Good News, Endurance Runners: One Scientist Says We’re Not All Nuts

The next time your doctor or well-meaning family member tells you running is bad for you, you’ve got an ally.

If you’ve read Born to Run, then you already know his name: Dr. Dan Lieberman.

Image from Dr. Lieberman's talk, "The Evolution and Dysevolution of Humans"

Dr. Lieberman is the Harvard evolutionary biologist whose theories are challenging the traditional idea that humans aren’t born runners, and the belief that running 13.1, 26.2, or 50 miles at a clip can only do us harm.

Recently, he’s been in the news for his work on barefoot running.  If you haven’t seen the website he and his colleagues put together that shows what happens when runners take off their shoes, you owe it to your legs and feet to watch it.

I had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Lieberman speak at the University of Delaware last week.  Cozy up; this is his exciting take on why humans are, in fact, born to run.  (Please excuse any anthropological botches I make here; I’m a math guy.)

Walking on Two Legs Makes Banana-Getting Easier

About 5 to 7 million years ago, humans branched off from our last common ancestor with chimpanzees and began to walk upright.  As climate change turned lush forests into sparser woodlands, finding bananas to eat became a lot tougher.  (Chimps eat bananas, right?)

You see, walking around hunched over on four legs is hard.  It’s good for climbing trees, but not so good for traveling.  It takes a lot of energy to cover any considerable distance this way.  This is why chimps run only 100 meters a day.  They hate it.

Those who could walk on two legs had an advantage.  They could still climb decently, but now they could travel miles in search of greener pastures.  Or yellower trees.

When Bananas Aren’t Enough

Fast forward a few million years, to about 2.5 million years ago.  Climate change has turned many of those woodlands into plains.  Meanwhile, we’ve evolved to the genus homo, and our big brains now require that we get more calories than we used to.

As bananas (and other fruits and vegetables, of course) become even harder to find, some smarty pants realizes that if we can kill big animals, we can get thousands of calories by eating their flesh, brains, and bone marrow.  (Sorry vegetarians, Dr. Lieberman can’t help us with this one.)  So about 1.8 million years ago, we start hunting.

How to Kill an Antelope Without a Throwing Spear

At this point, we haven’t figured out that we can sharpen something and throw it to become deadly hunters.  And we’re not particularly fast, either.  So how do we acquire all this luscious meat, brain, and bone marrow?

This is where Lieberman’s ideas are new.  He hypothesizes that at this point, we became endurance runners.

Even though humans can’t sprint worth a lick, we’re pretty damn good at jogging, or whatever you call running at 10K pace or even marathon pace.  We can cover these distances much faster than most animals can because we can cool ourselves efficiently.  As evidence of this, four-legged animals are physically unable to pant while they gallop. (Lieberman suggested trying it at home with the family dog; I’ll pass on that one.)

And so persistence hunting was born.  We would wait until the hottest part of the day, head out to the plains in a group, put on our race numbers and stand nervously in line at the porta-pot, and start the hunt.

Here’s how it works.  One person sprints after the prey.  The prey escapes temporarily, but the sprinter stays close enough to point the rest of the group to where the prey is recovering from its sprint.  Repeat a few more times, the prey collapses from hyperthermia, and someone kills it with a rock.

Safe, inexpensive, reliable.  While the prey was doing a deadly interval workout, the group only had to run an easy 15K.

We’re really good at running slowly.  Better than anyone else.  It’s in our blood, and that’s why it feels so good.

The Dysevolution of Humans

The point of Dr. Lieberman’s talk was not to demonstrate that running marathons is healthy behavior.  That’s old news to him, and you can read about it in far more detail in Chapter 28 of Born to Run.

What Lieberman is interested in now is what’s next for humans.  Sure, natural selection turned us into persistence hunting machines.  The problem is that everyone sits around watching Dancing With the Stars and eats at McDonald’s.  Almost nobody lives a “biologically normal” life.  And our technology and medicine have advanced to the point at which people who’d have been the first ones dead in a famine or rough winter a million years ago are today able to live comfortable lives.

Lieberman was careful to point out that he is absolutely in favor of helping people live quality lives, and that to suggest we stop treating them is preposterous.  But he argues that many conditions, like cancer, flat-footedness, and obesity, persist precisely because we can treat them.  A million years ago, people predisposed to these disadvantages would not have survived for long, and natural selection would have removed their genes from the population.

