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Adapted to run

Written by Sarah Jones Monday, 04 August 2014 Posted in Articles

As humans we have several unique biomechanical and physiological adaptations that make us the long distance champions of the land mammals. When your friends and family tell you that running is bad for you, you can hit back with these incredible facts.

Humans started running about 2 million years ago.

We are not the fasted runners on land, however, Bramble and Lieberman say “it’s our combination of reasonable speed and exceptional  endurance”, that worked for us in the past as hunters. A good hunter can outrun an antelope over long distances and this persistence hunting to exhaustion method is still used by the Bushman today. Bramble and Lieberman think that running may have driven our evolution to give us the anatomy and physiology we have today.

So, what were these adaptations and where can we see then in our bodies today?

  • Long springy Achilles tendons that store and release energy with efficiency, making running easier. Along with this springy Achilles tendon we have a well formed arch in the foot with its own springy tendon. This combination is important for running and allows for shock absorption and energy release while running.
  • Upright stance allows for less of the body area to be exposed to the heat of the day giving us the advantage over our four legged land companions.
  • We sweat from every area of our body allowing for comprehensive cooling of the system through evaporation, enabling us to run for long hours in the heat if hydration is available along the way.
  • Long legs allow for increased stride length that increases speed without the necessity of increasing the number of steps. This developed 1.8 million years ago, early in our running career.
  • Broad shoulders, shorter arms and a narrow waist along with  flattened facial features makes it easier to balance the head and upper body against the movement of the legs.
  • Our large joint surfaces at the knees and hips allow for absorption of the increased stress of running compared to walking.
  • Our large buttocks, which are absent in our primate relatives, help to stabilize us, and the researchers think they may have evolved specifically to counterbalance us in the act of running.

Can we ignore 2 million years of evolution and sit on the couch. Clearly not. Maybe its not even enjoyment that gets us out there but some primal instinct that lives in our very anatomy and physiology.

 “Running has many well researched benefits to your heart, bones, brain and muscles. As a runner I’m always thrilled to see the latest research on how good it is for us, and how we evolved to be the top (sharing with a few others) of the long distance running food chain. However, improving my health is not the reason I run. I try to maintain good health in order to run because running still gives me a feeling of well-being and accomplishment that no other sport I have tried has given me.” - Sarah


Reference sources:

Bramble. D and Lieberman. D, Endurance running and the evolution of Homo, Nature, Sepetmber 2004

Tim Noakes, Lore of Running, Oxford University Press, 2001

The Great Dance: A Hunters Story, 2000, Documentary DVD, Craig and Damon Foster

 

About the Author

Sarah Jones

Sarah Jones is a Physiotherapist based in Cape Town, South Africa with a passion for running.

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