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Born to Rapidly Move Them Legs

Quick show of hands… those that like to run.

Now just those that like to run long distances. (Quite a bit fewer I imagine.)

And now the others… meaning those that maybe take their running a little less seriously. Those that enjoy (or might enjoy but haven’t yet tried) random, intermittent sprints, a brief rest, a bit of a jog, and then repeat until you just about drop.

For me, running has always been a delicate subject. If someone asks “Do you run?” or “Are you a runner?” I always answer with a resounding “No.” The reason being that a “Yes” would imply that I jog around tracks, or on machines, or cover great distances around the neighborhood. This style of running I’ve always found mind-numbingly boring and painfully ridiculous. But I do love rapid leg movement and pushing myself until out of breath. Yet this sort of running doesn’t seem to qualify me as a “runner” in most people’s eyes, and so my answer of  “No.”

Run

A few years back a book on running overtook the sporting universe. Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall, is the brilliant telling of an eccentric group of runners who happened across an ancient tribe of legendary runners (the Tarahumara), and who together changed the way people think about running. And more importantly, how they run, or what they wear when they run. It’s a great read that’s definitely worth even a non-runner’s time. Moreover, it made this “non-runner” a fan, and gave me the desire to get out there and rapidly move my legs more often.

Especially interesting (and apologies here to those who haven’t yet read the book) was how the writer framed why humans were “born to run.” According to McDougall’s research for the book, mankind evolved from foraging in trees to chasing down prey on an open savannah. This was due more to the fact that our brains expanded and the need for protein increased dramatically.

McDougall also discusses how we would hunt, and how the ability to cover long distances in the heat (thanks to sweating) and our are unique cardio abilities gave humans the advantage over every other animal. We aren’t the fastest, or even the most graceful, but we can cover long(er) distances better than any other grounded living thing. Our bodies apparently are perfect for it with our Achilles tendons, sweat glands, muscular butts, and knees.

The most intriguing part still was the explanation of how the entire tribe would take part in the hunt. How the women could go the longest, how the men were the fastest, how 27 years of age seemed to be the peak (the opposite side of that hill was a 45-year slow decline), and how the seniors were the wisdom of the pack.

Reading this really made me reflect on my own running ability, my natural training habits, and the way we play games and sports today. My own anecdotal evidence never really matched up with what McDougall’s research suggested. Rather than concluding that humans are “natural-born Scott Jurek”s (a famous ultra runner), isn’t it more logical that we more likely resemble the running patterns of Wayne Rooney, Kobe Bryant, Ray Rice, Ichiro Suzuki, or even Manny Pacquiao? What I mean to suggest is, the way we play sports, the way we play games, even when cardio is an absolute must, seem to mirror an actual hunt—the chase, the break/pause, the chase again, the pause, the continued chase, the sprint, and (ideally) the “kill.” Hunt seems to more closely resemble a game rather than a marathon.

McDougall’s point that the entire tribe took part in the hunt wasn’t based on a theory. It was based on evidence, not only from the past, but even now in certain parts of the globe where some actually still hunt in this manner. But more to my point, for the entire family to take part in the hunt, and for each to be able to fulfill their role, resembles more a European football match or a North American lacrosse game stretched out over distance rather than a “Badwater Ultramarathon.”

As someone who really does like to run, actually loves to run, just not long distances, I feel the hunt is more reflected through our sports on average than in a single sport like ultra running or a marathon. If we look at European football—which along with lacrosse maybe reflects the hunt more than any other sport—basketball, even boxing and MMA, the most pronounced characteristic, I believe, is that there are pauses in the action, breathers if you will, before the action resumes again much like you’d expect tracking an animal over a long distance. Moreover, even in ultra running the competitors walk through stages. The only competitions on foot, that I can think of at the moment, that don’t take breaks are competitive walking and marathons—and marathoners are not the healthiest-looking bunch that’s for sure. All that running, just to collapse at a finish line and grab a Gatorade? I’ll pass.

My point is this, it seems (to me at least) that there’s a slight disconnect between McDougall’s assumption that we were born to run like marathoners and our sport society as a whole. I know for me and my natural feeling about running, I desire doing it, but not over long distances. I desire getting outside, sweating, using my legs, tiring myself out, but no innate desire to strictly, almost robotically, run a great distance, nor to look and feel like a 45-kg marathoner. A quick look in most any gym the world over tells me I am not alone in this thinking.

Running is a joy. Don’t be deterred (or intimidated) by the runner culture, just get out there and do what you want. We all have this wonderful ability to just take off at any given moment. Doing so doesn’t require an 8-km jog every morning.

So for all my hunter-gatherer brethren, now that all the proper “runners” have probably clicked away, I’ll end this with a few ways to enjoy the outdoors and to get your rapid leg movement fix on. These are ways I use to keep young and to stay in “hunting shape” without boring myself to tears. My suggestion throughout is to talk to your doctor before starting any of these:

1. Hill Sprints. Pretty self-explanatory: Find a hill, sprint up it. These are a great way to build endurance and muscle. Just be sure you’re in reasonably good health or maybe even see a physician before trying these. A few of these within a matter of minutes is possibly the only exercise you’ll need all week, especially if you’re burning the candle at both ends.

2. Jogging Rounds. These I do to try to simulate sparring, as in combat sports. Again, pretty self-explanatory: Jog, pause, jog, pause, and repeat. These are also great for beginner runners. I’ll usually do a fast jog for 5 minutes, a 1-minute break, and then continue this same pattern over and over until a get tired or bored. I also mix in calisthenics to spice it up. This more closely reflects the hunt in my opinion, and also a boxing or MMA match. The 5 minutes allows you just enough time to stabilize your breathing and heart rate, and then the abrupt stop in action for 1 minute forces a destabilization and then a readjustment. Some doctors also believe that this is better for your heart, rather than adjusting to the steady rhythm of pounding the pavement over a long distance. Again, for the busy professional, a few rounds are all you need to keep in relatively good shape.

3. The Rainy Day Running Machine. This I do if it’s absolutely hopeless outside and I’m stuck at the gym doing cardio on the machine. I loathe the machine, so I try to mix it up any way I can. What I find works the best, and gets me off of the damn thing as quickly as possible, is if I mix in calisthenics during the run. I’ll set the machine at a relatively high pace, not too high, but a nice fast jog rate, and set timer for 10–15 minutes. After the first, say, 3 minutes, I hop off and hit push-ups (machine still moving), just enough to feel a burn, then hop right back on the machine and run some more. I do this several times throughout the run and not necessarily just do push-ups. It could be push-ups, then jumping jacks, then body weight squats, etc. Basically, any routine to tire me out and get me off that machine. Also throw in a 1-minute break to destabilize heart rate and breathing. Again, probably best to see a physician before giving this a shot. This is another great routine for the busy professional who wants a little taste of the hunt.

4. Finally, I add this in even though it has nothing to do with running: When all else fails, and you’re stuck in your hotel room with no place to run, and no proper gym to work out in, 7–10 minutes of non-stop calisthenics will give you that adrenaline rush that your mind, body, and DNA craves. Scientists now believe that 7–10 minutes of continuous exercise a day is all you need to stay fit.

Choose any of the above and give it a try. Go ahead, the hunter inside of you is begging for it.