Are We Really Born to Run?

This has been a popular discussion topic in the clinic for a number of years. Certainly, Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book, “Born to Run,” was a catalyst for much of this thinking. As I ponder this concept now, and in many past discussions, I find myself deferring to a caveat that I often use: “Be careful with the use of always and never.” As in,“you should always do this exercise or my so-and-so said I should never do that”.” Using caution with always and never is also very helpful when having any discussion with one’s spouse. I wouldn’t advise saying “You always do this or you never do that” in those circumstances! What I mean by this is that such absolute judgments can rule out contingency. We probably should look at any exercise, activity, lifestyle, as being person-specific, and we should be careful about making blanket statements.

To focus this blog, I am talking about long-distance running, or what we in exercise physiology call submaximal aerobic endurance activity. The premise in these discussions is the question: “Is it natural for any of us to just go out and run for several or many miles?”

I rely heavily on my training as a physical therapist and I refer to it often. In PT school, you learn a lot about anatomy, physiology, and morphology (body type). As you already know, we have a mix of body types in our population, and they all have some unique gifts or strengths. Without going into great detail, you can picture people who are tall and lanky, short and stocky, and so forth and so on. Along with different body shapes, each of us has our own individual amount of muscle mass, strength, connective tissue integrity, bodyfat, and metabolic capabilities. While we as humans are quite similar in some ways, we are indeed slightly different in others. This is why I don’t think long-distance running is for everybody. I cringe when I see or hear about television shows promoting weight loss and so-called fitness experts are forcing overweight, hypermobile (this means lax-jointed and is a normal occurrence in our population; I am not making a derogatory comment) people to run long distances.  This is a poor application of a method to the wrong population, to say the least. Running for such people exposes them to an accelerated risk of joint breakdown and any observer would recognize that this is not a “best-fit” activity for their body type.

When I look at paleontology and anthropology, as well as recorded history, I note that long-distance running was largely the duty of the messenger. Especially as agrarian society developed, the need to communicate with neighboring people’s for a variety of reasons became evident. The bearing of news became the duty of the messenger. Picture the fit distance runner who is leaving the scene of the medieval battlefield, clutching a bloody calfskin upon which is scrawled “We won!” and hastening across country to present this message to the king. You get the picture. There are some among us who indeed are born to do this. They possess the ideal frame, cardiorespiratory system, and other functions to make them the most efficient at overland ambulation. Think of Pheidippides, the ancient Greek legend and the original marathoner. His epic post-battle run from Marathon to Athens was the foundation for modern marathon running. Despite dying upon completion of his marathon (Pheidippides was exhausted and dehydrated from 3 days of battle before even beginning his run), Pheidippides was probably someone who was truly born to run. A large, heavy warrior (much preferred to wield a great sword or battle axe) would not have been efficient as a messenger. In fact, I have a good friend who is probably a descendant of Phiedippides. This guy was born to run. He is light, graceful and skims over the ground like a gazelle. His running is poetic and artful and it is a pleasure to watch him run. He is a modern-day messenger and in the game of life not everybody gets picked to be him.

Are the Tarahumara of Mexico an example for all of us? Well, they are an isolated population and they possess a very unique culture. Their use of long-distance running in several ways is impressive. However, I am not sure we can extrapolate that their running ways are for all of us. It is for the same reason that some of the specialized adaptations and traditions of polar or equatorial cultures may not transfer well across the world.

But what about the idea that ancient hunters ran their prey to exhaustion and this was their preferred means of getting protein? Anyone who believes this probably has never hunted. In the most ideal of circumstances, such as very open and gentle terrain when a lot of “fresh” humans can single out a weak prey species and run it to its demise, this is neither a highly efficient use of precious human energy nor statistically a very effective endeavor. There are very isolated examples of this hunting practice in sub-Saharan Africa, and this is related to the human’s ability to dissipate heat more effectively than an animal wearing a fur coat. Hunters there would historically pursue and “dog” their prey all day until, hopefully until it collapsed from heat exhaustion. If nightfall came, the temperature cooled and the animal usually escaped. This strategy would never work in a more temperate environment, as there would not be enough heat stress to weaken the animal, and its locomotive skills would prove superior to that of the human hunter. Prey species have evolved to be very good at eluding predators and staying alive, and humans do not possess the speed, claws, fangs, etc. that the more successful predators have. To attempt to run an animal to exhaustion also put the human at great risk, exposing him to energy depletion, dehydration, and potentially life-threatening circumstances. What we humans have utilized successfully, in hunting and other applications, is our relatively large brain. We figured out how to study the animal’s behavior, use strategic hunting methods, invent spears and other weapons, and increase our hunting success rates while decreasing our energy expenditure.

So what am I saying about distance running? I’ve done a fair amount of it, including 30 years of training and competing. That doesn’t make me special but it at least gives me a little credibility to talk about the sport. Running can be and is a joyous activity for those whose body type fits its demands, at least to some degree. It is a great way to get fit, maintain ideal bodyweight, set goals, compete, socialize, and to feel exhilarated. But I can’t make a statement that says it is for everybody and we were all born to do it. What we were actually born to do was either walk all day (hunting, gathering, migrating, quest for fire, etc.), or sprint (escape the saber-tooth tiger, take down game, participate in battle, etc.).  In all of us our mechanical, neuromuscular, metabolic and other systems are capable of a significant amount of walking. It is a natural motion for us. While not everybody can run or jog long distances, everybody (respecting and excepting impairments and disabilities) can walk. And then there is sprinting. That gets such a bad rap these days. But we are neurologically wired and biomechanically engineered to produce quick bursts of energy and locomote hastily for a few seconds. This is a natural survival reaction in the human animal. So, my suggestion is that we are all “Born to Walk, Born to Sprint”, but only some of us are actually “Born to Run Long Distances.”

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