Whenever you hear a fitness professional talk about what humans were “meant” to do or designed to do, your bullshit meter should be pinging. Online fitness gurus love to vomit forth all sorts of hypotheses about what the human body was designed to do. And, when I say hypotheses, I mean uneducated, ignorant guesses. Those who place a lot of emphasis on lifting weights love to tell people that running is bad for you and will ruin your joints. One of their arguments tends to be that we were not “designed” for long-distance running. For example, an article in Breaking Muscle, supposedly busting fitness myths, quotes none other than Charles Poliquin, saying “Humans are meant to either sprint or walk long distances.”
Are Humans Meant to Run?
You can dismiss such statements without even studying up on evolutionary theory. Simply put, if we were not designed to do it or meant to do it, we wouldn’t be able to! On the contrary, human beings are very good at adapting to the demands of long-distance slow running and we have “evolved” those adaptive mechanisms through thousands of years of design work.
It is true that some people are more able to sustain long-distance running than others, and not everybody can become an ultra-marathoner. But, most of us, with enough practice, can run, run, run! Yes, we humans are good at running cross country. In fact, we are generally able to sustain our running over longer distances than other mammals of the same body size. So, think of a human tracking and “running down” an antelope. The human, if he can keep track of the animal, will be able to sustain the run much better than the antelope. We are not only good at long-distance running, we are champs of the animal world. Humans were indeed designed to run.
Humans are Not Good Sprinters
On the other hand, compared to most mammals, we humans are awful sprinters! Poliquin’s claim we were designed for sprinting not “running” is absurd. When it comes to sprinting, consider not just how fast we can run, but how long we can sustain it. Yes, Usain Bolt was amazing when he ran 27.8mph (12.4m/s) in the 100 meters. But, he only maintained this highest speed for a short portion of the race. In general, the fastest humans can sustain around 21mph for around 30 seconds. Cheetahs, on the other hand, attain speeds of up to 62mph, and they can run around 55mph for 4 minutes. That’s minutes, folks, not seconds. Relatively speaking, we suck at sprinting. When it comes to distance, though, if the cheetah didn’t catch us, we would run him into the ground. We are just as good at long-distance endurance running as dogs and horses, in fact, and in some conditions, like very arid and hot weather, we may surpass their ability.
Many people assume that our ability to run, whether sprinting or slow running, is just an offshoot of walking. However, we have both structural and physiological adaptations which allow us to be more efficient runners, including adaptations for weight distribution and thermal regulation. It may well be that for our earliest upright human ancestors, running was a more efficient means of locomotion than an awkward shambling walk. We even see the predilection for running in your children, as when toddlers take their first steps, it is more like they are running headfirst into the world, rather than walking. The old aphorism “you have to walk before you can run,” may not be entirely true.
There is also lot of what we might call “circumstantial evidence” supporting the claim that not only are we great runners, but that we are indeed designed for running. Some have gone so far as to suggest the “runners-high” is part of it!
Many fitness professionals seem to have a vested interest in telling you not to do things that do not cost any money. It takes little instruction to go out and start running for distance. They want you indoors, in a gym, paying for the privilege of getting in shape. As well, the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ is quite effective in convincing people not to do certain things. People will often take such statements as “you were not meant to do this” as more convincing than “it will ruin your joints.” But to say we are better sprinters than runners? It’s the opposite!
The idea that running will ruin your knees is not supported by any credible evidence. At least one study out of Stanford suggests that older runners have no more knee osteoarthritis than the general population. Women may be more at risk for knee problems than males, but this risk can be reduced by moderate strength training. Regardless, there are more benefits to running than dangers.