Are We built for long distance running? Another Point Of View
With the excitement building from the upcoming NYC Marathon here in New York City, there is a lot of buzz about the safety of running long distances, an issue which was recently raised in an article in the NY Times based on the book, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. Mr. McDougall puts forward the notion that long distance running is indeed part of our evolutionary heritage and that humans as a species are made to run for miles and miles, a point that I disagree with strongly, especially given my 18 years of working with individuals mildly to severely injured from long distance running as a NYC Personal Trainer. According to studies done by the Saint Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center in San Francisco, 90% of those who train for a marathon sustain injuries in the process.1
This while more and more people take up marathon running here in the United States every year. My own experience in my personal training practice is even more definitive with all of my clients running three miles or more on a regular basis in the past sustaining some form of injury in the process. I do understand the thrill from competing in marathons, and I have worked with several clients that compete in long distance races. When someone is passionate about a particular activity, they will take risks, if not we would not have any NASCAR races or most of the extreme sports today that tend to result in major injury when something goes wrong. However I am always of the mind set that the science behind the risk factors should be very real, and not simply a matter of opinion and conjecture.
Long Distance Running In Primitive Man- Some Theories
In his book, Mr. McDougal, (who himself is a runner plagued by injuries, mind you) argues that the idea of long distance running being bad is a fairly recent phenomenon. As evidence of our long distance running heritage, he cites the examples of several tribes where running is very much the norm. Tribes where injuries which are common here in the U.S. among runners are unheard of. He also stakes his claim with the theory that our ancestors used endurance hunting as a method of obtaining meat. It is well known that most animals can run for short distances far faster than even the best trained human being, however according to a 2007 paper in the journal, Sports Medicine, Daniel E. Lieberman, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, and Dennis M. Bramble, a biologist at the University of Utah, in terms of running for long distances, a human could outrun a horse in hot weather because of our rather well developed cooling mechanisms. I personally am not sure how scientifically valid this point actually is, as to date there as has been no such endurance race pitting man against animal to draw any real life conclusions.
In keeping with this idea Mr. Dougal presents the theory that primitive man engaged in what is known as persistence hunting, where they would chase their prey for hours until it overheated and was easier to kill at a closer range. Several reports note the practices of some modern hunter gather tribes as evidence of this form of hunting by our ancestors. As convincing as it sounds such theories, even if they did hold water fail to take into consideration one some very important factors. Namely that evolution is not a static phenomenon and that while small groups of people around the world are indeed adept at long distance running without injury, (the author cites the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico and of course the Kenyans immediately come to mind), we have to take into account the fact that the average Western male or female significantly outweighs their early ancestors.
The Average Westerner Today Is Not Built For Long Distance Running
The weight of the average American male aged 20-74 years rose from 166.3 pounds in 1960 to 191 pounds in 2002 according to a report by the Center for Disease Control 2, while the average weight for women in the same age group increased from 140.2 pounds to 164.3 pounds! Keep in mind that humans as a whole were far bigger in the 1960’s than they were in during the Middle Ages, and they were even heavier than our hunter-gathering great-great grandparents, several thousand years earlier, all thanks to the increased availability of food. Taking this into consideration, in addition to the fact that the average Kenyan runner and interestingly enough, the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico have builds and body weights that are far more akin to our early ancestors than the average that you will see in this part of the world.
As much as proponents for running may argue about that our physiology primes us for running, (the human big toe is not divergent, which along with the comparatively spring like tendons in our legs and feet that other primates do not seem to have, seem to suggest that we are built to run)- this argument fails to address our collective weight gain over time as a species and the fact that these adaptations make us adept at sprinting, not just long distance running. (Staying with the physiological argument, that we are able to store enough glycogen in our muscles for twenty miles worth of running, by the way, really makes the 26.2 miles of a marathon a bit of a stretch, even for the best trained of our species.)
As for running as a means of hunting, as a hunter myself and one that has taught survival classes for almost two decades, and who has spent a significant amount of time living off the land in rainforests without the benefit of modern tools, I can say with authority that trapping animals, and not running after them is the most effective method of obtaining food, as energy conservation is a key factor in conditions where you have to kill what you eat.
The Persistence Hunting Theory Debunked
Hunting provides supplementary protein from time to time, but the mainstay of the diet comes from animals trapped, in addition to edible plants, fruits, berries and insects gathered throughout the day. The Bushmen of Africa may indeed use persistence hunting, but the number of hunter gatherer tribes employing the aforementioned techniques far outnumber them, from the Native American Indians in North America, their cousins further south in the Amazon basin, Papua New Guinea and many other tribes living in the rainforests of the African continent. As a rule in survival training, you need to do as little as possible to obtain food, then you try running several miles on a diet consisting of only hunted protein and edible plants- you will most likely die in the process. When a true hunter does hunt, they find a way to make the prey come and then ambush using stealth and concealment.
Humans Are Not Designed For Long Distance Running On Hard Surfaces Or In High Tech Shoes
I do firmly believe that another reason why people get injured from long distance running is because of artificial surfaces. Road running is not exactly part of our evolutionary heritage and paved asphalt is fairly new to our feet. Given the number of runners that also sustain injuries in spite of wearing the latest in high technology running shoes, I suspect that they either play a role or are largely ineffective in preventing injury. It is a 20 billion dollar industry and one that stands to gain much from the commonly held notion that you need to constantly change shoes to keep your feet in good shape if you are an active runner. Is running barefoot the answer? Well, on this Mr. McDougal and I seem to see eye to eye, as when I did run every day for several years as a young teen, I never wore high tech sneakers, only very thinly soled shoes. But then again, I didn’t weigh more than 125 lbs at the time.
1. Epidemiology and aetiology of marathon running injuries-1 2006 World Congress on the Science and Medicine of the Marathon, Chicago , ETATS-UNIS
2. Mean Body Weight, Height, and Body Mass Index (BMI) 1960-2002: United States
Personal Trainer NYC Kevin Richardson is an award winning health and fitness writer, natural bodybuilding champion and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training™. For more articles and free weight loss ebooks more visit his official website at www.naturallyintense.net.