Nowadays, in what Lieberman calls “dysevolution,” their genes are passed on.  Which leads to their offspring having the same conditions.  Which leads to more treatment.  A positive feedback loop ensues.  The reign of natural selection as we know it is over.  What happens next is anybody’s guess.

Dr. Lieberman also spoke a bit about barefoot running.  I’d love to get into it, but that must wait for another post, as this one is getting long.  Check out his barefoot running website for yourself.



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  1. Excellent post, thanks!

  2. Very interesting post 🙂

    After reading it, I remembered that once I read an article (but I can’t remember where) which didn’t talk particularly about running, but longevity. It explained that after some researches, they found that in all the regions whith a very high life expectancy, people shared some common habits and a lifestyle that could be responsible for it: strong family and community ties and low intenstiy exercice.

    Which means they do what many of us don’t: they don’t isolate themselves in front of a computer/TV and they move.
    .-= Ksenia´s last blog ..“I would go vegan, but…”. Part I: fears (and a Banana pancakes recipe) =-.

  3. sukotto says:

    Excellent post!

    His theories make a lot of sense too. I’m getting ready to start changing my diet a bit and go more natural (already minimizing sugar), and much of it has to do with “doing the math”..

    Once my stress fractures heal (too much way too soon), I’ll be working more slowly on the minimal running movement.. Who’d have thunk that barefoot running could be so enjoyable?

    • Sukotto, it really is interesting stuff. You’d enjoy Born to Run, if you haven’t read it yet. There’s not too much about diet in there, but there is some. The line I remember is “eat like a poor person.”

  4. This is a great post. I still feel that some runners set absurbly high standards for an average workout but to each their own! I used to run ALOT but the most I would ever tackle was 8 miles. Today my knees can’t run more than 3 and I like to listen to my body. 🙂

  5. haha- the greatest line in this post “The problem is that everyone sits around watching Dancing With the Stars and eats at McDonald’s.” Very interesting! I bet the talk was awesome. I love learning about evolution.
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..Spicy Egg & Potato Bake =-.

  6. You know, I’ve had back problems for years that prevent me from running. I wonder If I could run barefoot?
    .-= Debbie Lattuga´s last blog ..Timex Ironman Heart Rate Monitor | Train Smarter =-.

    • Debbie, Dr. Lieberman mentioned at the end of his talk about that many, many people with long-term leg and foot problems are able to run barefoot or in Vibram Fivefingers without pain. In fact, they can’t even MAKE themselves hurt. Given your history, it’s absolutely worth a try.

  7. I love this. Tomorrow’s run will involve me wearing a loincloth and chasing my dog, Moxie, down the street.

  8. Deep stuff here. We were originally herbivores, but environmental factors caused us to become omnivores. (I supposed this came after we discovered fire, as our teeth/bodies are really not meant to consume raw meat.) But now, we’re in a reverse mode, as environmental factors raising livestock to feed an unprecedented world human population and demand is unsustainable…requiring us to consider plant-based diets.

    Regarding predisposition to cancer and obesity…Dr. T Colin Campbell may beg to differ.

    • Warren, great comment. I’ve thought about that too. The big distinction is that it’s no longer “necessary” for many of us to eat meat. And I think for those of us that don’t have to eat it in order to survive and grow, we have an obligation not to.

      Dr. Campbell is probably right about the predisposition thing. I listed a few common conditions like cancer and obesity in the post without giving any thought to whether predisposition to them is hereditary. Dr. Lieberman mentioned cancer and obesity, but I’m not sure that it was in exactly the same context as I referred to them. In the context I wrote about, he used poor vision as an example, but clearly stated that poor vision is NOT a good example because of something about adaptation and passing on genes. I missed exactly what he said. I gather natural selection and inheritance of traits is a lot more complicated an issue than most people, including myself, realize.

  9. I love how you still keep serious posts light. I laughed at the evolution pic and the quote about port-a-potties.

  10. So interesting — my boyfriend was actually just trying to explain persistence hunting to me the other day! I had never heard of the concept before, but he heard someone talking about it on the radio and was commenting about how cool it was (I’m sending him this post by the way…so thanks :))

    I think the concept is fascinating…and even though I’m a vegetarian, I’m happy our ancestors discovered they could hunt animals and eat meat, since I’ve seen studies that have suggested meat is what helped our brains grow. And it’s pretty cool to think that running played such an essential role in our evolution.

