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Natural Born Heroes: Mastering the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance Paperback – April 5, 2016
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“A mash note to physical endurance. . . . McDougall redefines the heroic ideal, establishing heroism as a skill set rather than a virtue. . . . [And] schools the reader in the art of the champion. . . . The essential narrative here, the twisty tale of a kidnapping that incredibly goes right, is exciting. It is balanced out with the journalistic account of McDougall’s entry into the world of the hero. His personal quest to ‘rewild the psyche’ might seem an awkward fit with war storytelling. But under McDougall’s sure hand the combination improbably works. Kind of like kidnapping a German general on an island swarming with Nazi troops.” —NPR Books
“Natural Born Heroes provides a blueprint of the essential ideas of how to move, what to eat, and the spirit in which to approach our everyday lives. I connected with this book on a primal, emotional, and intellectual level, and have been profoundly inspired by McDougall’s work.” —Laird Hamilton
“Fascinating. . . . Show[s] that heroism not only can be taught—it can be mastered.” —New York Post
“A fast-paced, enlightening tale of everyday heroes. . . . A victory lap for McDougall.” —Deseret News (Salt Lake City)
“McDougall traveled to Crete to examine the physical and mental capacity of Greek war heroes [and] studied natural movement, endurance, and nutrition to understand how regular people are capable of extraordinary athletic feats. . . . We can all adapt the tools of the athletes featured in McDougall’s new book.” —Real Simple
“McDougall sets his rediscovery of fitness concepts against the backdrop of a great tale of espionage, kidnapping, and harrowing escapes. . . . The fascinating story provides anecdotal proof for the theories and, perhaps, the encouragement you need to try them in your life.” —Women’s Running
“A heady confection that encompasses, among other subjects, military history, archaeology, Greek mythology, neat ways to kill a man and ideas on health and fitness that might just change your life. . . . [McDougall] constructs a fascinating edifice of ideas . . . and eventually finds a modern-day hero of his own. But the pleasures of the book are as much to do with the fascinating panoply of characters, war heroes all, British, Commonwealth and Cretan, whose exploits contributed so much to Hitler's downfall.” —The Independent (London)
“In the thoroughly absorbing Natural Born Heroes, which tracks heroism from the times of Zeus and Odysseus to the World War II bravery of a motley crew of fighters, Christopher McDougall makes it clear that . . . heroes, both ancient and modern, are not somehow supernaturally endowed after all. Indeed, they may come by their skills quite naturally. . . . His extensive knowledge of fitness training, nutrition and physiology winds artfully around a tale of superhuman resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Greek island of Crete. . . . [McDougall] solves this mystery with a witty eye for every detail, inspiring his own captive audience along the way.” — BookPage
“Compelling . . . engaging . . . provocative . . . with inquiries into the nature of heroism. . . . True heroism, as the ancients understood, isn’t about strength or boldness or even courage. It’s about compassion.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Riveting. . . . A well-done recounting of a truly heroic episode of WWII. . . . In absorbing detail, McDougall describes how . . . ‘ordinary’ men who were far from stereotypically tough, battle-hardened warriors . . . trekked across tortuous mountain terrain while avoiding a massive German dragnet..” —Booklist
About the Author
Christopher McDougall is the author of Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. He began his career as an overseas correspondent for the Associated Press, covering wars in Rwanda and Angola. He now lives and writes (and runs, swims, climbs, and bear-crawls) among the Amish farms around his home in rural Pennsylvania.
Christopher McDougall is available for select speaking engagements. To inquire about a possible appearance, please contact Penguin Random House Speakers Bureau at email@example.com or visit www.prhspeakers.com
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He occasionally returns to his core story about World War II Cretan heroism but then spins off time and again. We learn that the REAL secret to Cretan long life and heroism is the wild greens they forage - at least until he decides that it's actually the high fat/protein diet they consume - except that he can't tell us where those fats and proteins come from.
The ending chapters, which should be full of high adventure and heroic insight, are plodding and boring. All that endurance he has touted so far doesn't seem particularly evident at this point and there's no bounding from boulder to boulder. There's also little fat or protein, which was the last "secret" he seemed to have latched on to.
