Track/XC: Marathoning is in our Genes

Track/XC: Marathoning is in our Genes

Dick Moss

Compared to other species on this planet, humans aren't fast runners. For example, the fastest humans ever, world-class sprinters running in perfect conditions wearing hi-tech spikes and on a rubberized track, have only run at about 28 miles per hour.

Compare that to an ostrich at 43 mph or a cheetah, at 71 mph, and we're plodding along in the slow lane.

Because of our relatively slow running abilities, anthropologist have traditionally thought that it was the development of our mental prowess that allowed humans to survive as a species. However, there is a group of scientist who now believe that running was a key to our survival. Not because we could run fast, but because we could run far.

That's right, humans have an ability to run long distances that few animals can match.

How We Evolved
This group of scientists believe that when man moved from the jungles to the savanna, they evolved into their upright stance and developed a number of physical characteristics that gave them the ability to run for long periods of time. These adaptations include:

  • The achilles tendon, which acts as a built-in spring within the legs, allowing runners to conserve energy.
  • The Nuchal ligament, which is believed to help humans keep their head steady while running.
  • Large joints, well suited for absorbing the shock of running.
  • Most important, a lack of fur and the ability to sweat. Furlessness and the ability to sweat make humans the most efficient of all animals in dissipating the body heat that's generated during exercise. The ability to stay cool while running long distances is an advantage that humans possess over almost all of our furry friends.
  • The Advantages of Endurance
    But how did endurance abilities help us to survive? It's known that ancient tribes such as the Australian Bushmen and the Navajo Indians would catch faster prey such as zebras and pronghorn sheep by chasing them until the animals were exhausted. And spotting circling vultures then running to the site of a fresh kill was another survival method that took advantage of our innate endurance.

    The need for long-distance running became less important as our species developed agriculture and weapons allowing us to kill from a distance.

    So when you see runners huffing their way down the street, don't think of them as freaks of nature. In fact the desire to run far may be an instinct imbedded in the evolutionary memory of us all - and one of the reasons why humans still inhabit the planet.

    References: 1. Carol Gold & Hugh Westrup, How Sport Works: An Ontario Science Centre book, Kids Can Press, 1988. [Approximately $10 Cdn, Available in Book Stores or from Kids Can Press Ltd., 585 1/2 Bloor St., West, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M6G 1K5].

    2. Gareth Cook (The Boston Globe), "Did marathons make us human?" The Toronto Star, April 14, 2002. [For subscription information, see the Toronto Star website, at:]

    3. Richard Conniff, Yes You Were Born to Run, Men's Health, 2008.

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