Humans As Endurance Athletes
When we survey the animal kingdom, we can’t help but notice the enormous spectrum of athletic performance. Some animals are powerful and explosive while others can maintain a slow, steady pace over long distances. What makes humans unique is that we have full spectrum capability. We can be explosive in a minute or go for days on end.
Despite our wide array of capabilities, what sets humans apart are our endurance characteristics. And we can trace the evolutionary features that contribute to us becoming the most efficient endurance athletes on the planet back to one specific point in time: when we became runners.
Running: The Beginning of Modern Athleticism
When humans evolved to become runners, it triggered a cascade of changes that transformed us into the modern athletic specimen we see in the mirror today. We developed long elastic tendons in our feet, our brains grew in mass and size permitting better memory and learning. Our thoracic spines decoupled from our necks permitting more efficient counter rotation in our stride.
Many of these adaptions are only activated when we run and the combination of them is what allowed us to become one of, if not the best endurance athletes on the planet. But what exactly drove us to become runners in the first place?
The Evolutionary Clues
There are three primary clues that tell us why we first evolved to become runners:
- The primary motivation to become runners seems to be linked to our evolving dietary needs. Humans sought to broaden their diet to include meat (omnivores) and as such needed to develop the physiological traits necessary to hunt and kill their prey. Possessing neither the power, nor the speed to overwhelm our prey, we employed a different strategy: endurance. Running permitted early humans to weaponize our thermoregulatory and metabolic qualities to push our prey to exhaustion.
- As humans started exploring and covering more ground, we developed a natural desire to connect with one another. Running is what made this connection – as well as communication – possible.
- Eventually, running became the foundation of sport – a way for humans to celebrate their athletic abilities, against the elements and also against one another.
Humans versus Animals
Modern analysis of the various qualities linked to running performance demonstrate that humans are uniquely adapted to running long distances, and are arguably the best endurance species on the planet.
A key feature of our closest competitors is that they are quadrupeds, they rely on 4 limbs to locomote. Quadrapeds by nature have more ‘gears’ than we do, they can transition from trotting to galloping, as a way to control their speed. Humans are bipedal, so we can only rely on 2 gears – walking and running, with running behind the biomechanical equivalent of trotting in other animals.
While our competitors can gallop faster than we can – they can’t trot as fast, or for as long as humans do. Additionally, they will be far more constrained by hot weather. Dogs rely on panting both to ventilate, as well as to thermoregulate. Humans by comparison are champion sweaters, we lose heat via our skin, and ventilate via our nose and mouth, allowing us to tolerate warm weather efforts far better.
When we look at the trot gallop transition of horses and dogs (our closest competitors in distance running) our endurance really begins to shine. Dogs of average human size (65kgs) will be forced to make the trot/gallop transition at approximtely 3.8sec, humans by comparison can maintain endurance running speeds of up to 6.5m/s. Horses can have maximum gallop speeds of up to approximately 9m/s but will only be able to maintain that pace for 10-15mins. In long distance efforts horses will be constrained to a canter and only for about 20k/ day reaching a maximum speed of approximately of 5.8m/s.
Humans are not the fastest, and we are certainly not the strongest, but our endurance (especially in hot conditions) is second to none!
All Humans Are Runners
Running has driven more changes in our body in our most recent chapter of evolution than any other movement. Because our body evolved to be shaped in a certain way that enables us to facilitate certain types of movements, we shouldn’t separate training those movements from our story as humans.
When we move in a way that’s in accordance with that biological blueprint, we’re going to find that physically, mentally, and emotionally we’re better able to sync up with the way we were designed and bound to get the optimum performance out of our bodies.
Evolution demonstrates why running should be a part of our athleticism. This doesn’t mean we should all be competitive runners – but it does mean that running should be an integral part of our movement arsenal.
Running is deeply woven into our athletic, intellectual and social story as humans, when we reconnect with this ancestral movement we improve physical traits such as a tissue capacity, our aerobic efficiency, but perhaps more importantly we get back the movement pattern that made us modern humans.
Sources & Recommended Additional Reading:
The Evolution of Marathon Running: Capabilities in Humans
Evolutionary Basis of Human Running and Its Impact on Neural Function – PMC