With the current celebrations of Darwin’s birthday, a recent story about how we humans have evolved for running long distances seems to be appropriate. It makes me feel better about the fact that I’m anything but fleet afoot, as well. The ongoing mantra among my group of running buddies is that humans were built to move.
There’s a recent story at Wired.com regarding the evolution of human toes. What?
Anthropologists at the University of Calgary and Harvard have been studying the biomechanics of the human toe. From an evolutionary standpoint, our closest relative is the chimpanzee, yet we do not share their long, prehensile toes that allow chimps to grab things. (At least, I can’t grab things with my toes.) It turns out that critters with long toes expend more energy when running (or walking) than those with short toes. An example they cite is comparing a chimp to a dog for running efficiency. Set aside the whole four-legged thing, and you find that those animals “built for running” have very short toes. Now we know why.
Researchers go on to say that we humans are built for long distance running, but generally speaking, make poor sprinters. We can sweat, which allows us to dissipate heat during daytime while running. Compare that to most sprinters, which must pant to cool themselves. I guess there are a variety of reasons why dogs usually hunt at night. The cooler weather allows them to regulate their body temperature more effectively. A dog can’t really pant and run at the same time.
What Does This Mean For Me?
This is all interesting conjecture, but what does it mean if you’re into to running long distances? Since I’ve taken up running, my mantra has been that training for long distance runs requires a great deal of mental fortitude, but I find it far easier than trying to run fast. As long as you’re not trying to improve your speed, the slow, steady addition of distance to your long run should present little risk of injury. This worked out for me during my half marathon training. It’s interesting that the researchers mention that we’re poor sprinters. I can certainly attest to that, because when it comes to running fast, I suck. And, it seems inevitable that trying to run faster leads to injuries, much like I’m battling with my piriformis right now. I’ve recently purchased The Runner’s Body to explore this question in more detail.
I guess the takeaway from this study is that we are built to move. Somehow. In spite of the fact that we don’t have to chase prey for long distances across the plains anymore, we have evolved for movement. If we don’t make it part of lives, we will suffer for it.