Why do people run for fun—not because they’re being chased by a tiger or forced to run the mile in gym class? The answer involves the Olympics, the police, and advocacy for women’s athletics.
“If you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.” –Christopher McDougall, Born to Run
Run to Live
People have been running since the dawn of humanity. Evolutionary biologists posit that specific anatomical characteristics that are unique to humans enhance our ability to run and do not convey any additional benefits for walking.
Many other animals can run, of course, but humans are uniquely suited to distance running. From literally head to toe, we are made to run. Our upright posture, enhanced neck and head stability, and skeletal and muscle adaptations that enable long-distance, bipedal running are some of the evolutionary traits that make us human. Long legs relative to our body size help lengthen our stride. Springlike tendons in our legs and feet work like large elastics to absorb shock and conserve energy. Our sweat glands allow us to cool off without panting and keep our bodies from overheating. Large gluteal muscles are critical for stabilizing the body during running. The arrangement of bones in the feet and toes provides a stiff arch that can push off the ground more efficiently. Evolutionary biologists Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman state that “the fossil evidence of these features suggests that endurance running . . . may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form” (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004). This means that running is encoded into our genes. The trade-off of all these beneficial biological adaptations was that our species is no longer well-suited to live in trees as our primate ancestors did.
According to Lieberman, about 2.6 million years ago, early human species began to eat meat, which could be obtained through either scavenging or hunting. About 2 million years ago, these distance running adaptations became characteristic of Homo erectus populations, theancestors to modern humans, as those who were better runners were better able to survive. Maybe we couldn’t run faster than a cheetah, but we could outrun any animal on earth in terms of distance. Persistence hunting was thus a primary survival strategy for early human species. The slow but steady pursuit of prey yielded great rewards as humans simply outlasted their target. Armed with only simple weapons, they tracked and chased animals during the hottest part of the day and made their prey run faster than it could sustain for long, eventually overpowering an animal as it developed hyperthermia and collapsed. Sweaty and relentless, early humans used this strategy to great advantage (Alvin, 2017).
Additionally, the consumption of animal meat provided more calories than plants alone, which fueled the growth of larger body sizes. Meat also provided amino acids and nutrients needed to develop more complex brains and higher-level cognitive functioning.
Some anthropologists criticize this hypothesis because there are few populations that practice persistence running today and the fact that it is effective in hot, grassland or savanna-type environments but may not be as effective in other climates. It’s true that this strategy is not common among present-day hunter-gatherer societies; however, more advanced technology like spears and projectile weapons have made persistence hunting less necessary. Additionally, our ancestral environments 2 million years ago likely differed from the current environments for which ethnographic research has been conducted.
Live to Run
Some other animals, like dogs and horses, can run great distances if they are forced to or to escape from danger. But humans are better at it, and what’s more, humans voluntarily run for miles on end.
Track and field is one of the oldest sports in the world. Reaching back to prehistoric times, humans have put their natural abilities in running, jumping, and throwing to use in athletic events for thousands of years. If there was ever an official beginning of running as a sport, it was the first ancient Olympic Games held in 776 BCE, in which the stadion footrace was the only event.
Running has also long been used as an exercise to build and maintain physical fitness for military activities.
Running as a form of recreation—not just for athletic competition, military conditioning, or survival—began to gain traction first in New Zealand. Cross-country running coach Arthur Lydiard promoted jogging through his Auckland Joggers Club. Bill Bowerman, a University of Oregon running coach and later cofounder of Nike, returned from a trip to New Zealand in 1962 and brought back Lydiard’s wisdom to the United States. Bowerman published a pamphlet and a book on the topic of jogging, casting it as an activity not just for pro athletes but for the average person who wanted to live a healthy lifestyle. He showed through research that running improved cardiovascular health, and his book was endorsed by medical professionals.
In the late 1960s, running for exercise started to gain traction in the United States, though it was still considered strange. Professional athletes and boxers ran as part of their training, but now, ordinary people were starting to join in. It was weird. Everyone stared at them. In 1968, the Chicago Tribune devoted a whole page to a strange new fitness trend called jogging, and the New York Times poked fun at the new “in” sport. What freaks, these people who chose to run in their free time! The most dedicated ones would run up to an entire mile.
Joggers in these early years attracted the attention of suspicious neighbors and police officers who were alarmed at grown men and women running down the street, suspecting “folly” at play. Runners were sometimes stopped on the street and given citations for their unusual use of the road.
The Running Boom
In the 1970s, nearly 25 million people hit the ground running in races, on trails, and on roads throughout America, largely inspired by Frank Shorter’s victory in the 1972 Olympic marathon. The 26.2 mile race was relatively unknown to Americans up until this point.
