How we evolved to run, and why we probably didn’t

If we are built to run long distances, how does that explain almost everything about us, asks John Carroll.

There is a growing consensus among the scientific community – evolutionary biologists, paleoanthropologists, neuroscientists and other dilettantes – that our bodies and brains evolved to run long distances so we could slowly hunt down animals on the African savannahs. But are they simply using facts and decades of research to come to a conclusion? Let’s take it from the top.


If we evolved both physically and psychologically to cope with running long distances, why did we one day look at horses and think, ‘If I stick a saddle on that thing, I won’t have to run any more. If only I knew what a saddle was.’

And why did we invent the wheel? The bow and arrow? Takeaways? Vegetarianism? It seems clear that as soon as we evolved to run long distances for the purposes of feeding ourselves, we began to look at ways to put our feet up and let technology or some other sap do the hard work.


So delicate…so perfect…so poorly protected on a windy day as you’re running down an antelope across a dusty landscape. And even on a still day, there’s the sweat. It rolls down the forehead and gets in the eyes and stings (thanks, evolved eyebrows – for nothing). This is bad enough on a run today, but imagine you are chasing your dinner across the Serengeti, around noon. Your sweat blinds you and you blunder into a pack of dozing hyenas. One of them says, ‘We should order in more often.’ The other hyenas begin to laugh and that is never a good development, evolutionary or otherwise.


It’s argued that one of the reasons the human nose and nasal cavity developed as they did was to act as a kind of air conditioner, warming the air we breathe in, so it does not damage the delicate lining of the lungs. When was the last time you were running hard, head thrown back, and thought, ‘Best close this gaping mouth and breathe gently through my nose; wouldn’t want to damage my gossamer lung tissue’? In short, we should have nostrils the size of tubas and lungs that didn’t attend a Swiss finishing school.

Nuchal ligament

Animals that are adapted to running, such as horses and dogs, have this ligament, as do humans. It connects base of the skull to the spine and the theory is that it keeps endurance runners’ heads from bobbing excessively. No one told Paula Radcliffe.


Most animals, including humans, have a heart-to-body-mass ratio of .6 per cent. A strong heart helps us run better, for sure, but even here evolution has mucked it up. The animal with the biggest heart-to-body-mass ratio is the dog, at .8 per cent. I have a dog. He exerts energy only on his way to his food bowl or when his tail has been talking about him behind his back, and so must be caught and punished. At all other times, he is, in effect, a domesticated sloth and does not need a powerful pump. A cat, by the way, has a heart-to-body-mass ratio of .35 per cent, and that is because cats are cold-blooded, pitiless killers.


We are told that men have them because it takes a while before an embryo decides to be male or female. Therefore, thanks to evolution’s lackadaisical approach to human development, men have nipples they do not need and so there is chafing. Terrible, terrible chafing. Women also suffer, but the evolutionary development is more easily understood, which leads us to…


Breasts aid running in the same way as having a six-foot neck helps a giraffe amble unnoticed past a lion who’s down to his last gazelle shin. Evolution simply has not been smart in terms of offering natural support to breasts.

Man: Hey, I’m just off to hunt down an antelope over several days in the blinding heat. Who’s with me?

Woman: Love to, but, you know…boobs.

Man: Hah Hah! Good joke, mere woman. But our most esteemed medicine men have said the female baby-carrying chamber will fall out if you run for longer than 10 minutes, so you would not be invited even if you had some kind of protection device for your nutrition pouches. Also, no more jokes. They are for men to tell, as we are desperately insecure and need validation through laughter.


Human gluteal muscles are comparatively large compared with those of other primates, which may be a surprise to anyone who has ever watched a documentary about baboons. Our glutes are big because we evolved to get about on two legs. However, biologist Dennis Bramble goes further. Bramble, along with anthropologist Daniel Lieberman, wrote a hugely influential study on the links between human evolution and endurance running. He has said that our glutes ‘are muscles critical for stabilisation in running’ and compared them with apes – ‘They have no buns.’ He is, technically, correct (I have no wish to engage in fisticuffs with a scientist; they are a rough bunch), but runners are notoriously useless at engaging their glutes and many distance runners appear to have no glutes at all; you could run a plumb line from neck to heel without encountering even the slightest impediment.


Another dubious scientific claim is that our long legs allow us to take big strides. At the risk of making this personal, some runners do not have long legs, even compared with lemurs. And most recreational runners do not take big strides. Some, indeed, run as if they are wearing a kimono.

And these so-called long legs have not been of much use in the 22-mile Man V Horse race that takes place every year in Wales. Since it began in 1980, humans have beaten the horse twice. To misquote Orwell, two legs good, four legs so much better. And faster. (See Brain, above)

Achilles tendon

Humans have powerful Achilles tendons, but chimpanzees and gorillas do not. This has led to what is called the ‘In your face hypothesis’ by the scientific community. It is a cornerstone of the theory that we evolved to run, because the Achilles is, in effect, a mighty spring, storing and releasing energy, thereby improving the power of the human gait. All true, but, once again, evolution just didn’t follow through on its early promise. The Achilles has a poor blood supply, as do other tendons, so when it’s injured, it stays injured until hunting season is over:

Ancestor one: Ow! My Achilles is really sore. Continue the hunt without me.

Ancestor two: Never! We will stay with you while it repairs, for we are kin, and stronger together. How long, do you think?

Ancestor one: Hard to say. Six weeks; a year, maybe.

Ancestor two: Here is a heavy stone. If you hear a lion, hit yourself with the heavy stone. It’s better that way.

More awkwardly for the hidebound scientific establishment, gibbons have Achilles tendons. Yes, they diverged from the great ape lineage about 16 million years ago,* but they are still part of the family. Do gibbons go for long runs at the weekend? No, they do not, and yet there it is, the Achilles tendon, on an animal that spends almost all its time in the trees, swinging away using its comically long arms, and loudly hooting that it is the cutest ape in town.

*This is all for the best, as gibbons are disliked by other apes because of their shameless boasting, in particular when it comes to describing the size of the fish they caught that day


Most of us stopped using our feet to grab things a long, long time ago and yet we’ve kept our toenails. It has been argued that they help protect our toes when we stub them, but that is something we didn’t do until we invented beds, and toilets to go to during the night. Another suggested reason is that they help with balance by exerting a counter pressure on the toe, but most of them are tiny and ineffective. And runners know what happens to toenails: they bruise, blacken and fall off. Then they very slowly grow back. What are we supposed to do while this tedious process takes place? We keep running – but we rarely fall over, cursing the missing keratin for disrupting our sense of balance. Face it, evolution, you messed up. You messed up good.

Related Articles