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Why are humans so good at long distance running?

A new anthropological study supports the "endurance pursuit hypothesis," arguing that endurance running was crucial to our ancestors' survival

Runner's legs Unsplash:rob wilson Photo by: Unsplash

Humans have had an important relationship with endurance running since their earliest evolution. A study published on Monday in Nature Human Behaviour gives an in-depth look into how two features that separated humans from other mammals contributed to our ability to successfully run long distances over time.

According to the study, our ancestors’ successful hunting and gathering practices that sustained humanity’s ancestors roughly two million years ago were possible because of two things: sweat and stamina, which separate use from other mammals and make running a natural choice to hunting prey.

sweaty guy on treadmill

The authors of the study, Eugene Morin of Trent University and Bruce Winterhalder of the University of California, summarize their work on this topic under the “endurance pursuit hypothesis,” which argues that the human ability to run long distances is an adaptation that began in pre-historic times for survival purposes. In their study, they analyzed more than 400 instances of hunting expeditions involving long-distance running (sometimes, up to 100 kilometres at a time) in 272 geographical locations, concluding that running played a significant role in foraging success.

“Unlike other mammals, including other primates such as chimpanzees, humans can sweat profusely and have lower limb muscles evolved for stamina rather than power,” Morin and Winterhalder explain in an interview with PopSci. “If economical and successful, endurance pursuits of medium-to-large game… could have [been] selected for that unique combination of traits: sweating and stamina.”

Any runner understands that the more we run, the better and more efficient we become in our craft. Thanks to technology and the huge body of scientific research covering humans and running in the past century, there is plenty of scientific evidence that contributes to training methodologies and protocols that help us run modern-day endurance events. In their work, Morin and Winterhalder noted that for much of the human population, running is seen as an arduous and energetically-costly activity.

“We were able to show that running or a mix of running and walking can be efficient, and it was a global practice by foragers prior to the modern era,” they explain in the interview. “In short, endurance pursuits would have provided [humans] with an evolutionary advantage while competing with carnivores for game.”

So, next time your non-running friends ask you why you run so much, you’ve got an easy answer: if you allow it to, running comes as naturally to humans as eating and breathing.  You’re simply following in your ancient ancestors’ footsteps.

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