Four Secrets of the Tarahumara That Will Improve Your Running
These Indigenous runners employ a simple but effective approach to running long distances.
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The Tarahumara of northern Mexico, of all the world cultures with a history of running, probably best deserve the top accolades for their achievements in the ultrarunning realm. After all, these proud Native Americans refer to themselves at the “Rarámuri,” which means “those who run fast” and have a long tradition of covering hundreds of miles on foot over the course of several days in order to communicate, trade and hunt.
Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book, Born To Run, featured these incredible runners, and due to their minimalist footwear, spawned a barefoot running movement. But, footwear and biomechanics aside, what sets these runners apart from the rest of the world? How are they able to run so far for so long? Here are four secrets of the Tarahumara you can use to apply to your own 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 lose 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.”