Shorter’s 2:12:19 finish marked the first American gold medal in the marathon since 1908. The finish was intercepted by a German imposter who darted into the stadium before Shorter. He was a college student who put on a track uniform and joined the race for the last kilometer, first to the tune of cheering from the audience and then to booing as officials got word of the hoax. “That’s not Frank, it’s an imposter, get that guy off the track! It’s a fraud, Frank!” the commentator called out over the radio. (The Washington Post named this one of the most memorable sports calls in history.) The coverage of this event changed the way the nation thought about long-distance running. The marathon, once an obscure event that you’d have to be crazy to attempt, was now front and center.
During the “running boom,” road racing events spread throughout the country, allowing public participation rather than restricting participation to exclusive, members-only athletic clubs. Ordinary people were doing 5Ks, 10Ks, and even marathons now. Australia, the UK, and other European nations saw a similar trend. Additional factors that contributed to the craze included several other books and studies about the health benefits of running, professional and Olympic runners such as Steve Prefontaine, and companies like Nike that gave a high profile to running in popular culture. Now it was not only acceptable but cool to be a runner.
Around this time, women’s participation in athletic events was gaining more acceptance. Title IX opened more opportunities to compete in events at the college level, and universities expanded cross-country and track teams for women to fulfill Title IX requirements. Women found road running and marathon running to be a prime entry point into the world of professional and college athletics. The feats of pioneering women runners like Kathrine Switzer (first woman to run the Boston Marathon), Jacqueline Hansen (two-time world record holder and successful advocate for adding the women’s marathon, 5,000 meter, and 10,000 meter events to the Olympics), Miki Gorman (elite marathoner famous for a New York City-Boston-New York City triple win in 1976–77) and Joan Benoit (first to win the women’s Olympic marathon) inspired women to take up running—for recreation and for aspiring to competitive speeds and distances, for health and for ambition and for fun.
Running made a smooth transition from survival strategy to sport, and from sport to many other roles in play, exercise, stress relief, and community and social life.
Benefits of Running
It turns out that running has great health benefits as well. The cognitive and physical benefits of running and other types of aerobic activity have been studied extensively. Running facilitates cell growth and expansion in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain associated with memory. It improves neural plasticity and promotes neurogenesis, which in turn lead to better memory and learning capabilities (Schulkin, 2016).
Running is often a way for people to relieve stress. This works because the body releases endorphins during and after running, producing a feeling of euphoria. Schulkin (2016) writes, “Long-distance running partially involves combating pain and discomfort. . . . To struggle is to succeed, and to cope with struggling, the human body has evolved to release hormones associated with euphoric states so that when one is faced with a particularly trying physical feat, the [brain] is permeated with chemicals that induce a sense of calmness.”
Physically, running improves cardiovascular and respiratory health, strengthens the immune system, improves mental health, and can positively influence feelings of confidence and self-esteem.
Running is not for everyone, but it is for a lot of us. Distance running is in our genes—it’s one of the most quintessentially human things we can do, and it helps us become physically and mentally resilient. And the good news is that you don’t have to run 26.2 miles to reap many of the benefits of running any more than you need to hunt for your food in the grasslands.
BONUS: Check out “When Running Was for Weirdos” below.
Alex, Bridget. “Running Made Us Human: How We Evolved to Run Marathons.” Discover Magazine, April 12, 2019. https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/running-made-us-human-how-we-evolved-to-run-marathons.
Bramble, Dennis M., and Daniel E. Lieberman. “Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo.” Nature 432, no. 7015 (2004): 345–52. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03052.
Lieberman, Daniel E., Dennis M. Bramble, David A. Raichlen, and John J. Shea. “The Evolution of Endurance Running and the Tyranny of Ethnography: A Reply to Pickering and Bunn.” Journal of Human Evolution 53, no. 4 (2007): 439–442. https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/3743587.
Edwards, Phil. “When Running for Exercise Was for Weirdos.” Vox, August 9, 2015. https://www.vox.com/2015/8/9/9115981/running-jogging-history.
Pobiner, Briana. “Evidence for Meat-Eating by Early Humans.” Nature Education Knowledge 4, no. 6(2013): 1. Human Origins Program, Smithsonian Institution.
Powell, Alvin. “Humans Hot, Sweaty, Natural-Born Runners.” The Harvard Gazette, April 19, 2017. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2007/04/humans-hot-sweaty-natural-born-runners/.
Schulkin, Jay. “Evolutionary Basis of Human Running and Its Impact on Neural Function.” Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience 10, no. 59. (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4939291/
University of Utah. “How Running Made Us Human: Endurance Running Let Us Evolve to Look the Way We Do.” ScienceDaily, November 24, 2004. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041123163757.htm.
“When Did the History of Running Begin?” My Running Tips. http://www.myrunningtips.com/history-of-running.html.
Wikipedia. “Running Boom of the 1970s.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Running_boom_of_the_1970s.