Pushing the human body beyond what seems normal might not be healthy but it is fascinating, whether we’re talking about professional pedestrians in the nineteenth century or today’s ultramarathoners. Harvard evolutionary scientist Daniel Lieberman has an excellent post at Edge about the origins and development of endurance in humans. An excerpt:
“We have this notion that humans are terrible natural athletes. But we’ve been looking at the wrong kind of athleticism. What we’re really good at is not power, what we’re really phenomenal at is endurance. We’re the tortoises of the animal world, not the hares of the animal world. Humans can actually outrun most animals over very, very long distances.
The marathon, of course, is a very interesting example. A lot of people think marathons are extraordinary, and they wonder how many people can run marathons. At least a million people run a marathon every year. If you watch any major marathon, you realize that most of those folks aren’t extraordinary athletes, they’re just average moms and dads. A lot of them are charity runners who decided to raise money for some cancer cause or diabetes or something. I think that proves that really your average human being can run 26.2 miles without that much training, or much ability to be a great athlete. Of course, to run a marathon at really fast speeds is remarkable, but again, it just takes some practice and training. It’s not something that’s really extraordinary.
We’re actually remarkable endurance athletes, and that endurance athleticism is deeply woven into our bodies, literally from our heads to our toes. We have adaptations in our feet and our legs and our hips and pelvises and our heads and our brains and our respiratory systems. We even have neurobiological adaptations that give us a runner’s high, all of which help make us extraordinary endurance athletes. We’ve lost sight at just how good we are at endurance athleticism, and that’s led to a perverse idea that humans really aren’t very good athletes.
A good example is that every year they have races where they actually compare humans and horses. In Wales, this started a few years ago, I guess it started out as a typical sort of drunken pub bet, where some guy bet that a human couldn’t beat a horse in a marathon. They’ve been running a marathon in Wales for the last, I think 15-20 years. To be fair, most years, the horses beat the humans, but the humans often come very close. Whenever it’s hot, the humans actually beat the horses. They also have now ultramarathons in Arizona, where humans race horses. Again, most years, the horses beat the humans, but every once in a while, the humans do beat the horses. The point is not that humans are poor athletes, because the horses occasionally beat us, but humans can actually compete with and often beat horses at endurance races. Most people are surprised at that.”
Tags: Daniel Lieberman