Why We Are Born to Run

There is a popular notion that affirms running is not for everyone, therefore not all of us are born to run. But, this notion is incorrect since humans have ran for millions of years.

Running is nothing new to us, it is hardwired deep within our central nervous system and in our genes.

Born to Run about barefoot, minimalist, forefoot strike running

The bestseller, Born to Run, gave me a deeper understanding of how humans were really meant to run, barefoot.

Hominids Ran Without Thinking About How

4 million years ago, our ancestors (hominids) were not very cerebral and lacked higher levels of cognition. They were essentially a brain-stem, acting out and fulfilling basic physiological needs of eating, sex, and sleep.

Hominids ran after their food and although they made massive, elongated blades, they needed to run persistently to exhaust their prey to get close to it and kill it.

Ultimately, hominids ran without thinking about how to run, whereas most runners today over-think their mechanics.  By comparison, selective pressures allowed hominids to interact safely with the ground when running barefoot. Running barefoot also strengthens communication lines between the plantar surface and the brain-stem to prevent forceful landings. This how the brain-stem developed the capacity to initiate and coordinate proper movements for safe running.

  • For  survival, every species has evolved a set of adaptations unique to that species to allow for favorable interactions with the environment. Bipedal running is unique to humans and we evolved favorable motor strategies to allow for safe running when barefoot.

This is where reflexes come into play. Hominids evolved special reflexes, that we have retained today, and the brain-stem and spinal cord controls these relflexes to ensure safe running regardless of distance and surface hardness.

  • Reflexes are automatic responses that require very little, or no conscious input.

4 million years ago, running must have been under reflexive control. In addition, experts strongly believe hominids ran with a forefoot strike, not a heel strike.

Why Forefoot Over Rearfoot?

It is well documented that a forefoot strike lowers impact, joint torque compared to a heel strike landing. Similarly, the forceful movements of heel strike running are presumably caused by athletic footwear.

Thick heeled running shoes cause heel strike when running
Above left, minimalist footwear, or barefoot inspired footwear, may promote barefoot running mechanics. Above right, athletic footwear with a padded heel may facilitate heel striking, leading to higher impact during ground contact.

Certain types of athletic footwear alters motor behavior, changing the physics of how the body interacts with the ground and space (i.e. gravity), collectively leading to greater shock production when running.

The Take Home Message

Thanks to evolution, you are born to run masterfully. However, a forefoot strike, not a heel strike running style was invaluable to hominids, allowing them to run injury-free. This has led to the most profound questions in biomechanics, is heel striking the reason injury rates among runners is so high? Are the injury rates high because we evolved to run barefoot and not in athletic footwear?

Results from studies that compared the effects of athletic footwear and barefoot running on biomechanics has been something of a revolution. Although, the barefoot running movement began not long ago, it has already spawned a steady stream of papers with surprising results and some very strong opinions on both sides.

Nevertheless, how we ran, 4 million years ago as forefoot runners, contradicts some established bodies of theory that deem heel striking as the way to run. But, in principle, the forefoot running style adopted by our barefoot ancestors kept them from injury, and how is heel striking working out for us? Not so great.

Humans were running barefoot for millions of years without injury
Humans were running barefoot, or in very minimalist, flat shoes for millions of years and did okay.

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Run forefoot, because you are faster than you think!

Bretta Riches

"I believe the forefoot strike is the engine of endurance running..."

BSc Neurobiology; MSc Biomechanics candidate, ultra minimalist runner & founder of RunForefoot. I was a heel striker, always injured. I was inspired by the great Tirunesh Dibaba to try forefoot running. Now, I'm injury free. This is why I launched Run Forefoot, to advocate the health & performance benefits of forefoot running and to raise awareness on the dangers of heel striking, because the world needs to know.
Bretta Riches

P.S. Don't forget to check out the Run Forefoot Facebook Page, it's a terrific place to ask questions about forefoot running, barefoot running and injury. I'm always happy to help!

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