Running under the hot sun. Source: Linh Nguyen
Running under the hot sun. Source: Linh Nguyen

In an age where food is oversized and soda cups are overfilled, it’s hard to imagine that we’re a species built for anything other than gluttonous eating, let along endurance running.

But when it comes to long distance running, human beings can outrun every animal on the planet, and in conditions that no animals can endure.

That’s according Harvard Anthropology Professor Daniel Lieberman in his paper “The Evolution of Marathon Running: Capabilities in Humans

“Humans are terrible athletes in terms of power and speed,” said Lieberman, “but we’re phenomenal at slow and steady. We’re the tortoises of the animal kingdom.”

When we think of running, it’s easy to conjure up images of cheetahs chasing down antlers in the jungle, or a horse sprinting through the racetrack, or a lion hunting down the prey. Not many would think of human beings.

But there’s a difference between being fast, which requires tremendous power, and being endurant, which requires long and repeated contraction of muscles under stress. While cheetahs and lions can break into a sprint of incredible speed, their muscles build up tremendous residue of lactic acids that require a long period of cool down. Lactic acid is the chemical that triggers soreness.

“That evidence belies the long and firmly held belief that humans are the animal world’s biggest wimps.”

In contrast, human bodies are efficient for long distance running. While our top speed are nothing to boast of, our muscles can endure long periods of stress, allowing us to run at a moderate speed for hours at a time.

“That evidence belies the long and firmly held belief that humans are the animal world’s biggest wimps”, writes the Harvard Gazette, “and, if not for our big brains and advanced weapons, we’d be forced to subsist on fruits and vegetables, always in danger of being gobbled up by fiercer predators.”

But we’re not wimps. Besides our big brains, we have our physical endurance to boast of (though some members of our species can boast neither). Anthropologists have long theorized that early humans hunted animals down by stalking and tiring down the prey, rather than out-chasing and assaulting them. Our muscles seem to support that theory.

Source: Joshua Earle
Human beings can run in conditions that no other animal can run in. Source: Joshua Earle

“While animals get rid of excess heat by panting, they can’t pant when they gallop”, Lieberman said. To successfully hunt down an animal, our ancestors didn’t have to run faster than the prey. All they had to do is keep tailing them and slowly closing the distance over an extended period of time. The prey will exhaust, creating the ideal situation for a close-ranged assault. Liberman describe the hunting style of early humans:

“In hot weather, humans can effectively kill animals using persistence hunting, where a runner follows an animal, keeping it above its trot-gallop transition for several hours, driving the animal into hyperthermia so that it can be killed safely at close range. This kind of persistence hunting has been documented among many recent hunter-gatherer groups.”

The intense heat from prolonged running can literally fry most animals’ brains. Humans, on the otherhand, has a highly developing cooling system, using sweating as a regulatory control on the body’s temperature. When the sweat evaporates, heat is transferred from the body into the surrounding.

“We can run in conditions that no other animal can run in,” writes Liberman. That can be exemplified by the diverse lifestyles that have appeared on this planet, from hunting down deers in the blazing African sun, or stalking moose in the freezing Siberian landmass.

Eventually, as humans developed more advanced weapons, the need for long distance running slowly fell out of favor. But for the majority of our existence, evolution forged our bodies into a lean, mean, running machine. In our ancestors’ world, being lazy for a day could mean going hungry for an entire week.

This leaves us a wonder full legacy. All you have to do is unlock that potential – which is to run regularly as our ancestors did. To run, is the participate in one of mankind’s most deeply natural activities. “Endurance running is part of a suite of shifts that made Homo [Sapiens] human.”