Are we Born to Run?

According to recent studies carries out by Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University, long-distance running was fundamental in creating our current upright body shape. Their research suggests that our early ancestors were top quality endurance runners, and that this ability has had a significant evolutionary influence on our bodies, from our protruding calves right up to our beautiful heads.

Looking around the developed Westen world, the only thing that seems to be protruding is the human stomach.

Are we Born to Run?

Roughly 2 million years ago, after our ancestors started standing upright on the savannahs of Africa, according to the duo’s findings, humans began running, and this development would have impacted heavily on our evolutionary process.

If we assess different criteria, humans seem to perform exceptionally well at endurance running, largely thanks to an entirely diverse set of physical features.

The majority of anthropologists agree that humans didn’t evolve to swim, but many believe that we evolved from ape-like ancestors out of a necessity to run lengthy distances, perhaps to hunt or scavenge more efficiently.

Nowadays, the conventional estimation is that distance running leads to devastating wear and tear, particularly on our joints, and that belief has dissuaded runners from congregating in huge numbers, right? Wrong!

In the US alone, last year saw close to 430,000 marathon runners compete, a 20% increase on participant figures recorded a decade ago.

The theory of Lieberman and Bramble may explain why, in present times, so many humans are able to cover a full marathon and beyond.

Scavenging is probably the best answer to explain how we became such good runners, the research suggests. In competition with hyenas, (don’t be fooled by their ridiculous laugh, these guys are quality long-distance runners), our African savannah ancestors would rush to the site of a big kill in order to get ‘first pick’, so to speak. Looking to the sky for inspiration, our relatives of yesteryears would spot a flock of vultures on the horizon and take off in their direction, a sort of primitive GPS system, so to speak.

Additionally, the men’s findings suggests that running may have also improved our balance and coordination. The ability to run effectively requires intricate movements: our legs are off the ground and coordination of the eyes to determine where our foot will land is vital. With Huge assistance from the semicircular canals of our inner ear, humans can maintain balance impressively. Freakishly large in both modern day humans and our evolutionary relative Homo erectus, these structures could very well have helped primitive runners cover great distances on a daily basis.

Christopher McDougall’s bestselling “Born to Run” investigated the world of long distance running through the eyes of a tribe renowned for running astonishing distances in nothing but lightly-soled sandals. Unsurprisingly, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico aren’t swayed by the training programmes for urban marathons or the endorsement of ultra-modern footwear, two of the aspects McDougall blames for the rise in running related injuries. A passionate runner himself, the writer has suffered plenty of injuries throughout his life, something he eventually attributed to poor running form caused by supposedly superior footwear.

Running made us who we are today, well, anatomically speaking. A conclusion that the development of humankind is intrinsically linked to the evolution of running totally contradicts the traditional theory that running was merely a consequence of our ability to walk.

After methodical inspection, certainly, it is difficult to see how walking can explain many of the alterations in body shape that differentiate Homo from Australopithecus. Perhaps scientists have rejected the notion of running as an aspect in human evolution because we are pitiable sprinters compared with other running animals.

Our poor sprinting ability has helped nurture the notion that our bodies are adapted for walking, not running. Interestingly enough, cheetahs can reach speeds of up to 30 metres per second, while the most impressive of sprinters reach speeds of only about 10 metres per second. However, over longer distances humans perform much more commendably. For example, horses galloping extensive distances average about 5.8 metres per second, which is considerably slower than an elite human runner. While a horse can easily out-sprint a human by galloping, they cannot gallop very far without overheating. Largely relying on panting to remain cool, a horse is unable to pant when galloping, because this involves taking very quick breaths that would hamper the respiration system when running.

Endurance running amongst us humans has received scant appreciation largely because of an inability to appreciate that soaring speed is not always essential. In fact, what seems to be more important is the ability to combine sound speed with outstanding endurance. Also, it is vital to remember that the majority of scientists are in urbanized societies that are decidedly dependent on technological expertise and non-natural means of transportation, and if they had been surrounded in a society of hunter-gatherers, they would express very different opinions on our ability to run.

