I received an email the other day from a reader Cynthia Kuni who has some different ideas about running. She makes good arguments that I think deserve consideration. I’ll save my comments for after.
I’ve enjoyed your blog since I discovered it at the beginning of this year. I really like your approach and appreciate the amount of time it must take you to put together your posts. When I realized that you also share our (hubby’s & mine) political philosophy of individual liberty, I became an even bigger fan.
I hope you will do me the honor of reading this letter. I do appreciate your time. It’s rather long, and I apologize for that. I have put off writing it for over a month, but I cannot stop thinking about it. The dogma about which I am writing to oppose keeps popping up. This letter is my first foray into proposing an alternative viewpoint.
If you think I have a valid point, you might have a way to spread the idea since you are a "player" in this nascent paleo / lowcarb / Taubes movement (will refer to as LC hereafter), with a voice and an audience. Maybe you would reprint my letter, or part of it. If you think I’m wrong, I will thank you for your time and move on.
I had been trying to eat Paleo for a couple of years when I discovered Jimmy Moore and low carb in January. That was when I began to realize how addicted I was to carbs, even though I was getting them from massive amounts of fruit (especially dates & bananas). I also believed in Cordain’s "lean meats" recommendation and, along with the high fruit intake, I was starving for the right macronutrients and gaining weight on the wrong ones. I immediately set forth to change my diet and it’s been an incredible 3+ months! I’m sold. :)
As I have been reading (and listening) to everything I can get my hands on about low carb living, something keeps popping up that is bothering me. I don’t have a blog or a podcast, so I really don’t have a public voice, but I keep thinking I need to say something to someone or I’ll go nuts. I decided to try you first because I relate to you and perhaps am less intimidated because you feel like a friend. It’s not that you have offended me in any way, it’s more that I see you as a person with influence who might be sympathetic.
It’s about… running. (Endurance running, not sprints.) Specifically, it’s about the anti-running sentiment that seems to exist so prevalently in the LC community. At the same time that I was discovering this wonderful new way of eating, I seemed to be surrounded by voices denigrating something I loved to do. But their logic just didn’t hold up.
Please believe me, that I am not asking anyone to become a runner. Really, I’m not. I only want certain facts to be considered by those major LC figureheads before they go out bashing running as a sport/hobby. I also am not claiming that running will make people thin, a goal which brings a lot of people to the many LC blogs and podcasts. Thirdly, I am not denying the benefits of strength work, which is a vital part of my fitness routine.
What I do want to share with you are the reasons I believe running is a healthy and natural activity for humans and is part of our paleolithic heritage. Anyone who rails against bread being the "staff of life" on the basis of evolution, but refuses to examine the evidence I am about to share, has cherry-picked their philosophy just as much as the runners who have embraced "evolutionary running" but still cling to their high carb diets.
In 2004, two scientists published a paper in Nature describing their findings regarding humans as runners, based on the fossil record. (http://www.nature.com/nature/links/041118/041118-1.html) Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman enumerated a list of characteristics that separate the genus Homo from our primate ancestors, and that are specifically adaptive for endurance running.
Bramble and Lieberman showed that we humans have our current shape and physiology not because we walked upright, but because we ran. Not sprinted to escape (absurd – just try to out-run a tiger), not sprinted out of bushes to capture prey (such a survival skill would actually make us look less like we do and more like the big cats, with huge haunches) — but ran, at easy paces for long distances.
I am no match for the authors who have presented popular, layman’s summaries about the Bramble / Lieberman paper, so I will list their articles below. But here are just a few of the traits that distinguish us from our primate predecessors, traits which we would not have if "Grok" had not been a distance runner:
We dissipate heat by sweating and lack of fur. We have long legs & ligaments, most notably the Achilles tendon (a liability for merely-walking animals). Along with other stabilizing adaptations, we have large gluteals to stabilize a running gait (check out the tiny butts of primates at your zoo). Mere bipedalism does not require the stabilization traits abundant in humans. We have numerous "anti-bobble-head" adaptations, such as our unique inner ear structure and, in sharp contrast with Australopithecus, a shallow groove in the skull for a nuchal ligament (only present in running animals). We, unlike all running mammals, can take breaths that are not in sync with our steps. Other running mammals must breathe in a one-step-one-breath pattern. This incredible adaptation is what enables us to continue running when we reach the over-heating point, and together with our furless, sweating bodies, make us "the best air-cooled engine that evolution has ever put on the market." (Bramble, interview in Born to Run, Christopher McDougall)
Until Bramble and Lieberman published their research in Nature, the image of human-as-runner seemed as ridiculous as the current anti-running LC bloggers portray it to be. Our lack of speed prevents us from being competitive as predators and doesn’t exactly protect us from becoming prey. So why would natural selection favor adaptations for running? Because, we did not sprint out with spears and surprise the antelope. Nor did we outrun it like a cheetah. We out-endured it. It is called Persistence Hunting, and it is still practiced today by a very few hunter-gatherer tribes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_hunting).
