We Evolved to Run—But We're Doing It All Wrong

Thinking about running as a slow, meditative practice provides more benefits than viewing it as a sport.

These days, running seems to have little to do with survival—it’s all about sport watches and burning calories.

But for our remote ancestors, the ability to run over long distances in pursuit of prey, such as ostrich or antelope, gave us an evolutionary edge—as well as an Achilles tendon ideal for going the distance. 

In his new book, Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, University of Kent researcher Vybarr Cregan-Reid reminds us of this often forgotten history. To him, running is ultimately about freedom and leaving the gadgets behind to connect with nature (he calls treadmills the "junk food of exercise.")

On the phone from London, the author told National Geographic how he was inspired by his Irish uncle, who ran in the Olympics, and why he believes running barefoot is more natural—and less likely to result in injury.

You definitely win the prize for the most unusual name we have had on Book Talk. Tell us a bit about yourself—and how you got into running.

Both my parents are Irish and Vybarr is derived from an Irish name, Finbar. But it’s a family mystery as to why I’m called Vybarr. There are quite a few stories as to where the name came from but none of them add up.

I have been running on and off since my early 20s, but only properly got into it about 10-15 years ago. I’m now nearly 50. There is running in my family. My uncle on my mother’s side was called Jim Cregan. He thought he couldn’t run under that name if he ran for England instead of Ireland, so he ran for Great Britain under the name of Jim Hogan. He came from 1930s rural Ireland, and my grandparents thought he was mad for being so into running. But he ran and ran, most of the time barefoot. He ran for Ireland and later for Great Britain in two Olympics. He also won a gold at the European championships in 1966.

I have to confess: I am someone who loves sports of all kinds, but I heartily dislike running. Convert me!

The first thing I’d say is, you’re probably not doing it right. Most people dislike running because they have memories of things like running for a bus. That kind of running is usually deeply unpleasant, almost vomit-inducing. Most beginners give up when they get injured because they’ve done too much, too soon. Most of the benefits from running derive from going very slowly.

I’m also suspicious of it being a sport. It doesn’t have to be practiced as one. It’s something innate to who we are as a species. It’s a means of getting in touch with the environment and our own thoughts. It’s also a way of releasing some of those body-made endorphins, almost like a “legal high,” that is actually good for us.

You write, “we are born to run.” Explain the role of running in our evolution—and how it is even reflected in our anatomy.

Many aspects of our anatomy, from the tips of our toes to the top of our heads, are specifically there to make us good runners. We have a certain ligament called the nuchal ligament, which stops our heads from tipping forward. The fact that we have such flat faces, and teeth that are shoved quite far back in our heads, are also all about enabling us to have a have a good centre of gravity while we’re running.

Being bipedal, moving around on two feet, means only about 40 percent of our bodies is exposed to the midday sun, compared to 70 percent in most mammals. As a result, we’re able to keep cooler. All these things helped our ancestors be good hunters. When it comes to sprinting, we are awful compared to other animals. But over certain distances, we are better than anything else on the planet. (Read how a runner almost broke the two-hour marathon barrier in 2017.)

If we were chasing down an antelope or a zebra, they would leave us in the dust over the first few hundred metres. But because we’re able to lose heat much more efficiently than a quadruped, we became more effective hunters over longer distances. Having a nervous system that can produce pain-killing endorphins also helped.

When—and why—did the modern craze for running start?

There was some running in the 19th century, but you wouldn’t have seen joggers on the streets. You don’t really need exercise until you have a predominantly sedentary work culture, which is why we have it now.

Running is also cheap and easy: Nobody has to learn how to do it. In a culture where we are spending more and more time in work, we also have less and less time to nourish our bodies with the kinds of motion they crave. Twenty to 30 years ago there weren’t as many gyms, either.


A crowd of runners waiting for the start of a 10K race.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SKIP BROWN, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

You are not your typical jogger, are you? In fact, you hate the term. You also run barefoot and have progressively ditched most tech accessories. Why is that?

The fact is, I am a jogger, but it has connotations of pastel tracksuits and sweatbands from the 1980s and sort of stinks of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, and all that individualism. Runner just sounds cooler, doesn’t it? The bare feet is a long story, but I was a runner who was repeatedly injured and one of the ways I learned to run properly was when I took my shoes off.

The reason it worked for me is because once you have no cushioning at all, you get really good haptic feedback from the ground about your running form. Cushioned shoes allow us to run badly, and our bare feet tell us a lot more about the world around us. There’s something in your brain that flicks on like a light switch as soon as you have nothing on your feet.

One of the things I love about running is that I don’t do it to get fit. Getting fit is a byproduct. What I like is time offline so I like my runs to be really relaxing, not frenetic. As soon as I am counting the time in which I’ve done the last mile, or checking to see how many steps I’ve done, it starts to be less relaxing. Nobody checks their calorie burn after an hour’s meditation. And for me, running is more like meditation than it is like keep fit.

Another of your aversions is treadmills in gyms. Explain that—and why is it so much better to run outside?

The treadmill was invented in the early 19th century, when penal philosophers were trying to work out a punishment that was just short of the death penalty. So for well over a hundred years the treadmill was something that people were punished with! Oscar Wilde was one of them. He went to prison in 1895 for two years' hard labour and found himself working a treadmill for up to six hours a day. It practically killed him. When he came out of prison, he died about three years later.


A client runs on a treadmill during a "Butt & Legs" class led by Barry Jay, at the Chelsea location of Barry's Boot Camp in New York, U.S., on Tuesday, July 16, 2013. Pre-dawn and afternoon classes at Manhattan fitness studios SoulCycle, Barrys Bootcamp and Flywheel Sports are growing popular with bankers who want to bond without loading up on liquor and fatty foods, according to traders and salesmen. 
PHOTOGRAPH BY SCOTT EELLS, BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES

Then there was a phenomenal PR job done on the treadmill, and after disappearing for about four decades, it was rebranded after WWII. To me, treadmills are like junk food, which gets rid of all the good stuff in food—like fibre, vitamins, and minerals—so all that’s left is the fat and sugar. (Read how we are wired to be outside.)

But anything that allows people to enjoy their exercise should be encouraged, whether it’s technology or not.

You begin the book with the question “Why do I run?” and end it in an unlikely place: Detroit. Did you find the answer there? And what is it?

In Boston there are runners everywhere. But during the week I spent in Detroit, I didn’t see a single runner. I’m sure there are all sorts of reasons for that, but one of them is definitely financial. It’s not easy to find time to run if you’re working two jobs, or if you feel the environment around you isn’t one that welcomes joggers.

I want to be able to keep running as free and democratic as possible. I run because it gives me far too much that I couldn’t possibly not. It makes us more intelligent, de-stresses us, and makes us fitter. It gets us away from technology, allows our brains to rest, and encourages creativity. Running can be all that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

Header Image: China hopes to be world competitive in track and field soon. Races during the National Games competition. PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL NICHOLS, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE

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