On the Run

In “The Running Man” movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays an innocent man who has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to participate in TV reality show where criminals run and try to evade pursuers trying to kill them. With our growing obesity problem and decreasing physical activity, this dystopian movie probably tells us little about our future; however, it may tell us a something about our past. Evidence is accumulating that running, in fact, may have played a key role in our evolution. In other words, running human may be as important as thinking human or speaking human.

Bipedalism has been recognized for a long time as a key human feature and a feature of somewhat inexplicable origins. The general theory goes something like this. Our ancestors were primarily arboreal but a branch of them perhaps developed a slightly enhanced ability to walk upright. This happened probably more than seven million years ago and long before the Homo genus of ancestors came into being. The advantages to walking upright on the ground are a better ability to spot adversaries and potential predators. In addition, freeing the hands makes usage of tools possible. The sort of tools we are talking about at this time were primarily found objects like sticks and stones perhaps with a bare minimum of enhancement. Gradually as the climate changed the arboreal environment retreated to be replaced by plains with scattered trees and grasses. Primates walking upright could adapt to this environment. So these tendencies probably already present became more pronounced. What is more our diet began to change. It had to change because the readily available fruit from the forests became more scattered and harder to find. We began to incorporate hard tubers into our diets. As a consequence, our ancestors initially developed large teeth and jaws and then later as the plains began to spread even more extensively we began to add meat to our diet and the jaws and teeth began to shrink leading us eventually to the omnivorous humans we are today.

Daniel Lieberman carries this theory one step (or should we say many steps) further and believes not only did our ancestors develop an increased ability to walk upright but we also became runners, specifically endurance runners. “The fossil evidence of these features suggests that endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.”

Many human characteristics that distinguish us from other primates may be adaptions for endurance running: springy Achilles tendon, stout leg-joints, lack of hair, tendency to sweat to dissipate heat., the large canals of the inner ear needed for balance required to coordinate the running motion, and our large buttocks.

So why were we running? Hunting and scavenging were certainly important factors. The ability to run down an injured or wounded animal or to get to a lion kill before the hyenas had devoured the remains would be advantages. We can also envision that humans probably lived in small semi-nomadic bands during this time. The location of each camp needed to be optimized for hunting, gathering of plants and fruits, and retrieving water. The ability to cover efficiently greater distances in the same amount of time would effectively expand the area in range of a camp and provide access to a greater amount of resources.

My own interest in running goes back to the time when I used to watch ABC’s Wide World of Sports on television. I especially remember watching on television an American, Jim Beatty, breaking the four minute barrier in the indoor mile. Sometime after that I began to run myself pounding out multiple (but slow) miles in long pants and tennis shoes. This was long before the running boom and in an era where runners were regarded to be somewhat eccentric. Running appealed to me as a solitary activity that complemented my introverted nature. Of course, I had no idea how to train and after running many slow long distance miles a completely untrained friend easily defeated me in a short race. Later I went on to meager success running track in high school before temporarily abandoning running for various intellectual pursuits.

I am not blessed with a great deal of natural ability for running. My fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles seem to be a perfect ratio to guarantee that I am too slow to be a sprinter and have too little endurance to be a good distance runner. My best relative times are for middle distances (800 meters and mile) but even those times are nothing to brag about. The plus side, I guess, of this general lack of ability is that I have been relatively injury free for my entire running career.

I picked up with running again while I was in the Peace Corps. The motive then was simple fitness. My training for the first two or three years consisted simply of one, fairly fast mile followed by some calisthenics from a Royal Canadian Air Force fitness routine done four or five times a week. It is actually amazing the level of fitness which can be achieved with a simple but consistent program. Returning to the States, I discovered one day I could easily run more than a mile simply by slowing my pace slightly. I began to get some books on training and real running shoes. Soon I was logging thirty or more miles a week and participating in road races.

Another vivid memory from youth was Abebe Bikila running barefoot in the 1960 Olympic Marathon in Rome. I had an opportunity to race barefoot once in high school. In that time, many of the high schools where I grew up placed such little emphasis on track that they actually did not have a track. One high school ran their races on half mile horse track where runners needed to be careful not to twist an ankle on the dried clods and hoof prints from the horses training on the track. Other schools simply marked out a quarter oval on the grass of a field. On one of those tracks one wet day I slipped my shoes off and discovered that I felt absolutely great running without shoes. I competed that day without shoes and recorded my best high school time for the mile (once again nothing to really brag about but still good for me at the time).

