Does Running Make Us Human?

Scientists believe the human form was a result of the necessity for long-distance running.

Similar to other polarizing topics like politics, religion or whether people like cilantro or country music, the topic of running seems to divide people into two distinct groups. There is one group that expresses an immediate disdain for running. These folks may even joke that running should only be a last resort to escape some kind of danger. However, there is another group for whom running is a passion, a way of life and much more than an activity or exercise.

Born to Run

Regardless of how you feel about running or which group you fall into, science extends a compelling argument that you may be what you are, i.e. human, because of running.

Science is always changing, and the views of running within the scientific community have certainly changed. Originally, running was simply viewed as an extension of walking. If running and walking were a human couple, walking was the celebrity while running was the regular person who just happened to be there.

However, several studies, including a study by University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, “Concluded that running radically altered human anatomy. In essence, the way we are and the way we look today is a direct result of natural selection favoring a species that could run long distances.

Why Evolution Got Us Revved and Running

At least 4.5 million years ago the ape-like Australopithecus began to walk, but at this time, this species was also able to travel through the trees, the way we often think of primates living. Fast forward another three million or so years through the evolution of homo habilis, homo erectus and finally, homo sapiens (us), and the physical form changed drastically.

Would walking explain such a drastic change? According to Bramble, “There were 2.5 million to 3 million years of bipedal walking without ever looking like a human, so is walking going to be what suddenly transforms the human body? We’re saying, no, walking won’t do that, but running will. If natural selection had not favored running, we would still look a lot like apes.”

One reason the ability to run long distances may have been necessary is hypothesized by the University of Utah biologist David Carrier who suggested that endurance running was necessary at a time when ancestors needed to pursue prey before they invented tools and weapons to aid in the hunt.

Another likely scenario is that our ancestors may have been scavenging for food. The ability to run would allow them to reach the meal while it was still fresh before other scavengers claimed it.

In the book, “Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human,” University of Kent researcher Vybarr Cregan-Reid explained that by being bipedal and moving on two feet, only 40 percent of our bodies are exposed to the sun, allowing us to stay cooler than other mammals whose bodies are 70 percent exposed to the sun.

Cregan-Reid also stated that humans are not adept sprinters when compared to other animals. Many animals can leave us in the dust in short distances. However, over longer distances, with our ability to lose heat more efficiently, produce pain-killing endorphins and simply persevere, we are incredible.

Other animals like cheetahs may be faster, but when it comes to distance, we can run them into the ground, so to speak.

Fancy Footwork Designed for Distance

In the study by Bramble and Lieberman, they examined traits of the human body, including what is seen in fossils of Homo erectus and some of Homo habilis, that enhance running ability. From our heads to our toes, we possess special features that aid in the ability to efficiently run and give us the endurance to maintain. Some of these features are not needed for walking, which makes the argument for walking as the catalyst for these evolutionary changes a bit less valid.

If you think about it, our bodies are remarkable. We have leg and foot tendons and ligaments that are like springs. We have a ligament running from the back of the skull and neck to the vertebra that is like a shock absorber.

Our feet are rigid with arches, a large heel bone and shorter toes that allow us to push off the ground. If we were off-road vehicles, we would not require any modifications.

Our large butts (compared to apes) help with stabilization, so remember that next time you might lament the size of your backside. Our taller bodies create more skin surface for cooling us down, and the size and shape of our heads make us more balanced.

There are many more physical traits that can be connected to running, but the aspects of anatomy, as amazing as they are, may not be enough to change the anti-running group’s impression of running. 

Back to Basics

Even with evolution on the side of running, many anti-running people still have an adverse reaction to the topic. In some cases, this is because there may be negative memories associated with running. In childhood, we run simply to run, but as we age, running may become competitive or goal-oriented to such an extent that the joy of it is lost. Perhaps running was ruined by physical education classes or maybe you find yourself wanting to get too far too fast and end up feeling discouraged. 

As Cregan-Reid eloquently expressed about running, “It’s something innate to who we are as a species. It’s a means of getting in touch with the environment and our own thoughts. It’s also a way of releasing some of those body-made endorphins, almost like a legal high that is actually good for us.”

Running is an activity that has likely influenced much of our anatomy. It is also an opportunity to do something natural. Running is good for us physically and mentally. No matter what group you identify with – those who love running or those who loathe running, I feel confident that I can connect you with the part of running that is innate, healthy and joyful.

If you would like to explore how running can change your life or how you can increase your endurance, contact me at .

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