The Science of Running: How Humans Are Built to Run

The science of running
Humans are built to run. Our bones, ligaments, and muscles have evolved over time to allow us to be efficient runners and escape predators from long distances, at high speeds, and in diverse terrain. Here’s the science behind how humans run, along with some tips on how you can run smarter, longer, and faster than ever before!
Humans are built to run! Whether you’re competing in the Olympics or just running from the bus to the subway, your body has several physical adaptations that help it with efficiency and survival in the wild. As humans continue to evolve, science has found new ways to help us run even faster and farther than we have ever before. Here’s what you need to know about how your body works when you’re on the move, whether you’re training or taking off on an adventure!

A brief history of bipedalism

While there are still a few holdouts, most scientists agree that humans have been running for some three million years and likely before. But our brains also make us marathoners. That is, when you’re running at top speed, your brain does something very interesting: It shuts down areas associated with pain and fatigue (the same areas that tell you to slow down) and increases blood flow to your muscles. Essentially, it allows you to run longer than your body would ordinarily allow. So if humans were meant to be marathoners, why do so many people get injured? Well, because we’re not built for marathons. At least not in terms of the skeletal structure. Humans don't have much in terms of muscle mass or large fat stores either—two things that help keep animals going during long-distance races. Instead, we rely on our lungs and heart which can take more punishment over time than other organs. We also tend to walk upright which helps distribute weight across a larger surface area and makes injury less likely overall. All told, humans are pretty good marathoners but only if they train properly.

Why running is so important for early humans

Hunter-gatherers ran as much as 30 miles a day. Their ability to run long distances was likely an adaptation for persistence hunting, an ancient hunting strategy that involved chasing prey until it succumbed from exhaustion. Hunters who couldn’t run a lot wouldn’t have been very successful at securing dinner.

The Science of Running

From sprinting to endurance, The evolution of long-distance running

Our bodies are built for endurance running, which is why humans are naturally able to run long distances. Humans have also evolved to be quick, explosive sprinters—it’s likely that our ancient ancestors needed quick bursts of speed from time to time, and evolutionarily speaking, it was better for us as a species if we were quick enough and powerful enough that we could chase down those early human prey animals. Combine those two traits and you’ve got a pretty damn good distance runner. Learn more about how running became an evolutionary advantage for humanity at World Famous Science.

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The Tarahumara runners of northern Mexico are internationally known for their practically superhuman running abilities and incredibly good health. These secluded Native Americans have stunned researchers and fellow ultra-running competitors for decades. But who are they and what can we learn from them?

Humans Are Born to Run
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The Science of Running

Muscle Fiber Types, Metabolic Adaptations, Lactate Threshold

Different people are born with different muscle fiber types, which determine how quickly you can move and how quickly you can stop. It’s also possible for people to train their bodies to utilize their slow-twitch fibers, allowing them to become faster athletes overall. For example, when Usain Bolt trains his body, he’s able to use all of his slow-twitch fibers. And a high lactate threshold allows an athlete’s muscles to work at full capacity in exercises that last longer than a minute or two.

Other Factors - Body Fat, Nutrition, Hydration, Racing Tactics

The science of running also factors in other elements. As much as you can control your fitness level, you also need to factor in other elements like body fat percentage, nutrition (i.e., what and when you eat), hydration levels, and racing tactics. If a runner is carrying extra weight or has poor hydration and nutrition habits, it can hamper their race day performance regardless of how much they train. Hydration directly affects core temperature—your body’s ability to regulate the heat on a hot day.

Human Fitness Science

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