Early Humans Ran Long Distances, with a Forefoot Strike

A forefoot strike landing is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history as endurance runners. About 4 million years ago, early humans ran long distances to hunt, and like our ancestors, we are the only primates capable of sustained endurance running, and our forefoot strike landing is key in preventing injury and helping us sustain the endurance.

Humans Evolved to Run with a Forefoot Strike

Early Humans Ran Long Distances, with a Forefoot Strike

Running is something that may be hardwired in our genes. However, humans may be hardwired for forefoot running only.

Humans began running when we transitioned from the tree’s to the savannah and in parallel, our diets changed drastically as meat was the primary choice.

To run long distances barefoot safely and efficiently, we underwent significant evolutionary adaptations in the leg. For example, our legs are full of tendons that are absent in other primates. Our Achilles tendon is also longer and is better suited for forefoot running over heel strike running.

Why would evolution design the human body for forefoot running and not heel strike running for long distance running?

Forefoot running reduces stride length which reduces the horizontal distance between the center of mass (COM) and foot strike position thereby preventing braking and reduces hip and knee loading.

Peak tibial acceleration, a risk factor for tibial fractures, is also lower in forefoot running than in heel running and forefoot running reduces shock attenuation as well.

The protective mechanisms of forefoot running confirms the hunch that early humans evolved to be forefoot runners and not heel strikers.

We Aren’t Fast, But We Run Longer

Like us today, early humans were not built for speed, we were built for endurance.

Humans are mechanically and physiologically adept to run long distances where quadrupeds are not.

Though, quadreps are faster, they can only trot and cannot sustain running over long distances like humans.

  • to be successful hunters, our ancestors strength was in numbers
  • we ran as a group over long distances and progressively exhausted our prey

Quadrupeds are unable to cool their body while running due to their fur and lack of sweat glands. Therefore, quadrupeds must stop running to pant and cool the body.  If they are unable to stop running, they will collapse due to heat exhaustion.

  • research confirmed that human endurance running speeds are comparable to the trotting/galloping speeds of many quadrupeds such as horses
  • sustainable galloping speeds for horses decline considerably for runs exceeding 10 to 15 minutes; humans, on the other hand, can run for hours

In a sense, any conditioned runner could chase down a horse after chasing it for 10 minutes or so. This hunting method is referred to as persistent hunting and is how early humans survived on the Savannah. If they couldn’t run, they couldn’t eat which is forefoot running fundamental to human running.

More on Running at Run Forefoot:

Run forefoot, because you are faster than you think!


References:

Bramble, DM and Lieberman, DE. Endurance running and the evolution of homo. Nature, 432:345-52.

Cavanga, GA., Thys, H and Zamboni, A.(1976). The sources of external work in level walking and running. J Physiol, 262(3):639-657.

Ker et al. (1987). The spring in the arch of the human foot. Nature, 325(7000):147-9.

Lieberman et al. (2010). Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shoe runners. Nature, 463:531-35.

Bretta Riches

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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