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"Baby, we were born to run." Those immortal words by Bruce Springsteen may be more than just rock and roll lyrics, they may explain our evolutionary past. In this article, I'll describe the biological and social history of running, the health and fitness benefits (and risks) of running, how to get started, how to run properly, and some training techniques.

History of Running

The conventional thinking among most scholars is that early man (hunter-gatherers) ran in short sprints as a matter of survival - to catch prey and escape danger - but that running, and particularly endurance running, was merely a byproduct of the ability to walk and not a natural part of our evolution. The argument goes that (1) running is less efficient than walking (you burn more calories doing it), and (2) humans are poor sprinters compared to four-legged animals (who run much faster), and so it is concluded that we were never designed, or "born" to run. In evolutionary terms, scientists would say that we were not adapted for running.

But University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman suggest otherwise. In their research, published in the prestigious journal Nature, they claim that the "roots of running may be as ancient as the origin of the human genus, and its demands a major contributing factor to the human body form." In other words, the act of running helped shaped the way we look.

The evidence for this claim is based on their work, in which they examined 26 traits of the human body that contribute to running skill, and in particular, long-distance running. Among the 26 traits are

  1. a ligament that connects the back of the skull to the vertebrae in the spine that acts like a shock absorber,
  2. our shoulders, which are separated from the head and neck (unlike apes), that allows our body to rotate while our head and eyes remain forward,
  3. a taller body than apes, with a narrow trunk and waist, that allows for a more efficient running gait,
  4. independent body movement between the hips, legs, and torso that counteract the twisting forces between the upper and lower body while running,
  5. tendons and ligaments in the feet and legs that act like springs, and
  6. a strong prominent buttocks that propel and stabilize the body during running.

Based on the evidence, they claim, "Running has substantially shaped human evolution. Running made us human -- at least in an anatomical sense. We think running is one of the most transforming events in human history. We are arguing the emergence of humans is tied to the evolution of running." If Bramble and Lieberman are right, then indeed the lyrics are true -- "Baby, we were born to run!"

Moving forward through the millennia to the ancient Olympic Games (776 B.C.) in Olympia, Greece, you find what could be the first documented competitive running event. It is reported that Koroibos, a cook from the city of Elis, won a 600-foot-long road race in those Olympics. But it was the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides who set the stage for running in the modern era. In 490 B.C., Pheidippides ran 26 miles from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. It was this event that inspired the running of the marathon (26.2 miles) in the first modern Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, in 1896, but organized running in the modern era had its roots earlier than that. The first collegiate races were sponsored by the Intercollegiate Association of Amateur Athletes of America in 1873, and in 1888, the Amateur Athletic Union held its first championships.

It was in the 20th century that the scope of organized and recreational running widened. The first NCAA national championships were held for men in 1921, and women's track and field became a part of the Olympic Games in 1928. Today, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) governs the sport internationally and includes more than 200 member nations. In the United States and Canada, track and field is one of the most popular high school sports. Recreationally, it is estimated that over 15 million Americans jog or run for fitness and health. In 2007, more than 20,000 runners completed the 111th Boston Marathon (the world's oldest marathon), and more than 39,000 participated in the New York City Marathon (the world's largest marathon -- and more than 90,000 applied to participate!). What do 15 million Americans know and love about running that you don't? Let's have a look.

Last Reviewed 11/20/2017

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