Are We Born To Run?

A friend recently posted a really fascinating TED Talks video on my Facebook wall.

The talk was given by Christopher McDougall, a reporter, runner and author of “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen.”  Within the video, McDougall raises and addresses an fascinating question about human history, evolution and purpose.  Are humans born to run?

McDougall’s TED talk presents three mysteries of human history and evolution:

Mystery #1:  How have early humans have been able to kill and eat animals for roughly 2,000,000 years when edged weapons only date back about 200,000 years?

Mystery #2: Why is it that women runners get stronger as distances get longer?

Mystery #3: How is it that men and women marathoners in their sixties generally can run as fast as when they were 19?

Although McDougall admits that there is no proven answer that satisfies all three questions, he does have a hypothesis.

“Perhaps it’s because humans, as much as we like to think of ourselves as masters of the universe, actually evolved as nothing more than a pack of hunting dogs.”

So, are we born to run?

McDougall makes the fascinating point that the one thing humans do better than any other mammal on earth is sweat.  Our evolutionary advantage is that we can cool ourselves in hot weather even while exerting ourselves.  Did we use this advantage to, as a pack, chase down animals in the Sahara 2,000,000 years ago?  I can’t answer that question, but it certainly sounds plausible.

Of course, you should watch the whole video (15 minutes) to fully absorb and understand McDougall’s speech.

I would, though, like to share with you some thoughts I had coming away from watching the talk.

  • Humans, more than any other animal, have the capacity to run long distances without heat exhaustion.  I do not believe this is a coincidence.  To ignore this fact is to ignore one of our species’ great natural advantages, which, to me, is worrisome.
  • Along the same lines, let’s, for the time being, accept that humans evolved as extraordinary distance runners.  If that’s the case, and we also accept that history repeats itself, might we, one day in the future, return to a dependence on running distances for survival?
  • McDougall speaks of the Tarahumara, an indigenous people of Mexico who have remained mostly untouched by the outside world for some 400 years.  The Tarahumara, known for their distance-running prowess, are also free of modern ailments such as heart disease, high cholesterol and cancer.  What I take away from this is a feeling that within our own lives, we need to prioritize exercise and eating natural, unprocessed foods.
  • Furthermore, the Tarahumara run upwards of 150 miles at a time barefoot and are largely impervious to our common running injuries.  I believe many runners would be injured less frequently if they dedicated a fraction of their running time to barefoot running as well as running on varying surfaces, from concrete to grass and all things in between.

Of course, not everyone agrees with McDougall’s hypothesis.  Here’s a blogger that disagrees with the thought that humans evolved as distance runners.  I’ll leave it up to you decide who’s right … or who’s closest to right.

In the coming weeks I’ll be researching and presenting some of Gainesville’s hidden trail systems (some 70 miles worth?) as well as giving you some great Gainesville hills to work into your running routine.

Happy running!


About Benjamin Markus

I am a 32-year-old runner living in Gainesville, FL.
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