There are many reasons (and combinations of reasons) people cite for participating in marathons, but I think the reasons can largely be classified into two overarching categories: those who do it for health reasons and those who do it for some form of status signal (conscious or subconsciously). I’m interested in challenging those who run marathons for the former reason. In the past, I’ve had conversations with some inveterate runners that make it sound as if it’s axiomatically true that marathon running is a healthy activity.
When Did Running Long-Distances Become Healthy?
It’s interesting to note that amongst primates the idea of endurance running is unique to humans. I’ve often heard that individuals in modern hunter-gatherer societies laugh when they see visiting anthropologists go out for a jog to get exercise. Presumably the hunter-gatherers wonder why on earth these visiting anthropologists would waste energy doing something as silly as jogging. Modern hunter-gatherers live by the sensible maxim that most of our ancestors (at least the ones that survived) did: never exert more effort than is absolutely necessary. Our ancestors, according to economist-turned-ancestral health expert Art de Vany, sprinted explosively at decisive moments in their hunts and spent a lot of time walking slowly over long distances to track down animals or gather other foods. They likely never jogged at a medium intensity for long periods of time simply because it was a waste of precious energy.
One possible argument for medium intensity jogging/running, however, stems from what we know about “persistence hunting“. Persistence hunting is a hunting technique in which hunters track an animal in the midday heat to the point of exhaustion and then kill it. There are two known groups of people who use persistence hunting: the Kalahari bushmen and the Tarahumara of Northern Mexico. From what is known, persistence hunting usually involves running, but, it’s aft overlooked or flat-out ignored, that the hunters run when they need to and slow down to a walking pace frequently depending on the pace of the prey (you can see this in the video below).
This aberration, however, gives no credence to the idea that marathons are healthy. Small doses of distance running interspersed with some walking may not necessarily be unhealthy if one’s life depends on it; however, chronically grinding out runs at a medium intensity in the name of health is actually detrimental to one’s health. Persistence hunters wouldn’t run when walking briskly be equally beneficial (as we can observe).
Consider what we know from observing lions. Lions spend most of their time sleeping, moving slowly, and playing, but when the time to hunt arises they demonstrate how incredibly explosive and powerful they truly are. In many ways, this is analogous to how humans in modern hunter-gatherer societies live as well; they spend lots of time sleeping, moving slowly, and playing too.
Alas, we live in a modern world in which we could survive without moving much if we so desired. As Erwan Le Corre aptly puts it, modern humans live like “zoo animals”. If we simply followed the maxim of our hunter-gatherer ancestors we would all likely shorten our lifespans due to obesity related diseases that stem from our lack of movement and our over-consumption of calories that come too easily .
This makes sense so far, but the idea that jogging is healthy because it compensates for our sedentary and over-consuming lifestyles grossly oversimplifies the problem. If a human were famished, would all forms of calories provide them equal nourishment? Like calories, not all exercise is created equal. Jogging is the sugar of fitness .
Our fitness seems to follow a power law, i.e., low frequency events (like sprinting and other explosive movements) have a greater impact on our fitness than do medium intensity events, like jogging.
As I’ve mentioned, hunter-gatherer societies don’t jog or run at medium intensities (except in very rare cases, like persistence hunts). As such, I must ask: what is the logic behind the idea that exerting ones-self unnecessarily, by jogging at a medium intensity (often several times a week), produces health benefits? Is it simply the fact that it burns calories? Furthermore, what is the evolutionary advantage to jogging over walking? These are questions I have never heard a good answer to.
Anecdotes of runners dying while marathoning abound on the Web. But how often do we hear of golfers dying while playing golf? It’s worth nothing that the few instances I’ve read about came from a golfer being hit in the head with a ball, not from physical exertion. Why are deaths from running much more common than deaths from golfing? Is this merely a coincidence? I’m afraid not. There is actually sound empirical data showing that marathon running damages the liver, heart, gall bladder and alters biochemical markers adversely. I cannot find any conclusive data showing the same effects stem from golfing.
Pheidippides Never Ran a Marathon for Health Reasons
The Greek soldier Pheidippides, a messenger from the Battle of Marathon, did not run the initial marathon for health reasons, but rather, out of the necessity to deliver an important message. Yet, at some unknown point in history, marathons became popularly associated with being healthy (I’m not exactly sure as to why this is).
Although he collapsed and died at the finish of the race (healthy?), Pheidippides was memorialized in most history books as the original marathoner. His physical ability to deliver an important message was considered heroic and it posthumously brought him legendary status.
As such, I think the history of the marathon offers us a clue as to the other reason why most people choose to run marathons, i.e., they logically believe that there is a certain societal status that comes from doing difficult things like running marathons. There is nothing inherently wrong with running for that reason, but let’s not lie to marathon runners and tell them they’re doing something healthy.
 A video of a persistence hunt.
 See “Top Ten Reasons Not to Run Marathons”
 See “Is Sugar Toxic“
Surely anyone who cares about their health and is somewhat internet-savvy has at least heard of the “Paleo” diet or variations of it at some point in the past five years. Of course, there is, however, more to a “Paleo” lifestyle than just the diet. What I prefer to call “evolutionary fitness” seems to be making its way into the mainstream. Earlier this year there was an article in Outside magazine titled “The Workout that Time Forgot” which profiled MoveNat founder Erwan Le Corre and was nicely done. Le Corre is fond of saying that “we live like zoo animals!”. And I certainly agree with him.
Then, today, there was an interesting article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Aping the Early Human Workout” which profiled a long-distance runner who claims to gear his training using the principles of evolutionary fitness. The problem, however, is that he gets at least two things wrong.
First, I know the book Born To Run is incredibly popular right now (to be fair, I haven’t read it), but it seems to me that there is a very weak logical case for suggesting that humans evolved to run long distances. I certainly believe that humans were designed to walk long distances and to sprint, but not to run long distances. I like to think about it this way: marathoners, generally speaking, look fragile while sprinters generally look robust. From an evolutionary perspective, sprinters bodies would not preclude them from being able to walk long distances if they needed to track down a kill, but a frail marathoners body would preclude them from participating in a short intense hunt that required explosive power.
People who believe that humans evolved to run long distances must answer the following question at some point in their argument: What is the evolutionary advantage to being able to jog long distances as opposed to walk long distances? It’s also important not to discount the role of sexual selection from the argument. Anecdotally, I have never heard a female who claims to find the typical male marathoner’s physique sexually attractive.
Secondly, the gentleman featured mentions in the article that he works out seven days a week. I believe that humans did not evolve to follow a rigorous training schedule like that, or for that matter, any type of schedule. Hunt and gather when you need to and relax or play when you don’t. Surely, there must have been days when enough food had been hunted and gathered that it allowed humans to relax and enjoy a day of true leisure. Applying the concept of Taylorism to fitness seems like a terrible, terrible idea to me.
If you’ve never seen Erwan in action, check out the video below.