Standing on 2 feet has allowed the running man to trade-off strong muscles to weaker but more intricate arms. As the early apes developed larger brains, they demanded more precise moving limbs for tool manufacturing and berry picking.
It was found that runners who ran heel first had large impact forces, while those who ran toes first had almost 0 impact forces above bodyweight.
The trade from muscle to intelligence has allowed mankind to create and invent numerous machines to help us do things outside our biological capability and more. We have made cars much faster than any living creature, we can climb buildings with elevators without breaking a sweat, we have even gone to the moon.
With all this it is certain that ditching strong muscles was worth it. However, deep in our DNA lies an evolutionary trait that us humans still have that no animal can surpass, long-distance running.
The Patient Hunter
Anthropologists believe that endurance running was beneficial in our hunting methods. Where cheetahs would burst on to an unsuspecting gazelle with incredible speed and agility, humans would play the long game. They would persistently chase and track the gazelle.
Once spotted the gazelle would flee as fast as it could, but the human would follow its footprints and droppings until it found the gazelle again. The gazelle would not have a moment to regain its energy and eventually the human would feast on its prize.
Interestingly, various tribes have still used persistence hunting as a main method of hunting. An example would be the San people of the Kalahari Desert who hunt with toxic arrow tips and tracking their prey.
Physiology of Long-Distance Running
Various adaptations have helped us in long-distance running. Being furless in comparison to other mammals and having many sweat glands has allowed us to keep our cool in the blistering sun for longer hours. Compare that with a dog who sweats through the mouth and is fully covered in fur, we humans have are less vulnerable to heat exhaustion.
This also provides us with our own hunting times, as the wild cats preferred to hunt, we preferred to hunt right at noon when the predators are resting and the preys would suffer most from the heat.
Muscle wise our tendons can store a lot of the kinetic energy from foot strike to elastic potential energy and release it at push-off. It is estimated that our foot tendons can store up 50% of said kinetic energy, which is an incredible biological trait. Multiply that with the thousands of steps the early man took each day, it is clear that the evolution of the foot was an essential tool in persistence hunting.
Even energy pathways have evolved around endurance running. Humans have large thyroid and adrenal glands which help them utilize glycogen more effectively. As running is an aerobic sport it allows the body to produce energy using oxygen, which can then be used to breakdown glycogen to energy.
The “Aid” of Running Shoes
Nowadays, companies tend to get boastful when marketing their newest running shoe. Constantly bragging about how “carbon fibre technology” has reduced “impact pressure” to the foot. It is important to note how distant actual shoe design is to the world of sport science.
As the running shoe has been around for many years it is easy to forget that there was once a time where we ran barefoot, and it is easier to forget that our method of running was actually different before the invention of the running shoe and using modern running shoes may actually go against our mechanical evolutions to running.
Interestingly, despite the modern running shoes being a necessity today, there is no significant evidence that running shoes reduce injury, but there is also no evidence that it increases injury. It appears that the industrial phase introduced the world to the running shoe before the science was studied.
So how did running shoes change the way we run?
A study by Daniel Leiberman of Harvard University examines this. Barefoot runners tend to land toes first to reduce the impact force on the foot. Meanwhile, those running with modern running shoes adopted a heel strike method upon landing.
Some runners still use the toe strike method even when using running shoes, but for barefoot running striking heel first is basically asking for injury. It is something we are not evolved to do as evolution has not taken the running shoe to account. The heel has little cushioning compared to the forefoot, and the heel is much closer to the ankle joint thus preventing the muscles from reducing the impact.
Leiberman’s study was the first to study runners who have not used running shoes in their entire lives, a majority of similar studies simply compare runners with and without shoes. It was found that runners who ran heel first had large impact forces, while those who ran toes first had almost 0 impact forces above bodyweight.
Despite this Leiberman does not recommend throwing out your running shoes. It takes time for the muscles to get used to it and may cause tendonitis if overtrained. Also, running heel-toe while barefoot will only greatly increase the impact forces.
The History of Marathon Running
26.2 miles (or 42km), the marathon is a popular sport enjoyed by nations worldwide. Major cities tend to have an annual and major marathon event where the busy streets are closed for hours so that people can run along the roads freely to chase their own personal best.
Nonetheless, it is quite a funny thought that ever year humans like to shut down major roads in order to run a specific 26.2 miles. How did this happen?
The story of the Marathon comes from the story of the Greek messenger, Philippides. It was said that during the battle of Marathon he was sent to Athens to state that they had won the battle.
Phillippides ran the entire 26.2 miles to Athens without stopping and yelled “we have won!” before collapsing and dying.
As a way to popularize the first Olympics in 1896, the organizers decided to recall the glory of this battle by reliving the experience of Philippides as an event.
Benefits of Running
It is a shame to let millions of years of evolution go down the drain, it has given us endless benefits towards distance running.
To start, it is an excellent way to burn fat as fat is the main fuel used at low-intensity exercise. Studies have shown that a year of training can reduce body fat by 2.7%.
Some argue that running can damage the joints, especially at an elderly age. Unless you have arthritis, this is false. A healthy amount of running will greatly benefit joints by keeping the blood flow and help bring back the fluid to the cartilage.
Another interesting topic is the “runner’s high”, the common good feeling runner’s get. There is evolutionary evidence behind this. Researchers have found that running triggers the release of endorphins AKA the happy hormone. They believe the release of this hormone was a way to keep hunters motivated during 6-hour hunting sessions in the heat.
Although running a marathon off the bat is virtually impossible, it only takes a few runs to experience the benefits of it. It is no question why running remains a popular sport. After all, we were literally born to do so.
Hello! I am Yudhis, an Indonesian studying Medical Sciences at the University of Exeter. I am a science writer for iTHINK Magazine. In my free time, I do a lot of sports including rock climbing and boxing. I also enjoy reading fictions when I’m having my rest days.
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