Barefoot Running — The Ultimate Low-Tech Exercise (Part 1 of 2)

This post is about running and comes with a disclaimer. I am not a medical doctor nor does a Ph.D. in anthropology qualify me to give out exercise advice. Use the following information at your own risk. Consult with a health-care professional before you hurt yourself. Thanks — Scott Johnson

I switched to barefoot-style running a few years ago and have become convinced that this is a better way to run for me. It might be something worth thinking about for yourself if you enjoy (or force yourself to endure) jogging. Like with any other exercise, make incremental changes and take it easy. Pain tells you that you’re doing something wrong, so listen to your body.

The Evolutionary Argument

Our bodies evolved to run 7 million years before the running shoe was invented. Contrary to popular belief, the first big difference between the early ancestors of humans and chimpanzees was not brain size but bipedalism. About 8 million years ago lived the last common ancestor of humans, chimps, and bonobos. A million years later, we can identify a split in the species: one branch later split to become chimpanzees and bonobos, while the other became us. Human evolutionary biologists debate the exact species that evolved into modern humans: some name it Sahalanthropus tschadensis, others Orrorin tugenensis. Part of the problem is that to define a species, one individual must be able to breed with another individual; only members of the same species will have fertile offspring, unlike, say, a donkey and a horse, which produce a sterile mule. It is not possible to test whether or not the early hominids could interbreed with other “species” in the evolutionary chain, but I digress. For our purposes, know that about 7 million years ago, a bipedal ancestor existed.

Since then, we’ve evolved many features to help us go the distance. The arch in our feet acts like a spring, the ligaments across the bottom of the foot are pulled tight, arching the foot to absorb the impact of the ball and toes on the ground. Our Achilles tendon is built to propel us forward, being pulled by overlarge calf muscles. Our hip bones tilt in towards a line drawn down our center, keeping our feet on a narrow line underneath us instead of at hip width like a chimpanzee walking upright. Our hips have special flares and ligaments to hold the hips level when it should otherwise tip back and forth as we walk, again, like chimps, who don’t have this adaptation. Even our larger buttocks appear to be related to running: most bipedal animals have tails to counter the swing of the leg, but we lost our tails long ago, so the extra fat and muscle stored there helps counteract the swing of our leg. Our ankles, knees, and hips became stronger as our femur and tibia grew longer. At the same time, our arms got shorter and back evolved an S-shape to deal with the upright posture. We began to carry our head on top of our bodies instead of out front, as can be seen by the large hole through which our spinal chord passes, known as the Foramen Magnum, which moved from the back of the head to the bottom over millions of years. Also, our head is unusually stable while we run, and the primary reason is the nucal ligament, which helps hold it steady as we bounce along.

This upright posture gave us a great advantage over other primates. For example, in hot Africa, our ancestors exposed less of their bodies to the sun compared to stooped-over quadrupedal knuckle-walkers like chimpanzees. Walking allowed us to carry tools, which we made at a greater rate than any other animal. We could also see prey and predators by standing up. Also, we’re some of the best long-distance runners, allowing us to chase down sprinters: a gazelle or zebra can get away quickly but overheats when chased for hours, collapsing and becoming an easy kill.

We evolved to run and are outliers in the animal kingdom for distance.

Read more in a few articles from the New York Times, National Geographic, Harvard Magazine, Science Daily, and a detailed blog post from scientist Ale Santuz.

You an also see this short explanation by Prof. Daniel Lieberman of the evolutionary history and study of barefoot running:


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