I was a big fan of Born to Run (where the "secret" was barefooted running apparently) but this book basically annoyed me with its disjointed topics. McDougall fell into the typical trap of reaching a conclusion and then going off to find facts to support it. I expect his next book to tell us how the wisdom, endurance and running ability of Martians is due to their reliance on pizza and donuts because by then that will be The Answer du Jour.
In any book that shifts back from one story line to another, there is always the danger that an author might lose the reader. This is especially true when the second topic is more esoteric and technical in nature, as it is here. Nevertheless, McDougall kept me hooked from start to finish. The Leigh Fermor story is one of those true-life stories that is so outrageous that it reads like fiction. McDougall's enthusiasm for the secrets of strength and endurance is so infectious that I was swept away by that part too. Two other aspects of the writing also help: 1) McDougall is able to hit on both story lines when he relates his own trip to Crete where he retraces Leigh Fermor's journey under the guidance of amateur historian Chris White; and 2) McDougall avoids being overly technical when discussing training methods, focusing as much on the personal histories and personalities of the sport experts that he interviews as he does on the science.
McDougall excels in telling the story of Paddy Leigh Fermor and his merry band of outlaws. We get gripping drama combined with fascinating profiles of the major figures both British and Greek. The characters of this story are truly larger than life and the mettle of the people of Crete in the face of Nazi occupation is truly astounding. The story is a winner and McDougall's retelling of it is artful, gripping, and incredibly readable.
That said, this is not exactly a how-to book for the budding martial artist or endurance athlete. Nor is it a truly objective guide to the science of sport. McDougall takes a distinctly Gladwellian approach to sport science: he amasses a great deal of information, comes to his own conclusions, and then only selects anecdotes and data that support his conclusions. The conclusions are then presented facts. No matter how plausible or attractive, this sometimes leads to some real zingers.
Here are a few examples:
1) Modern martial arts and boxing are mere sport; Pankration is the best:
McDougal decries modern martial arts and boxing as mere sport rather than actual combat and backs this up with historical anecdotes. He then goes on to discuss Wing Chun--to which he attributes Bruce Lee's success as a martial artist--as the ideal marital art, only to burst the Wing Chun bubble, declaring--via a speculative but plausible theory--that Wing Chun is actually a descendent of the superior, Greek martial art Pankration. This leads one to ask why Bruce Lee went on to develop his own hybrid martial art, Jeet Kune Do, rather than become a Pankration devotee.
So, what exactly IS the most deadly martial art for street fighting? It's absolutely Muay Thai. Unless, of course you are on the Krav Maga website. Or are an expert in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Or a Systema devotee. Or into Keysi. Or whatever... My guess is that even run-of-the-mill, mixed-martial-art, mall-style Karate will give you the leg up in a scuffle if your attacker isn't all that savvy. But even if your attacker has some street fighting experience, some preparation is still better than no preparation at all. How well you do, though, may depend more on how ready/skilled you are in comparison to your opponent rather than your actual style of combat. Declarations of which is the best-ever martial art style for street fighting is a testosterone laden shouting match that I really don't want to contribute to.
2) Size/Muscle mass doesn't matter:
Do size and muscle mass matter in a fight? You bet they do. Longer reach in any fight is a major advantage. Can you make up for reach with skill? Sure, but unless you really outclass your opponent in the skill department, reach counts big time. Strength/muscle mass also help. Not the kind of muscle mass that is so grotesquely huge that it limits practical muscle movement, but real, usable strength. You can't escape Newton's second law of motion which clearly states that mass x acceleration=force. The more mass you have and the faster you can accelerate it (so long as you can do this accurately), the more force you will have. And deadly force=damage. It goes without saying that the fighter that absorbs the greater amount of damage generally loses the fight...
Sure, at 5'6" and 145 lb, Jet Li could easily kick my butt. But if Jet Li fought a 6'5 and 198 lb, similarly- proportioned version of himself, he would come up a little short. (Sorry, couldn't help it.)
3) Fascia is more powerful than muscle:
McDougall states that fascia is a greater source power than muscle, which reads really well but doesn't make any sense the way McDougall describes it. Comparing fascia to muscle this way is a non-sequitor. It's kind of like saying that the reinforced concrete that holds up a building can withstand more force than the elevator in that same building can lift. The statement is true, but I still can't use the foundation to get to the 11th floor.
