Recently, the sport of running has been catching a lot of flack, as it is believed be the root cause of many overuse and chronic injuries, such as plantar fasciitis, IT Band syndrome, or shin splints. It has become so popular over the years because of a lot of things: minimal barriers to entry, multiple difficulty levels, variety, and… mostly anybody can do it! For that reason, there are countless 5k’s, 10k’s, halfsies, fullzies, mud races, trail extravaganzas, and even ultras (aka running for-ev-er) to keep people busy.
Much of the negative talk about running comes down to the fact that people believe the sport itself causes injuries. I would argue otherwise, and say that there are other factors at play here. Lately I’ve been reading an awesome book called “The Story of the Human Body,” by Daniel Lieberman. It outlines how we as a species evolved into what we are today, and really digs deep into a lot of the prominent features that help us excel at running (and lots of other stuff, too). Before I go over some tips to help avoid these injuries, I’d like to take you on an educational journey that explains why we were made for running whether you like it or not.
Food and Water
Back in the ole’ days, way before we were even “human,” it was a strugglefest finding food. Not only that, we weren’t the biggest and baddest predators on the planet, so a lot of the time we were being chased. When that wasn’t happening, we were foraging for food in the the ground as well as on plants and trees. Usually this stuff was really tough to chew… kind of like chewing tree roots for hours on end (very different than Paleo diets of today). But, sometimes that was the only food available, and if not, you’d have to go find it!
As evolution would eventually figure out, being bipedal (two feet) is more energy efficient than being quadruped (all fours). This made our early ancestors able to cover distance through walking more effectively than the other animals as they figured out how to hunt and scavenge food. Enter the “Hunter Gatherer.” One of the tactics they used is known as “persistence hunting.” In short, we would basically chase an animal in the heat until it would get hot, tired, and much more easily subdued using primitive weapons. Another tactic, involved locating a fresh kill, getting to it as quick as possible, and then scavenging what they could from it. The act of running was crucial to our early ancestors to be able to search, hunt, and survive.
Is it hot in here, or is it just the human population?
With that said, another amazing adaptation that we have on other species' is the ability to disperse and regulate heat via sweat. Most animals can’t do this because of thick coats of hair. They simply have to breath harder and then stop moving or slow down. This explains why human ancestors were able to hunt during the day, and subsequently hid from predators at night. It also can show why we evolved from the “ape-like” creatures and into the taller, longer limbed humans of today.
Don’t believe me? Look at an elite runner. They have skinny frames, long limbs, and are super lean. These are features that help cool the blood down when it gets hot. Part of this look from the runner’s standpoint is due to the muscular adaptations of aerobic exercise and energy efficiency, but the other part is evolution. We as a species got taller and skinnier because it made it easier to disperse heat. This helped us be able to travel long distances in search of food and water, as well as survive in hotter environments. (Keep in mind though, it’s not like it happened overnight, this process took thousands of years!)
My, you have such big feet!
From a biomechanical standpoint, another feature we have is our feet. Given that we are bipedal, our foot is the first object to make contact with the ground. The first thing that hits when you run is that giant bone called the Calcaneus (heel). It’s built to sustain forces from the heel strike. After that, your foot rolls forward, absorbs shock with with the arch and the muscles on your lower leg. The hip joint stabilizes the rest of the body as all this is going on, until your foot and toes push off to land on the other foot to repeat the process.
Over time, a lot of these features have changed to meet our main activity. For example, Lieberman explains that our ancestors had many similar anatomical traits: the ability to stiffen the arch, upwardly oriented joints, and a big, flat heel bone. As we developed an enhanced ability to walk and eventually run, these features became further advanced over time. Hip structure started to change, limbs became longer, and the arch went from flatter to more curved.
With that being said, how you run is entirely up to you. Whether you heel strike, are a mid-foot runner, or are full on barefoot forefoot runner; depends on your mobility, training level, as well as your genetically given joint structure. Not everybody is built the same way with regard to this. My advice is to do what feels good to you and focus on dialing in your technique from there.
To get into this a little more, picture how similar we all are, but yet each of us are still so different. We have evolved to this point because of the necessity to survive. From all fours to standing on two feet, walking to running, now even our facial structure is still changing to accommodate the foods we eat. The genetic makeup of our species is unique because of it’s ability to adapt to specific stimuli. We are adaptation machines, as the human body will get better at whatever it’s forced to do.
For the homies that enjoy running or cycling, for example, you are going to get better at it as long as you keep at it for a while. The same goes for the powerlifters in that when you consistently lift heavy stuff, your body will reward you by getting stronger (to the point of genetic limitation). In essence, it really comes down to the goal you are trying to achieve. Spend the bulk of your time working on what matters most and your body will adapt.
Until Next Time
Stay tuned for Part 2, covering important areas that you should focus on during your running program. The fact is that running can lead to numerous overuse injuries, but it’s more about being smart in your approach and not neglecting certain areas in your training.
*Disclaimer and Credit: Although this all makes me sound really smart and stuff, a lot of the information from above can be credited to the book I referenced by Daniel Lieberman. A great read with tons of knowledge bombs.