Humans: Lean, mean, running machines by Devon Coetzee

The human species has thrived for millions of years due to its’ physical traits. Our bodies possess many evolutionary clues as to why we, as a species, have climbed to the top of the food chain and now live in a world where we do not simply survive, but thrive. Although many of these evolutionary physiological traits are due to several factors, there seems to be one underlying theme: the human species was born to run.

A female road runner runs down a road at dusk at Independence Pass.
Photo: HerCampus

Primal instincts consisted of two main functions, namely hunting and reproduction. Since we were born with the innate ability to reproduce, we had to learn how to hunt. It was through trial and error that humans discovered that we were able to run for tremendously long periods of time without the need to stop. One of the main reasons for this was our ability to sweat. As we sweat, the vapour on our skin evaporates thus lowering the temperature of our body. Although you may find this normal, or even trivial, this function played a key role in our species survival. Since other mammals cannot sweat effectively, they rely on other methods of cooling such as panting or finding shade. Interestingly enough, mammals cannot gallop and pant at the same time which means in order to cool down, they need to slow down. So although almost every mammal is faster than us, they cannot lower their body temperature while on the go. This key difference allowed man to develop a method of hunting known as persistence hunting. We would set off after an animal at our very modest pace, but as the animal stops to cool off, we would be able to cool off on the go by sweating and therefore catch up to our prey. Many studies have shown that when a mammal’s core temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius, their brain inhibits muscular activation causing them to either stop moving or collapse.Since we now had a game plan for hunting, we needed to perfect it. Over thousands and thousands of years of persistence hunting, our bodies naturally adapted thus allowing us to become better and more effective runners. Listed below are some of the evolutionary adaptations that we possess that makes the human species the greatest long distance runners of all time:

  • Bipedal: By being able to move on two legs, we require less muscular energy to run which means we are more efficient than our four legged counterparts. Being on two legs and standing vertically reduces the surface area of your body that is exposed to the sun which means we do not get as hot.
  • Large gluteus maximus: Our ‘hind quarters’ are relatively large in comparison to our body size. This allows us to produce powerful movements that provide us with a strong steady stride while running. Interestingly enough, these large muscles are hardly used when walking, which lends to the fact that running played a key role in our survival and evolution.
  • Small hip girth: Our small hips allow for a compact and efficient stride.
  • Independent head and shoulder movements: Unlike most other animals, our shoulder girdle and head can move independently of one another. This allows us to swing our arms to counter the rotational movements of our legs without moving our head. This means we can run more efficiently.
  • Nuchal ligament: We have a ligament in our neck that connects to the base of our head. It functions to keep our head steady when we run which played a massive role in hunting and thus survival.
  • Long tendons and short muscles: Compared to other animals, humans’ tendons are extremely long in comparison to their muscles. Tendons act as springs in the way that they store elastic energy when loaded, and then release the energy when unloaded. Unlike muscles, they do not require any energy to ‘contract’ when loaded. This means that humans are one of the most efficient runners.

Clearly we are primed to be runners, but our current lifestyle seems to contradict these evolutionary habits. Since the industrial revolution, everything has become mechanised which has rendered us seated for most of the day. Whether we are watching TV or working at our desks, we are confined to our seats. Even our transport has been manipulated to a seated form of travel. This has led to our gluteus muscles to become weaker over time, so what took us millions of years to evolve into the most sophisticated hunters is being undone in a matter of years of sedentary behaviour.

Today running is clearly not used as a tool for survival, but rather is being adopted by millions for health and recreational purposes. Our environment and lifestyles have changed drastically which means that we have simply lost the necessity and passion for running. Sadly, this innate ability is only portrayed by a certain few in our society. One true pioneer of the runner’s spirit is Gordy Ainsleigh, the founder of the modern day Western States 100 Miler. His story highlights the immense running ability that we as humans possess.

Photo: Tim Kemple / The North Face


Traditionally the Western States 100 Miler was a race competed on horseback. Therefore the physiology of performance lay solely with the horse. Gordy Ainsleigh had taken part in the race for many years, and in 1973, his horse fell ill and was unable to compete. Instead of finding a substitute horse for the following year, Gordy decided to run the 100 miles on foot. This marked the rebirth of ultradistance running in our species. Our natural ability to run long distances in adverse weather conditions clearly stood out because a couple years later, horses could no longer keep up with the running supremacy of man.

So the next time you try to head out for a run and feel completely useless, just remember that you are here because you are a runner and you have the body. All you need is the right attitude and a spark to reignite that inherent passion that we call running.

By Devon Coetzee

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