and a birdcage in honor of Robin Williams.

But her unlikely muse is the penis. She has drawn a locker room’s worth of John Thomases. Wyckoff likes the absurdity. “Running a picture of Goldilocks might not have sparked as much interest,” she says. There’s been an unexpected benefit, too. “Mapping a drawing, I’m way more engaged in the process of running it,” she says. “I’ll go an extra five miles if it means finishing a picture. It’s for the love of art. I can’t draw half a penis. I’m gonna draw the whole penis.”