Natural Born Heroes by Chris McDougall

Following on from our recent review of Chris McDougall's first book, Born To Run, this is his follow-up that takes a more wide-ranging view of human strength and endurance. As the title suggest, our subject matter are heroic humans through the ages as McDougall digs into how each example with journalist vigor. 

This structure neatly opens up various avenues of health and fitness for discussion, most seemingly subjects close to McDougall's heart. Fact-checkers will be frustrated by the absence of a decent set of footnotes and references to corroborate some of the statements that follow.

The heroes of ancient Greece "learned how to use their own body fat for fuel instead of relying on bursts of sugar" for example, "fat as fuel is an all but forgotten secret of endurance athletes but when it's revived the results are astonishing"; no academic reference is offered to illustrate where the claim came from however.

Quite how we know that Hercules and Achilles were on fully ketogenic, low carb high fat diets is not covered therefore but it there is an undeniably strong case for arguing, as the author does here, that the ancient Greeks "more than 2000 years ago.. got serious about the business of releasing the hero inside us all".

Wars are often cited as key moments in history for leadership and resilience, the worst in man seemingly bringing out the best in man in a darkly symbiotic relationship. McDougall zeroes in on the Second World War when looking for case studies to bring his thesis to life, and he finds what he is looking for on the island of Crete where the national army is said to have  repeatedly resisted far larger attacking forces, much to Hitler's dismay.

We're taken on a whistlestop tour through a series of wartime heroes operating on the island, from amateur British guerrillas hiding out in the mountains to local long-distance runners acting as human carrier pigeons for top secret communications.

It's when the author steps back however, to take a more analytical, big picture approach that things get really interesting. We meet a neurobiologist who explains how in evolutionary terms a bigger brain was the key component in learning to aim a spear at a fast-moving target, anticipating an animal's movement and factoring their forward momentum into a throw. 

"Hip rotation is the key, whipping a rock is simple but sequential so if you don't practice the link between opening the hips and releasing the arm you'll lose the knack or never learn it in the first place... the reason women don't throw as well as men, it seems, is that they don't throw as much".

Equally, there is a worthy section on the importance of real world combat skills throughout our evolution from primates and how, from a purist's perspective, combat sports have lost some of their essence by allowing so many rules and regulations to creep in, tidying the action up into a TV-friendly spectator sport. The reality is though that combat is also a highly demanding and at times dangerous skill, which takes considerable practice to do right meaning some basic ground rules and protection are essential. 

A section on what is described as 'natural training' receives glowing approval from the author. Moving away from repetitions and weights in favour of fun and play with an added element of altruism takes you directly to George Hebert's concept of the Natural Method, popularised briefly in France just before the outbreak of the First World War.

Hebert believed it was about being strong to be useful, about working in packs for a common good when required, and about the skills required to help someone in need when the time came. This approach can be broken down into three admittedly rather awkward categories:

  1. Pursuit: walk, run, crawl
  2. Escape: climb, balance, swim, jump
  3. Attack: throw lift, fight

The key things taken out of the mix were a restrictive gym environment and all form of competition in favour of collaboration and a larger, long-term goal of self-improvement.

From Hebert there is a direct line to modern-day fitness in the form of MovNat / Erwan LeCorre and the likes of the Wildfitness doing their natural movement thing in the open-air. Hebert did create his own type of gymnasium as well, which in turn leads you directly to our Biofit Studio concept.

So in summary, lots of useful info in this book, making it a good intro to those looking to explore the link between natural fitness and heroes, past and present.

TrainingMatt Morley