Natural Born Runners
On at least two occasions in the past, I have attempted to dispute those who challenge, and sometimes even denigrate, the wisdom in running. Most often, the critics point to the old saw that “running will cause arthritis in your hips and knees.”
As explained in Articles #18 and 73 of this column there is no solid scientific evidence to support this claim and, in fact, there are some indications that running may actually be beneficial in keeping these joints healthy. The joints of the lower spine may also acquire these benefits, but somehow, the general consensus has developed that running, especially regular distance running, is “unnatural” and can only lead to some inevitable harm if pursued over a long period of time.
Of course we know better, or at least we have a completely different viewpoint. And now we have some hard evidence to support that position. As many of you may have read or heard last month, a recent paper published in the scientific journal Nature makes a good case for our side of the story. According to the anthropologist and biologist who authored the study, human beings are born to run!
The professors studied more than two dozen traits that increase humans’ ability to run. They found that the evolutionary transition from primate to human did not occur so much when the species began to walk upright, but rather when it developed the ability to run. The scientists found that ape-like species walked upright for 2.5 to 3 million years before the human physique evolved. This change was characterized primarily by the ability to run, a trait that conferred an advantage in hunting and scavenging over long distances.
The authors argue that the human body is shaped for running, with characteristics that include longer legs for longer stride, shorter forearms to counterbalance the lower half, and larger spinal disks which allow for better shock absorption. Humans also possess tendons and ligaments in the legs and feet that act like springs, skull features that help prevent overheating, and well-defined buttocks that stabilize the body.
While this theory is good news in one sense – it gives us some ammunition in the battle against those sedentary nay-sayers – we must still be mindful that it doesn’t give us license to train and race indiscriminately. Though the act of running may be a natural one, even over some distance, one could legitimately question whether that distance includes 26.2 miles or longer. (Our ancient ancestors’ prey probably succumbed long before reaching that point.) Tackling that goal, therefore, still requires a certain amount of care and discretion to avoid injury.
There is also a potential downside to this news. According to the authors, the evolutionary development of these physical features that enable us to run required a trade-off of sorts, meaning that we’re no longer quite so adept at tree-climbing. Personally, it’s a swap I’m perfectly willing to make.