Post VI: Are we built for sprinting and lifting or for running long distances? Primal and running

The answer to that question is actually quite simple: both, really. Look at your local gym or the athletics championships to see that people are built differently, and more suited for different things. Having said that, I fall on the sprinting and lifting side of things, but not until after years of falling on the other side. So what I want to set out here is two ideas which are based on very similar principles, but which diverge on pretty crucial points, albeit using similar ways of thinking (i.e. antifragility). These are the school that humans are “born to run”, and indeed run long distances, as opposed to the primal living school which advocate short, intense workouts building strength and sprinting, supplemented with low-intensity activity like walking hiking, stand-up paddling and the like.

Let me explain why I moved from one to the other, what they mean, and what might be best for you. From about the age of 20, I started to take a keen interest in ultra-distance running, and even more so after my first marathon in 2009. The running was supplemented with hours of swimming and cycling, taking me to a total of between 13 and 20 hours of endurance sports a week, depending on studies and weather. I was very happy with this arrangement, found my lung capacity to be very high, I enjoyed the endorphin high I got after a run which really pushed me, and especially if I could get out into the wild, and run up mountains. Hill running was a particular fetish of mine, and I was lucky to be living Scotland to sustain it. When I saw my endurance abilities go from strength to strength, the only thing that I seemed to lack was sprinting ability, but this didn’t phase me much, since I didn’t much care for playing high-intensity sports or anything which needed me to be able to run fast.

I began to notice a few things change over the years, however, and a big change came when I damaged the ligaments in my knee and I was unable to run for 6 months. Or walk properly for 6 weeks. The doctor prescribed an oil to put on my knee, the effects of which were purely part of the placebo effect, but after 6 months I started to dip my toe back into running waters. I was more or less successful, getting up a good average 10 km time and so on, but the knee issue soon returned. This time around I was out of running for 3 months, until I stumbled upon a book at Colorado Airport called Born to Run by Christopher McDougal. It describes how people have evolved in a very particular way to run long distances, and how anatomically well-designed we are for this. He suggests, following studies, that hunter-gatherers in human history would have stalked prey down over very long distances at a gentle running pace, slowly exhausting the animal over several hours, since humans are better adapted for this kind of hunting than direct conflict involving strength (humans are pretty hopeless in this department compared with most other animals we seek to eat – just look at our soft skin, or compare your strength to that of an elk!) Without weapons and tools for hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history, the slow, animal-exhausting hunt was the preferred method of getting meat. Although this seemed outlandish, a South African researcher living with a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Botswana Kalahari observed this same behaviour.

Convinced by this evolutionary theory, I read on in McDougal’s book to discover the evolution of the foot and how our ancestors would have been barefoot or nearly barefoot for hundreds of thousands of years before Nike brought along the cushioned sole in the 1970s, which, it is argued, is the cause of bad running form and the subsequent injuries which so many runners complain about. With this determined in my mind, I removed my shoes and in the cold Scottish autumn I set out into a nearby grassy field. Besides the stone-strewn path down to the field, this was a big revelation, a real eureka moment for me. One week I was plodding agonizingly along a tarmac road, the next I was whipping through a lush grassy (wet and cold) field without even a trace of pain. More so walking back from the field with feet safely numbed for the stones. I hastily leapt into telling everybody what I had discovered, and started making my own “barefoot” sandals, since I couldn’t afford Vibram’s infamous Five Fingers. I initially started with the inner tube of a tire, cut it to the shape of my foot, punched some holes in it, and used some unnecessarily complicated lacing to tie them to my foot. They were really dreadful. In comes a make of sandal which a guy in Colorado had developed, made to measure, simple lacing and guaranteed for thousands of miles. These were excellent and I strongly recommend them: Xero shoes is the company if you want to check them out.

My love for running was truly rekindled, especially when everyone was asking about and looking askance at my unusual footwear. I was now living in Cape Town, South Africa and would run with these shoes up local peaks (although I never dared Table Mountain in them!) This continued for many months until I began to realise something else which I now associate with long-distance sports: I was low on energy generally and I would get sick often (common colds took me down regularly, especially when living in Scotland). Besides the sore knee, this is what brought me to the primal school.

Primal or evolutionary fitness uses very similar trains of thought to the “born to run” school, but takes different conclusions. For those in the “born to run” camp, hunter-gatherers would have been running often, exhausting their prey thanks to the evolutionary advantages which humans developed over other animals. Despite one modern hunter-gatherer tribe being observed to hunt like this, this is one tribe and not definitive proof. The anatomical proof is also suggestive of good abilities to run long distances, but again it is not definitive, and doesn’t exclude other ways of living. On the other hand, nor do the theories put forward by the primal school, such as authors like Mark Sisson and Art de Vany provide definitive information on exactly how our ancestors would have lived. Primal living suggests that humans are born to move in a certain way, and evolved to do so over hundreds of thousands of years, namely walking, sprinting, lifting heavy things, throwing, climbing and swimming. Low-intensity jogs may well have been part of it, but the argument goes that this kind of exercise would drain a hunter of energy, and if he was to encounter a threat, like a giant cat with big pointy teeth and paws the size of his face, he would not have quite as much energy to sprint away than if he had been walking. Think of how exhausted you feel after a long run. Do you think you would be able to get up and sprint afterwards? Such activities would leave your ancestors very vulnerable and exposed. For me, this makes more logical sense, and corresponds more with modern hunter-gatherer lifestyles which have been studied (such as in the rainforests of the Amazon and Papua New Guinea, although of course there is not a lot of room to run there anyway!). The fossil evidence also suggests that humans were stronger before the advent of agriculture (by way of the marks left on bones formed by strong muscles and the tendons with which they were attached). How many long-distance runners do you know with big bulging muscles? Not very many, I dare say.

It is for these reasons that it seems to make more sense that, from an evolutionary standpoint, humans are born to walk, sprint, lift and climb. Low-intensity running may well have formed a part of life, but not the bulk of it, as those in the “born to run” camp suggest. Added to this, from my own personal experience, since I have taken up the primal living philosophy I feel a great deal more energetic, I am and look more athletic, my skin is healthier and the tartar build up on my teeth seems to vanish every day. For me, this is enough convincing, but I encourage everybody to experiment. If your running consists of a few kilometres around the blog every week, you’re unlikely to suffer any ill effects, besides boredom. But if you are convinced that you can do better from 10 minutes of sprinting every week, give it a try, and let me know. You will be pleasantly surprised. If you are running much longer and harder, I suggest taking a look into changing things. The runner’s high is an addictive thing, and not something you want to forego easily, but you can bet a 30 minute sprint session will get your blood pumping, will try your body more and bring much bigger elation at the end. I don’t want to bring an end to endurance sports, but I do want people to experiment, note progress and get back to me!

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