The documentary “The Perfect Runner” debuted on CBC’s “The Nature of Things” in March and naturally I was eager, eyes peeled to the screen, giddy with anticipation of hearing yet another story of “why I love running so much and why it has always felt natural to me.”
The Perfect Runner follows anthropologist and host Niobe Thompson on his own quest with the “barefoot professors”; Harvard scientists, Dan Leiberman and Dennis Bramble, who ignited a fire with the barefoot running boom that has taken over the world of bipedal endurance athletics with their theory that humans are “born to run.”
These two leading proponents of the “born to run” hypothesis, speculate that we were programmed to run before our brains grew enough intellect to know it! Let me clarify – “because the growth of the human brain proceeded after the emergence of the running body, it was not our intellect that first guaranteed our survival on the ground,” says Leiberman.
Bipedal Homo sapiens – The Natural Endurance Athlete
Let’s take a peek at the mechanics of what makes us unique – The body of Homo sapiens can do two things remarkably well: stride efficiently and regulate body temperature. Leiberman and Bramble show us that the human body is loaded with specialized running features.
The human leg, from the spring mechanics of the arched foot to the neuromuscular web of the facsia lines that bind an interconnected matrix from the tips of the toes to the scalp, following the network of long tendons running up the calf and thigh, is a perfectly formed marriage of muscle and energy-returning “springs”.
The gluteus group is an area that most runners lack stability and strength in and yet (because we sit on it all day for work, humans are not meant to sit, we are meant to move), it is unique to humans among the primates because it propels us forward while stabilizing our torso as we stride and progress forward. Another key mechanical asset, is the nuchal ligament (described much like a large rope) – runs up the back of the head to stabilize the cranium during running, this allows for proper head carriage during locomotion and if we didn’t have it – we would have bobble heads.
Our longer arms, in comparison to our primate cousins, are structured to swing as counterweights to our body’s motion without tiring our shoulders. The muscles of posterior chain and anterior chain, along with the deep arm fascia prevent the shoulders from wobbling all over the map, and literally hold the arms in a perfect sequence as they swing in conjunction with our stride. And then there is our elongate form – long legs, narrow hip, tall torso; which give an elite runner a stride length of 3.5 metres, much farther than any four-legged competitor.
It is relentless natural selection that has promoted the survival of runners; the Homo body form emerged rapidly in response to the changed environment, a classic evolutionary “state shift”.
The Barefoot Debate:
Over the course of the last couple posts I have outlined various reasons why being barefoot is advantageous, as well as why runners are advantageous. The vote still stands that neither one is better than the other, it just depends on your why, when and how.
Pros to running in shoes are protection from the elements and shock absorption. The cons of running with shoes are more hell strike, which actually increases stress into the body. Running barefoot has the benefits of better proprioception and body awareness during movement, research shows that habitually barefoot or minimally shod humans tend not to land on their heels, and instead strike the ground in a way that leads to reduced stress and very low collision forces. We use our natural springs.
“Why is one of the world’s poorest countries home to some to the world’s best distance runners?”
This is an excellent question! In a visually stunning exploration of the human body and our apelike ancestors, we learn how for over 2 million years Homo sapiens have survived in changing environments across the globe – a world ripe with predators.
Africa, is the heart of the world’s top endurance athletes, and uniquely enough is also the birth place of human civilization. Something called the “Persistence Hunt.” The Perfect Runner features unique footage of the only “persistence hunt” ever filmed; which helps unlock the mystery of why humans made a series of paradoxical trade-offs as they evolved, losing strength and natural defenses as they became hairless bipeds on the scorched African plain.
For the past 2 million years, humans have proactively hunted for food – no surprise here. Using this practice called “persistence hunting”, hunters tracked and ran their prey to exhaustion. Yes, the cheetah may be able to sprint and out run the human, but much like anaerobic threshold training any body (man or animal) can only sustain that energy output for a certain amount of time. Homo sapiens would track the hunt and ultimately through endurance – paying close attention to sustained energy output.
On the other side of the globe and moving from one of the hottest places on earth to the coldest – Niobe travels to the most remote part of Arctic Russia, a place where running is still a way of life in the small rural villages. A herder’s life is constant movement – coined “cowboys without horses, running alongside their reindeer” over the ankle-breaking tundra.
Taking Cues from Natural Runners:
Niobe goes on to say – “Meanwhile, in the world of elite endurance running, coaches have been taking cues from natural runners for decades, learning from the success of the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Moroccan athletes who dominate the international top ranks. AtNorth America’s Athletics Coaching Centre at theUniversityofAlberta, a long-standing collaboration with Ethiopian runners, including the legendary Haile Gebreselassie, has insured that the rising generation of North American athletes emulates the best African runners. Coaches eschew cushioned running shoes, concentrate on foot strength, use barefoot running as a training method, and always promote forefoot-strike techniques.”
This is definitely a movie worth watching, one that even if you are not a runner, is a great tool to visually see the evolutionary process of hominid and bipedal endurance. Now, I have a hankering to go out for a run!
The Perfect Runner: http://www.theperfectrunner.com/
Dan Leiberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology, HarvardUniversity: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/danlhome.html