Amazing Places

The Rarámuri Regularly Run Ultra-Marathon Distances—In Sandals

When you head out for a run, how do you gear up? There's your smartphone, of course (gotta keep track of those miles!). Your running clothes, perhaps made out of moisture-wicking fabric. And your shoes—engineered to the smallest detail to boost your performance with every step.

But if the Rarámuri of Mexico's Copper Canyon are any indication, you don't need anything high-tech to make the most of your run. These elite long-distance runners have kept their traditions alive for centuries, and they've done it all in leather sandals.

A Well-Worn Path

Mexico's first recorded ultra-marathon went down in 1926, when three Rarámuri men set out on a 60-mile journey to Mexico City. One dropped out along the way, but the remaining two jogged into the city limits just under 10 hours later. The event was organized for a post-Revolution Mexico newly interested in its native heritage, and for the Rarámuri (more commonly known as the Tarahumara), long-distance running was as much a part of their life as their traditional language and religion. In fact, their endurance was a key ingredient in their survival, as they were able to protect themselves from 17th century European invaders by retreating to the winding paths of Copper Canyon.

In 2009, the story of the Rarámuri attracted the attention of the world at large in Christopher McDougall's best-selling book Born To Run. The author focused on the fact that these champion runners hit the road without the benefit of any modern footwear. Indeed, they run in huaraches, a thin leather sandal that offers little-to-no support. The book inspired a lot of runners to start looking askance at their highly engineered running shoes and seeking out other options, like Vibram's FiveFinger shoes. Incidentally, Vibram later settled a lawsuit over their exaggerated claims of the shoes' benefits. So if high-tech simulations of bare feet aren't the answer, maybe it's just true that barefoot or sandaled running is just better for you than anything human-engineered.

Getting To The Sole Of The Matter

In 2014, Harvard biology professor David Lieberman set out to explain the benefits the Tarahumara gained from their huaraches. In a study examining 13 runners who wear the traditional sandals and 10 runners who prefer conventional running shoes, he was able to track some significant differences between the runners' feet. The runners in huaraches had much stiffer arches than their conventionally shod counterparts, two of whom had flat feet. That stiffness could prevent injury, according to Runner's World. Additionally, the huaraches-wearers demonstrated a stronger posture and many of the signifiers of a better form. Still, Lieberman is quick to caution against understanding his study to be an indictment of conventional running shoes, pointing out that a study of a community of runners who grew up going ultra-long distances in minimal footwear does not have much bearing on runners who have always worn conventional shoes, and who won't be making any ultra-marathons anytime soon. In other words, if you're used to conventional shoes, you should probably just stick to those.

Want to learn more about the Rarámuri? Check out Christopher McDougall's Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, And The Greatest Race The World Has Never Seen.

Watch And Learn: Our Favorite Content About The Rarámuri

The Way Of Life Of The Tarahumara

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 4, 2017

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