The idea of going minimalist always appealed to me but I couldn’t conceive of being able to run on concrete and asphalt without shoes. And shoes generally meant something relatively heavy and padded. Every time I went to the shoe store, the “experts” would try to guide me to the big shoes with the heavy tread and thick padding but I would insist on the lightest thing I could find in spite of jaundiced looks and dire warnings from sales people.

After thirty some years of enduring regular running shoes, I discovered the Vibram Five Fingers and also discovered basically that I needed to completely relearn how to run. That is, I needed to learn how to run like humans evolved to run without thick artificial padding, rubber heels, and heavy counterweights on the feet to distort the stride into something the primate human would never have done. The Five Fingers shoes might be best described as a modest layer of rubber you strap on your feet that protects your feet from glass and sharp objects but provides little additional padding. Your feet strike whatever surface you are on with mostly full force so you need to learn to run as lightly as possible with short quick strides that land closer to the front of the foot than the heel to toe style often explained the running books. The learning curve was steep. I began to use tendons and muscles that had been unused or misused for years and my running seemed to take a step back. Eventually I worked through that stage and can’t imagine returning to regular running shoes which now feel extraordinarily heavy and awkward. The Five Fingers haven’t transformed me into a world class runner but they may have extended my running career.

Lieberman has a website at Harvard for anyone interested in the biomechanics of running barefoot or in minimal footwear.

Overlooked in the much of the discussion of the physical evolution of bipedalism is an important side effect. As M. Maurice Abitbol pointed out in “Obstetrics and posture in pelvic anatomy”: “The pelvis in Australopithecus was shaped more to satisfy erect posture and bipedal locomotion than to allow increase in fetal size, which occurred much later, since the encephalization process was on the way only after the pelvis had taken more or less its present shape. Adjustments of the human female pelvis to the increased size of the fetal head are minor, compared with the adjustments to erect posture, because erect posture preceded encephalization and was therefore first to make its demands on the pelvis.”

As a consequence of this, the increase in brain size during human evolution carried with it the corollary effect of relative neurological underdevelopment of humans at birth. For example, a colt can stand almost immediately after birth whereas a human requires typically a year or more to stand even unsteadily. The human, thus, requires extended care of parents until the teenage years. This has had wide and profound impact on human social evolution and development of marriage and the extended family.

The human brain at birth is underdeveloped. The new born is helpless and completely dependent on parents. Geza Roheim, the founder of the field of psychoanalytic anthropology, believed that much of human psychology come from this prolonged dependence on maternal care. Human ego functions reflect the long period of human infancy and the bond created develops into a necessary emotional and social tie that forces humans to attain and maintain continuous relationships with other people.

Even aside from any psychoanalytic theories, it is clear that much of our social structure evolved to care for infants. So running human relates directly to social human.

This entry was posted in Brain size, Human Evolution, Running. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to On the Run

  1. Marilyn says:

    Hi James,
    It has been a while since you have written. Thanks for you thoughts on running and the idea of keeping shoes minimal. You might remember a while back, maybe 10 years or so, one of the big shoe companies did a study watching bare feet run on a glass platform where they filmed underneath to catch the nuisance of the foot strike. They were most curious about finding out why runners had knee problems. They thought it was the stress of a hard foot strike. Over time and careful study of their videos, they discovered that the flexibility of the foot was really the problem so they made a running shoes that looked and felt like a slipper. That was back in my running days which I gave up by the way when I started yoga and began to feel more flexibility in my hips if I did not run.
    But aside from that, I bought a pair of these running shoes which to me were like heaven. I loved them. They were comfortable and allowed my feet to be flexible.
    I wore them on a trip to Texas to see my oldest daughter once. She commented when she saw them, “Mom, where in the world did you get those shoes, they are the ugliest thing I have ever seen”. My feet didn’t care about ugly. But I also noticed that the shoes did not sell very well and very quickly became extinct.
    I am thinking that looks is more important to some than actually caring for the body and taking great care for the feet which in life carry us everywhere hopefully for a good long time.
    Enjoyed the blog.
    Hope life is going well for you.


  2. James Cross says:

    I tried a pair of those shoes too if it is the same ones I think you are talking about.

    I think they were called Nike Frees but they felt nothing like the Vibram Five Fingers and I didn’t like them. There is still a lot of weight and padding in them.


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