Monday, April 25, 2011

Racing Animals

Remember the whole Art De Vany / Dan Lieberman dustup over whether humans are -- from the standpoint of evolutionary biology -- "born to run"?

The (frankly crappy) Time Magazine article about Paleo stirred up the pot by pointing out that De Vany (like many other Paleo luminaries) believes that "no caveman ever jogged for miles while pursuing dinner or being chased by a predator." Rather, humans are best suited for "short bursts of cardiovascular exertion that may also include hauling a heavy weight, as you might after a successful hunt."

But Lieberman and his fellow barefoot running advocates (Christopher McDougall included) take the opposite view: Humans, they say, have a unique knack for endurance running because our genetic ancestors engaged in long-range persistence hunting.
We can run all day, the theory goes, because there was once a caloric advantage to it. Our two human legs, packed as they are with long slow-twitch muscle fibers, make us better runners over long distances than most quadrupeds. And our three million sweat glands give us the ability to cool our bodies with perspiration. An antelope, by contrast, sprints -- for up to 15 minutes -- while wearing a fur coat and relies on respiration (panting) to release the heat that builds up with exertion. Add to the mix our ability to organize and strategize and, well, you can see how persistence hunting might actually work.
So who's right?

Outside Magazine just published an article featuring nine elite marathoners who put the persistence hunting theory to the test. Powered by their own feet, they chased a pronghorn antelope -- the world's second-fastest land animal -- to see if they could wear it down and kill it.

By the end of their attempt at persistence hunting, the marathoners had each covered 20 miles -- not quite a marathon, but close. Did they succeed in bagging the antelope? Read the article and see for yourself.

Regardless of the results of this test, my take is that John Durant is right: To a certain extent, both camps are right. Yes, humans evolved to be capable of covering long distances -- but the optimal way to improve your overall fitness is through intermittent sprinting and lifting heavy stuff. After all, "high-intensity training and strength training can improve performance in endurance activities, but the reverse doesn't hold.  You can get better at marathons by doing CrossFit, but you can't get better at CrossFit by running marathons."