I am condensing dozens of pages of reading here (see below for some full text sources). I just want to provide enough information to explain why I feel the LC world is missing a crucial piece of the puzzle.
I don’t have a blog or a podcast and no one knows who I am, so I don’t really have a voice. But if I had one, my message to the LC community regarding runners would be, "Lay off." Or if you must criticize, go with the truly viable paleo argument – that we can and should run on low carbs. If people don’t want to run, fine – don’t run. But if you are going to bash it, you’d better have a better argument than "it’s not paleo."
I have never told another person they "should" run, nor will I ever do so. I only say, we humans are built for distance running. To the LC icons (trying not to name names here) who are vocally anti-running: let me enjoy my marathons in peace, stop trying to discourage people who love running, and get your facts straight.
The other arguments against running that pop up in the LC world usually have to do with negative medical consequences. I’m sorry, but no one has ever conducted a valid, long term study of the effects of running on health, because no one has EVER had a big enough population of runners eating a species-appropriate diet to make a valid sample, free from the influence of a toxic diet.
One LC blogger begrudgingly said that diet might have something to do with health problems among runners… Might? MIGHT?!?! The enormous and horrendous health problems of our nation can be linked directly to the crappy USDA food pyramid diet, and runners are the worst carboholics! In Advanced Marathoning, by Pete Pfitzinger (one of the most popular distance training books), there is a section entitled "Hope You Like Carbs." An entire industry exists to provide runners with little packets of sugar-gels they can suck down every 20 minutes. It’s insane to study these people as a model of runners’ health! You might as well study heroine addicts to determine the health effects of wearing denim. I suppose they could study the tribes that still practice Persistence Hunting, but instead they insist on sticking sugar burners on treadmills.
Well, I’m getting worked up enough to resort to typing in caps, so I had better wrap this up. Thank you, Richard, for hearing me out and for your time. I truly appreciate it. The references below represent quick links to summaries of the Bramble & Lieberman research. Additionally, I would particularly recommend chapter 28 of the book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall (Knopf, 2009), which goes more into the history behind B&L’s research and the reasons why we would have benefitted from this evolutionary shift to running. Like Taubes’ GCBC book, the concepts I am discussing have the truth of ages, but are only recently published.
So there you have it. I personally don’t run. I walk a lot (60-90 minutes per day, on average) and I sprint now and then. I used to run way back when, in college, and for a few years after that. The only time I really enjoyed it is when, somehow, that "runner’s high" would kick in where one feels to be able to go forever. That usually happened when I was living in the Pacific northwest and it would be raining or misting out. I liked running in the rain but always hated running in the heat.
But that’s me. The last time I really ran any significant distance was a few years back when my wife & I signed up for a 23 mile power walk. At times during the walk I couldn’t help but to just start running, so I’d do so for a couple of miles, then return to walking until irresistibly drawn to running again. It was quite enjoyable.
It is interesting about those bottled of glucose syrup. It was during that power walk where I saw them for the first time — folks with their little belts & pouches carrying bottled of syrup, and of course, the organizers had the little packets of what I assume is the same thing at every station along the route, along with fruit and sugar drinks. She’s right: it was a total carb extravaganza and at the finish line, it was basically fruit, bagels, beer & soda pop.
I think Cynthia is definitely talking about something other than what we commonly refer to as "chronic cardio." Here’s a video that explains some of our evolutionary adaptations in the context of the Persistence Hunt. Highly recommended. Seven minutes well worth it. Getting out and running a few times per week on a proper diet, keeping it real so as to avoid injury, is probably fine if that’s what you like. And I doubt those persistence hunters were out there day in, day out, running their asses off.
Update: Long time reader, commenter and fantastic blogger in his own right, Methuselah, points out in comments that he recently covered the same topic. Go take a read.