Are we truly born to run?

Exploring the potential of the human mind and body

Based on evidence from evolutionary biology, physiology, and anthropology, it has been hypothesised that endurance running historically is important in the pursuit of prey, with key physiological adaptions evolving over millions of years to benefit long distance running, from early hominins through to modern homo sapiens (Brooks, 2012; Hawley, Hargreaves,  Joyner, & Zierath, 2014; Schulkin, 2016). Bramble and Lieberman (2004), postulate that homo sapiens are, as a species, designed for endurance, with highly developed, specialised features that may have provided a significant contribution to the evolution of the human form.

Human endurance capacity is comparable, and often exceeds, that of other mammals, with key evolutionary, ancestral adaptations including, upright, bipedal locomotion, a tall, narrow physique, long legs and a developed achilles tendon providing energy return, and efficient heat loss, necessary to facilitate life as a hunter-gatherer (Bramble & Lieberman, 2004). Whilst a moderately trained runner can easily complete 10 km, and with training, a half, or full marathon, other primates are fairly sedentary; even fast quadrupeds, including horses, have been beaten by well-trained runners over longer running distances (Bramble & Lieberman, 2004; Brooks, 2012). It has been suggested that increased locomotor efficiency, along with the ability to obtain, store, and utilise energy, may have enabled early humans to persistence hunt, running prey to exhaustion and collapse, to meet metabolic costs of a larger brain (Brooks, 2012; Pontzer et al., 2016).

Comparatively recently, in evolutionary terms, our endurance potential tends to be visible in athletic performance. In addition to the rapid rise in the number of ultra-marathon events being planned, and the number of successful participants, there has been an increase in the amount of research conducted on participation profiles and performance in ultra-marathoners (Fonseca-Engelhardt et al., 2013; Hoffman, Ong & Wang, 2010). 

References

Bramble, D. M., & Lieberman, D. E. (2004). Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature,432(7015), 345-352. 

Brooks, G. A. (2012). Bioenergetics of Exercising Humans. Comprehensive Physiology, 2(1), 537-562. 

Brooks, G. A., Fahey, T. D., & White, T. P. (2005). Exercise physiology: Human bioenergetics and its applications. Boston, MD: McGraw-Hill Higher Education