    The entire talk sounded really interesting (plus, I love the commentary you added in!) and he does raise some good points. I really need to sit down and read Born to Run. It’s been sitting on my bookshelf for months now, and I keep getting distracted when I go to start reading.
    .-= Lauren´s last blog ..When Cardio Meets Strength Training =-.

    • Lauren, yeah it really was an interesting talk. I actually drove up there expecting a talk all about barefoot running, so I was disappointed at first. But as the talk went on, I realized it was probably way more interesting than learning what I already knew, from reading his website about barefoot running.

      Definitely, definitely read Born to Run. Once you get started you won’t be able to put it down. And it will make you more excited about running than you’ve ever been. At least, that’s how it was for me.

  11. Excellent post, as usual! After a knee injury sustained from my first marathon last fall my brother bought me Vibram FiveFingers for Christmas because we heard it could help reduce my chances of more knee injuries. I have grown to absolutely love them… my stride is much different – quicker, shorter steps and I don’t pick up my feet and bound as I run when I have them on. I think they’re pretty amazing… I know you’re supposed to ease into them, but I went for a 13 miler the day after I got them and it felt awesome. I have the cold weather version that can be worn with special socks, so they’re tough to get into, but I’m looking into getting the summer version.
    .-= Catherine´s last blog ..A different kind of commute =-.

    • Catherine, yep, that’s what happens with Vibram Fivefingers. Shorter, quicker steps. We aren’t designed to take long, heavy strides. Shoes prevent the short-term pain from the impact gradients but over the long term, injury seems to result.

      You are crazy for running 13 miles on your second day in Vibrams though! Still, so glad to hear it went well and you are fine.

      I didn’t realize you had to wear socks with the cold-weather ones. I actually wear the toe socks with my Vibram KSO’s because otherwise they give me these tiny, nasty blisters on the insides of my feet.

  12. What happens next? Here’s my guess:

    We become the new force of natural selection by developing the ability accurately detect and remove “bad” genes before the child is born. A little scary, yes, but we’re not that far away tech-wise.

    If that doesn’t happen, I think the next most likely thing to happen is we suffer as an unhealthy civilization for the next several hundred years, fighting amongst each other over rules and regulations.

    Humans are, unfortunately, inherently lazy creatures. If we don’t have to work, we’d rather not. Our ancestors were always fit because their immediate survival depended on it. While our survival as a race depends on our health, individuals don’t feel the immediate need.

    Regardless of what happens, I think the best thing we can do is make an effort to educate and set examples for others, like you’re doing.

    I just picked up some Vibram Sprints and I’m really looking forward to running in them! 😀 I’m a nomad roaming around the world (currently in India; Vietnam and Nepal next month).

    One quick question: Do you wear your Vibram FiveFingers when you’re not running? Do you wear them just walking around during the day?
    .-= Raam Dev´s last blog ..Video: Always Live Mindful and Conscious =-.

    • Raam Dev, I responded to part of this via Twitter, but forgot to answer the Vibram part. I usually don’t wear them when I’m not running. Maybe there’d be some benefit to doing that. But I don’t really have any injury issues anymore, so it just doesn’t seem necessary. I did wear them around more when I was trying to get used to wearing them.

  13. SUCH an interesting post! I would love to try those barefoot shoes one day (if I can get past the fact that they’re not fashionable) 😀

  14. On the mornings when I run, I notice that my mood seems “elevated” the rest of the day. It’s harder to be in a down mood when I’ve been outdoors for some exercise.

  15. I like this article very much. I just have one contrary thought. I feel evolution is still as active as ever. Perhaps it’s not selecting for the fittest but more the unfittest, or fit in different paradigms, but it’s in control as much as ever.

  16. wow!! this article is a real eye-opener for me… Thanks!!
    Saludos from Queretaro, Mexico. 🙂

  17. Hello Matt,

    Very nice and informative article!!!
    Thank you for taking me Dr. Lieberman web page.
    I have read book(Born to run) and started running barefoot. I even go for long run (half marathon) frequently. I not only feels comfortable and fresh but my speed have also increased.

  18. Robert gilmer says:

    Persistence hunting neither difficult or strenuous if you are a good tracker. As adolescents,my brother, cousin and I would tract rabbits after a fresh snow until they would no longer flee. Three or four flushes were all the cottontail could tolerate. We would catch them with our hands. They finally became sluggish.

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