In fact, to further reinforce the findings of the two men, running seems to be the solitary reason that we possess prominent buttocks. When the activity of the gluteus maximus muscle is measured in humans during a walk, notably, our glutes are scarcely aroused, yet when we run they flare up at an express rate. The butt is one huge running muscle; but we hardly use it when we walk. Perhaps J-Lo and Beyoncé are both phenomenal runners!

Some scientific experts believe that there is nothing unique about human locomotion; they state that the only distinguishing factor separating us from other apes is an outsized brain.

Ironically, if the work of Bramble and Lieberman turns out to be factual, our outsized brains might no longer ‘look’ so outsized.

Biologically speaking, humans are unique. Instead of panting, we cool by sweating. Quite simply, humans can stay cool at a tempo over long distances that would cause other animals to basically implode. Not only do we own sturdy leg-joints, our hairlessness and an ability to sweat naturally make us very good at maintaining low body temperatures.

This might sound like a weird question, but have you ever looked at your toes in awe? No. Well, you should do. Why, I hear you ask. Well, from our earliest days, short toes allowed humans to run more effectively, especially when compared with longer-toed animals. Our big toe is lined up with the rest of our toes, not deviating, the way you see with apes, a fact that suggests our feet evolved for running. As it is the main push-off point: the big toe is the last thing to leave the ground when we run. Unlike the chimpanzee and the ape, we have springy Achilles tendons, components essential for functional running.

Our stretching legs are jam-packed with coil-like tendons, muscles, and ligaments that allow us to temporarily amass elastic energy as we come down on a foot and then withdraw to thrust us forward. The most important of these springs, the abovementioned Achilles tendons, were not evident in early human pioneers like Australopithecus. Extensive examinations signify that our impressive tendons developed alongside other modifications for distance running. When the genus Homo appeared on the African savannah, the physical change was obvious.

Inheriting bulky leg and foot joints from our ancient relatives, our adroit torsos have an abundance of fatigue-defiant, slow-twitch muscle fibers, a fact that makes us better endurance runners rather than sprinters. Conversely, most animals have much more fast-twitch fibers than us, a biological benefit that allows predators chase down their prey.

An ability to store 20 miles’ worth of glycogen in our muscles, a slender waist and a midsection that can twist allow us to sway our arms and stop us from meandering.

Think of the superstars of ultra-distance running and you might mention Scott Jurek and Matt Carpenter. From Rocky Mountain trails to the Devil’s sauna, Death Valley, these two athletes can pulverize numerous marathons back-to-back. Previously regarded as a periphery sport, extreme running is the practice of the phenomenally fit, people considered superhuman and somewhat masochistic

Quite a number of experts firmly believe that these ultra-marathon marvels are using their bodies in the same manner as our predecessors, a premise that is now known as the endurance running hypothesis (ER). Over time, this adaptive trait could very well have been the mechanism that obliged Homo erectus to advance physically. The structure of modern day humans makes it difficult to defend a past that did not include epic runs.

While we do not fully know why natural selection seemed to favor our endurance running ancestors, many believe that the requirement to chase prey long before the era of bows, arrows and KFC played a major role in shaping today’s society.

Humans also happen to have a ligament that runs from the back of the skull and neck down through our vertebrae; this works as a shock absorber by encouraging our arms and shoulders to compensate for head movements during a run. Short forearms allow humans to conserve muscle power and focus on keeping arms flexed when running. Then we have the human foot, a truly incredible ‘tool’, as the bone structure creates a constant or inflexible arch that makes the foot more rigid, thus allowing us to push off the ground more forcefully and employ ligaments as powerful springs.

Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book “Born to Run” focused on the best endurance athletes on earth. Neither anthropologically nor biologically proficient, the author focused on the high mileage covered by the Mexican Tarahumara Indians. These isolated canyon inhabitants wear shoes made entirely from tire strips to pad their feet. A riveting read, McDougall tells us how Tarahumara often cover up to 400 miles in celebratory, multiday races that unite runners and audiences from numerous dwellings. No training plans or protein shakes in sight; the Tarahumara tribe are strapping physical specimens, displaying a resolute resistance to cancer and heart diseases that are the scourge of today’s modern world. Along with the findings of Bramble and Lieberman, McDougall’s book seems to verify that we are most definitely built for running. Well, we certainly were not built to sit behind a desk for eight hours a day.

In the words of Springsteen; “Baby, we were born to run.”


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