Fascia could easily transmit and possibly concentrate muscular strength but it isn't the source of that strength. Fascia can also resist pulling. That said, the power source of Bruce Lee's one-inch punch likely came from the muscles in his hips down to his toes. Fascia may be a part of the transmission of the power, but was not the source of the power. And don't forget, there are other body structures (e.g. bones and muscles etc.) that also contribute to the transmission of the power. Mythbusters did a great episode on this, showing that a conventional punch delivered 325 pounds of force whereas a one-inch punch delivered only 153 pounds of force. This shows that the one-inch punch is awesome, still, but in terms of raw power, you get more than twice as much bang for the buck using a conventional punch. It also makes sense when you look at YouTube footage of Lee delivering a one-inch punch and then a six-inch punch to a person sitting in a chair. The one-inch punch seems impossibly powerful, but six-inch punch still delivers more force, pushing Lee's 'victim' who is sitting in a chair back much farther. I think it's also plausible that fascia may contribute to the `bounce' that is exhibited in Parkour, but there is a major component of bounce from other body structures (muscle, bones, joints, etc) that also needs to be taken into account. (For those who are interested, there's a nice rundown on the science behind the one-inch punch on the Popular Mechanics website written in May 2014. Quick heads up: nothing about fascia; lots about complex muscle coordination and concentration...)
4) Slow heart training/aerobic metabolism is superior to fast heart training/anaerobic metabolism:
McDougall does a similar treatment of slow-heart-rate training. Granted, in endurance training this is almost certainly the way to go and McDougall's writing keeps this fascinating. And slow-heart training should probably be a component of training for most athletes. But sprinters, for example, not only need to run at their max, they end up maxing their heart rate as well. The idea that aerobic metabolism is good but anaerobic metabolism is bad is oversimplified. Then McDougall plays the ancient-ancestor card... Sure, if Glunga wants to chase down a heard of antelope to bag one for dinner, he needs endurance. But when running away from a fast predator, ancient man did not strap on his heart rate monitor to make sure that his heart rate stayed below 180-age, he needed to go all out or die.
5) Modern health recommendations are the cause of increased obesity and heart disease/the paleo diet is #1:
And then there's the paleo diet. I agree with McDougall's expert Tim Noakes that `paleo' is a misnomer. Scientists like Ainara Sistiaga, Marlene Zuk, and Christina Warinner have actually looked at what ancient man might have eaten, by studying things like fossilized dental plaques and feces, and have found evidence of grain and legume consumption in Paleolithic humans and Neanderthals (that is, before the invention of agriculture). Of course, we don't know the exact proportions of the diet, but it clearly varied with location and our ancient ancestors were distinctly omnivorous. Warinner has an interesting TED talk on this, actually.
The idea that modern public health recommendations have contributed to increased obesity and atherosclerosis is possible. But given that very few people actually adhere to any specific diet--let alone the one prescribed by their doctor or the government--makes this less plausible. I don't know that K-rations, blanket recommendations, and cardiologists urging us to eliminate saturated fats are as much to blame as is the industrialization of our food supply, supersizing, and the post-WWII, sheer availability of cheap, poor food choices.
Sugar in small quantities may not be so evil and the jury is still out as to whether high fructose corn syrup is really worse than conventional refined sugar, but the fact that the average US citizen consumes 150-170 pounds of sugar per year (about 1/2 pound of the stuff per day and that's only the average) is likely more of a problem than the type of sugar consumed. In a similar vein, I'm less concerned about the kind of fat in a food product than the sheer amount of fat consumed period in otherwise nutritionally bereft, mass-produced products. For the record, government recommendations--imperfect as they may be--still frown on eating mass quantities of Twinkies and sugared sodas. But that doesn't mean that we actually listen.
None of this, of course, means that the paleo diet is wrong or unsuccessful. I happen to use a variation of it and it's worked well for me. But that doesn't mean that all of us will be successful with the paleo diet or that other diets are inherently inferior.
But man, can this guy write. He kept me interested and glued to the book from start to finish and the book was a blast to read. Take the science with an ounce of skepticism, but enjoy the book for the ripping tale that it is. Recommended.