Evolution, Running and Massage

June 18, 2018

As a runner, it is likely that you have been scoffed at because you choose something that includes discomfort and challenge with your free time.

 

It isn’t always easy to convey what it is about running that makes you unable to stop.  

 

The thing is, humans are quite literally built to run

 
Exactly how has evolution, for humans, resulted in the ability to excel at running?

 

I love his topic because it's a fun intersection of my expertise and hobbies which include: massage and human anatomy, a degree in Wildlife Science, and tracking.  

 

I first ran into the concept of our movement habits affecting our genes while studying tracking. I have since discovered and read quite a bit of modern research covering the topic.  

 

Please keep in mind, for the sake of length, I am grossly summarizing more than a million year time span.  Unfathomable, I know.

 

So how the heck is it that wildlife tracking connected me to humans running?  

 

The answer is hunting.

 

Hunting is a skill that humans came to rely on for thousands of years and tracking is an essential skill for successful hunting.  To help us understand that we are built to run we must group things as predator or prey.

 

Which one are we?

 

Let’s explore some characteristics of each to find out.  Things like ear size, orientation of the eyes, and tooth morphology are usually big clues.

 

If you look at hares (rabbits), deer, or turkey you will notice their eyes are on the sides of their heads.  This provides excellent peripheral vision even while grazing, so as not to be caught by sneaky predators.

 

Some species eye’s are so far apart they lack depth perception. Deer and hares also have large, mobile ears to listen for stealthy attackers.  Felines, canines, and humans all have relatively smaller ears compared to body size and forward pointing eyes which allow for depth perception.

 

Depth perception allows predators to make distance judgments.

 

The mouths of predators include canines as well as fewer and more narrow molars than prey species.  This means hunting, over time, has contributed to the shape of human anatomy.

 

A little reminder that evolution has no goal, it is not designed. It is essentially feedback from the environment received by our genes.

 

It is likely that early humans were scavengers before developing hunting skills like tools and tracking. Once humans had been hunting for a while a common form that developed was persistence hunting.  

 

This method involved chasing an animal until it became exhausted.

 

Now let’s look at the adaptations that resulted because of these types of activities. Some people have spent their lives comparing the skeletons of early hominids with skeletons of the Homo sapien (Modern human).   

 

Here are just a few differences between early species and modern humans that make us more adapted to running.

 

1. Loss of hair and sweating

Modern humans have much less hair than their ancestors. This offers improved cooling which allowed humans to last longer than a furred animal in the heat before becoming exhausted.

 

2. Shock absorption

Impact increased and along with it, speed.  Modern humans have enlarged vertebral discs and calcaneus (heel bone) which offer improved impact resilience. The increase in the ability for modern humans to absorb shock resulted in more power which results in greater speed. 

 

Fun fact- the heel bone began to increase in size approximately 3.5 million years ago.

 

3. Posture and power

Have you ever seen a chimp, gorilla, or orangutan butt at the zoo?  

 

They pretty much don’t exist.

 

The more upright and faster modern humans became the bigger our booties got.  

 

Why? It holds us up.

 

Our toes also began shorten.

 

Shorter toes means more powerful legs and contributes to the ability to push off with greater force, which is necessary for running.

 

Along with all of this is what happens to a body chemically when exercising.

 

Lots of hormones in the body are directly involved with prolonged physical activity including endorphins.  That euphoric ability (also called "runner's high") to block out the pain would certainly help a hungry person last long enough to catch a meal.

 

Now you might be thinking, “If humans became such efficient running machines over time, then why am I always injured?”  

 

Well, one theory could be because we stopped running.

 

Today a lot people spend most of their day sitting.  Whether it’s driving a car, working at a desk, or watching TV on the couch. Gone are the days where we need to hunt our dinner or even walk to get to where we're going.

 

This is where the need for massage come in. 

 

In this transition of highly active to inactivity our bodies have not caught up, evolutionarily speaking. 

 

So how do we "bridge the gap?" 

 

Massage therapy can provide great support for a body to remember how to move the way it was made to!   It helps by removing restrictions in your body's natural range of motion caused by prolonged periods of sitting and inactivity. 

 

Massage can also help support a body on forced rest due to injury or surgery. By helping to facilitate your body's natural ability to heal itself, massage is a great addition to any runner's injury prevention routine. 


This, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg. If you're interested in learning more check out these resources The Art of Tracking by Louis Liebenberg The Tinkerer’s Accomplice by J. Scott Turner and Born the Run by Christopher McDonald.  Of course, you can also ask me about it next time you’re in.

Happy Trails!

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