Are humans better sprinters, or distance runners?

This column is the first in ongoing series about long distance running.

You may have heard about ultra-endurance races in which runners compete in distances greater than the traditional marathon which is 42 kilometres (26.2 miles).

Generally these ultra races are 50- or 100-km distances, but they can be longer. In fact, there are 24-hour races and even multi-day events spanning up to 10 days of activity. A Greek runner named Yiannis Kouros has even run 153 km a day over a 10-day period for a total of 1,600 km.

When people hear this, most will shake their heads incredulously and say that there’s no need or reason to run that far. They can’t fathom running much more than 10 km, let alone multiple marathons back to back.

Why would we need to?

Aren’t these people just overzealous exercise fanatics who have achieved feats that are pretty impressive, but have run out of reasonable goals and the only thing left for them is to run longer?

Is there any reason for us to have run this long in our history?

Is there anything that our bodies can tell us about our development that would indicate this need?

The evidence available to help answer this question is varied and comes from such sources as archeology, anthropology, physiology, comparative and evolutionary biology, among others.

Research has shown that in our very recent past during hunting excursions, humans have been able to run down zebras, kangaroos and deer to exhaustion on open terrain in hotter climates. Before the First Nations tribes in North America acquired horses, they sent out ‘buffalo runners’ to track and catch bison, as well as everything from jackrabbits to deer and antelope. These expeditions could take many days to accomplish and required a high capacity for ultra-endurance running.

Many animals have to be very good sprinters in order to catch prey or to avoid being caught, but humans, despite being able to achieve maximum speeds of about 37 km/h for very short distances, are relatively poor sprinters in the animal Olympics. Cheetahs are the animal kingdoms sprint champions and have been clocked at just over 100 km/h per hour, but they can only sustain this speed for short distances.

We’ve always thought of deer, antelope and horses as being great sprinters (at about 60 to 80 km/h), but also pretty good long-distance runners. However, in open terrain, prey only have to be able to sprint for relatively short distances to elude predators who won’t run for more than a couple of kilometres before giving up the chase. These animals are excellent sprinters, good middle distance runners but poorer ultra-distance runners than humans.

The development of our skeleton over the last two million years, as most people are aware, has evolved from the standard four-legged quadruped locomotion from apes to human upright, bipedal walking. For example, legs have become stronger and more massive for weight bearing, while the arms are smaller because they are no longer needed to support body weight, but have to be more flexible and mobile to manipulate our environment.

Other interesting changes have occurred to various other bones in our body including the shape of the pelvis, the bones of the feet and so on.

However, just because we evolved to walk doesn’t itself mean that running, let alone ultra-endurance running, would be an evolutionary advantage, especially since running is about twice as metabolically costly for humans compared to our four-legged brothers and sisters.

So what caused these changes? More on this fascinating topic next time.

Kerry Senchyna holds a bachelor of science degree in kinesiology and is owner of West Coast Kinesiology in Maple Ridge (westcoastkinesiology.com).