A good friend of mine asked me about my running and why I changed to minimalist. Big mistake. She had to sit through my bottom to top lecture. I will take her at her word that she thought it was a great summary. The real test will be if she converts this spring when she starts running again.
The more I research, the more I am convinced that we are natural distance runners. I am also convinced that our bodies are built to work hard. We benefit from constant motion and being productive. So here is my view on why our bodies are so well adapted to distance running. A lot of what I am saying has been investigated and codified by Dan Leiberman at Harvard. I won’t go into gory detail, but I’ll hit the hotspots so you know what I’m talking about. I will talk about each of these in terms of the evolutionary benefit they provide us as runners.
1) The Covering – Our skin has pores and not much hair. No other mammals have the extensive pore structure that we have. The benefit is that our bodies can cool down while we exert. Quadrupeds and other bipeds don’t have pores. They pant to cool down. That means they can’t exert themselves for a long time before they overheat.
2) The Tootsies – We have short toes. You can’t run with long toes. Period. Monkeys have long toes.
3) Sensitive Feet - There is a huge amount of nerve endings in our feet. The densest in our whole body. That is why a smart man gives his wife or significant other a foot massage. It relaxes the whole body. It also provides a high degree of proprioception, or sensitivity. When we walk or run barefoot all those nerve endings tell us just how to adjust our bodies so that we have the most natural gate. Shoes cover all that up. We ran for millions of years before shoes on all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of weather. Just saying.
4) Arch Friends – The arch of the foot is a masterpiece of evolutionary engineering. It is also a massive spring to absorb shock. Funny thing is that it only does that when we run with a natural foot strike. Meaning fore or mid foot, not on the heel. Other primates have flat feet. And they don’t run distances.
5) God of the Leg – Our Achillies tendon is another shock absorber. No other primate has one in their leg. Ours allows for a large amount of shock to be dissipated if you keep your knees bent and use a natural stride.
6) Nice Ass – Don’t get me wrong. Our leg muscles all play in running. Go run some hills and tell me how your Quads feel. What is most interesting along the legs is that glutes. They are purely running muscles. I now know why it is easy to find some nice buns to follow in every race I have run. Comparing to primates again, have you ever seen a chimp or gorilla with a big booty? Nope. They don’t run distance. We do. We get the booty award.
7) Breathe Baby – More than anything we are the only biped or quadruped who can breath in a ratio different than our stride. All other running animals stretch and compress (think of a big cat running). That motion allows them to breath in and out. They have no muscles around their lungs to promote a big inhale and exhale during exertion. We have a powerful diaphragm that allows us to breath and take multiple steps. That happens when you run. Most people take two or three steps with each inhale and exhale. The real benefit is that it allows oxygen replenishment and respiration over a long period of time and at many different gates.
8) Open the Gate – We have a continuously variable gate control. That means we can adjust our rate of step to just about any rate from a dead stop to our personal fastest rate. Other mammals are stuck with four gates. When a horse moves from a trot to a gallop, they have just those speeds. Yeah the gallop has a little play in it, but they have about four speeds and that is it. If you are a running animal, being able to finely adjust your gate to the terrain or the prey you are tracking gives you a huge advantage in efficiency over long distance.
9) Knuckle Draggers – Well, we aren’t knuckle draggers. Other primates are. That is because we have a tendon in the back of our neck that goes up through the base of the skull. It keep our head erect and shoulders back while we run. Only running animals have the tendon. If you look at a chimp run, they lean forward and use their hands to keep from falling over as they skuttle for the short distances that they can run. We run erect (go ahead, make the jokes!).
10) Art and Science – There is a large body of research that says we think better when we are in motion. It is a basic survival trait for humans who first ventured out of the trees and on to the hard packed and rocky surface of the savannah. We had to be very aware so that we could find food or not be food. There is more to it than that.
We were barefoot and weaponless. There were many predators out there, so why did we dominate? We were bipedal for at least two million years before we invented tools and weapons. How did we feed our big brains which take 20-30% of our energy? We needed meat and fat from big game. We scavenged a lot, but we also learned how to hunt in a very unique way.
We evolved to be persistence hunters. That means we ran our prey to death. We sweat through pores and run at a variety of gates with ease over long distance. We hunted the big game at the hottest part of the day and made them keep running. They couldn’t cool down because they can’t pant and run at the same time, so after a few hours they overheated and were either easy to club to death or just fell over. Persistence hunting is very effective. In the 60′s there were still hunters in Africa who practiced persistence hunting. Four out of five hunts resulted in game being caught at the end of the run. That is much more effective than spears or arrows. What is it about persistence hunting that makes us what we are today?
Persistence hunting required developing a skill for speculative tracking. The ability to envision what the animal would do when there were no signs on the trail. That speculative tracking helped develop our imagination. Tracking was a learned skill and hunters taught other hunters the techniques for following different kinds of prey. It was the first use of the scientific method, albeit elementary. From that sharing of knowledge came the ability to understand how the beast would react while being chased. Speculative tracking is the ability to put your mind into the head of the beast and to feel where it had gone. In a sense, we learned to think strategically. It is all because we were able to run long distances. It is in our genetic code and in every element of our physical being.
Among all the creative activities we developed because we learned to be speculative, the most wonderful is love. So when I say I love running, I really mean it. Without running there would be no love.
Get out there. Screw the weather. Screw the excuses. One foot in front of the other. Run 5 feet or 50 miles. Get in contact with what you really are – a running hunter. The most awesome predator that has ever lived on this planet.
Run Free. Dig Deep.