Nine physical traits that prove humans were born to run
Humans may not be the fastest or strongest animals in the world but our ability to run for miles and miles is a unique trait that gave us a competitive advantage in some pre-historic circumstance.
#1 Short strong toes
Compared to all other primates humans have incredibly short toes.
Shorter toes create better leverage and allow us to generate incredible forces and push off the ground when running at high speeds as well as amazing efficiency when running distances.
Shorter toes also allow us to take advantage of #2, #3, & #4
#2 The Windlass Mechanism
The bottom of our foot is an incredible and complex network of nerves, muscles, tendons and fascia. Encasing it all is a thick sheath of fascial tissue known as the plantar fascia, which serves a vital role in the gait cycle.
As we go from foot contact through to toe off the big toe joint moves into dorsiflexion, as it does this it pulls on the plantar fascia locking the arches of the foot into position helping to create a rigid stable foot. This stiffens the foot and gives us back ~15% of our elastic energy for free
It’s through this windlass mechanism that the foot can be both a rigid propulsion device and a flexible absorbing device switching back and forth in only fractions of a second during the gait cycle.
Calf isometrics are great for Achilles and shin problems but they can also be beneficial for strengthening the intrinsic muscles of the foot improving the arch structure and enhancing the Windlass Mechanism.
#3 The Calf-Achilles Complex
If ever there was a case for people changing from a heel strike to a midfoot strike when running it's the size of our calf muscles.
By running and landing on the midfoot our strong and efficient calf muscle can work eccentrically to absorb the force of impact, when we walk or land on the heel these forces are instead sent jolting up the body into the knees and lower back as the tibialis anterior (the little muscle on the front of the shin), can’t handle the forces.
Plus, you lose all the free, elastic energy you can potentially get back from the Achilles tendon.
The Achilles is the bodies strongest, thickest tendon. It’s built for high speeds, high forces, and extreme endurance, run on your midfoot to take advantage of the 35% elastic return of the ground reaction forces from the stretch shortening cycle.
#4 Big, Powerful Glutes
Gluteus maximus is the bodies biggest muscle and because of its position, it is suited perfectly to running more than any other activity.
When it comes to glute activation no activity hits them harder than sprinting, and the faster you go the harder they work.
Check out our video playlist on sprinting for tips on how to be a more explosive sprinter.
#5 Slow Twitch Muscle Fibres
Every muscle in our body is made up of a combination of faster, bigger motor units, and slower, smaller motor units, each muscle has a different ratio (i.e. postural motor units in the back have a greater ratio of slower twitch than the big motor units that make up the glutes and quads), and each individual has their own ratio unique to their genetics and training history (🏋or 🚴)
Compared to the rest of the large mammals, humans are on the slower end of the continuum. When it comes to top speed and explosive power humans fall short of the mark.
How did we survive in a world of cheetahs, lions, bears and sabre tooth tigers?
There are a few theories but one of the more interesting (like all these theories though the validity is still being debated) is the idea of persistence hunting, which suggests humans hunted by chasing wild animals (deer, ox, boars etc) by grinding them into exhaustion over many hours.
#6 Independent Breathing
When the Cheetah runs, it’s whole body works like a pump stretching and compressing on the diaphragm and ribs pushing air in and out of the lungs. This is a major part of the reason Cheetahs have no stamina.
Humans, on the other hand, can breathe at a rate completely independent to running speed, this allows us to maintain a steady oxygen intake without hyperventilating. This dramatically increases aerobic capacity and allows us to walk/run/sprint at a range of speeds.
Core activation, control and strength is also a big part of running efficiency.
#7 The Nuchal Ligament
There are plenty of benefits to being upright, it frees up the arms to carry things, we can see further, and being on two legs makes for more efficient long distance running (see #6).⠀
The draw back is that the more upright we move the greater the need for stability and postural control, especially for keeping our enormous heads steady.
Enter the nuchal (pronounced: New-Cal) ligament, this structure provides passive support and stability to the head and neck. Seems like a pretty standard feature but humans are the only primates to have it and while livestock and dogs have the nuchal ligament, cats don’t.
#8 Sweating & Hairless Bodies
The ability to tightly control and regulate temperature through evaporative cooling directly from the skin (our largest organ) gives humans a huge endurance advantage over the rest of the animal kingdom.
Overheating is a massive limiter to exercise output so being able to cool down without having to change breathing rate (panting) means humans can go and go and go and go...
The one downside to sweating is dehydration and electrolyte losses: This article has some tips to reduce the risk.
#9 The Runners high
Although some people may feel differently once you get to a level of fitness and technical proficiency there aren’t many more satisfying or enjoyable workouts than a long tempo run around a park or sprints at the track.
This positive vibe can be put down to endorphins. These hormones (endorphins is a hormone group not a single hormone) produces feelings of euphoria and reduces feelings of pain.
From a survival point of view, it makes sense that we should be rewarded for doing more work and hunting or gathering food.
Want to become a faster sprinter?
If you are interested in improving your running technique or sprinting speed, our Ultimate athlete guide has some great tips and tricks to improve your running efficiency.
You can get it by signing up for our free resources here →
If you want to learn more about running, shoes and feet, checkout our YouTube Playlist on speed and acceleration development. Terrible puns aside this playlist contains a heap of great videos for runners and humans alike, to make you a faster, more efficient and less injury prone runner.