Baby we were born to run.
October 20, 2012 7:05 PM   Subscribe

In this sprightly talk (transcript and video) Daniel Lieberman describes why our bodies are so good at running long distances, how our social intelligence developed and how modernity and capitalism require us to learn (or relearn) how to use our bodies. (May inspire tolerance for people who wear five-fingered shoes.) Prof. Lieberman studies human evolution at Harvard where he focuses on heads and feet. (via Tyler Cowen)
posted by noway (40 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
Good read, thanks. I transitioned to barefoot awhile back and it was a rough transition that basically required re-learning how to walk and run, but the difference has been wonderful. I don't even run in minimal shoes but go skin-on-pavement, unless it's very hot or cold. I'm sure my form still sucks, but I'm light years beyond the rubbery thudding mess of pain I was before.

I hate the looks you sometimes get from people, I hate the concerned friends sending me links, and goddamn do I hate sweetgum balls, but boy do I love no longer running in Frankenstein motion control shoes and soggy socks. I even love the roughed-up feeling my feet get after a good run. ain't going back.
posted by middleclasstool at 7:35 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I like the idea of barefoot running in principle, but in practice, I live in a place where there is an awful lot of glass and junk lying around in the park where I run. Shoes is it for me.
posted by deathpanels at 7:41 PM on October 20, 2012


noway: "our bodies are so good at running long distances"

Your bodies, maybe. Not mine.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 7:55 PM on October 20, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yeah, my body falls apart pretty quickly when I try running, although I envy runners.

(May inspire tolerance for people who wear five-fingered shoes.)

NEVER! Those are an abomination unto nature with their creepy rubber toes.

Actually, I go barefoot as much as possible, and I wouldn't mind trying them, but I'm not paying that much to put something between my toes--the socks are weird enough. Plus, I live in Idaho, man. They laugh at me because my saddle doesn't have a horn, they'd probably attack me with pitchforks if I wore Vibrams.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:07 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Joakim, no, that's not my statement, it's the TFA's:


We're actually remarkable endurance athletes, and that endurance athleticism is deeply woven into our bodies, literally from our heads to our toes. We have adaptations in our feet and our legs and our hips and pelvises and our heads and our brains and our respiratory systems. We even have neurobiological adaptations that give us a runner's high, all of which help make us extraordinary endurance athletes. We've lost sight at just how good we are at endurance athleticism, and that's led to a perverse idea that humans really aren't very good athletes…

Our lives are filled with problems like insomnia and constipation that are extremely recent. They're novel, and they're caused by the way in which we misuse our bodies. The research that I'm doing now is really about how we can use our bodies better, particularly in terms of the musculoskeletal system, to avoid injury, to avoid pain, to avoid debilitating disabilities that then prevent people from exercising and staying fit.

posted by noway at 8:14 PM on October 20, 2012


Whenever it's hot, the humans actually beat the horses.

He doesn't mention it explicitly, but highly-developed thermoregulation is one of the primary advantages humans have when it comes to long-distance running. Running generates large amounts of heat, and if that heat can't be dissipated, core body temperature rises and organ function starts to deteriorate. Humans are capable of shedding excess body heat better than most animals because we're exceptionally good at perspiring. We've also lost most of our body hair, which means less insulation. So while we may not be able catch many animals by sprinting, we can often outrun them over long distances.
posted by dephlogisticated at 8:16 PM on October 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


Joakim Ziegler: "noway: "our bodies are so good at running long distances"

Your bodies, maybe. Not mine.
"

Maybe if I stole their knees and ankles first.

Unfortunately, due to joint issues, I couldn't run, AT ALL, even if Godzilla was chasing me...
posted by Samizdata at 8:45 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


deathpanels: "I like the idea of barefoot running in principle, but in practice, I live in a place where there is an awful lot of glass and junk lying around in the park where I run. Shoes is it for me."

My jogging trail has broken glass, beer cans, dog poop, lots of goose and duck poop and the occasional used syringe or condom. I'll keep my Brooks on.
posted by octothorpe at 9:12 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My jogging trail has broken glass, beer cans, dog poop, lots of goose and duck poop and the occasional used syringe or condom. I'll keep my Brooks on.


Then, you can wear shoes. I think Lieberman's point was that the comfy, arched-supported, that also tend to cause heal strike-style running is what's causing perhaps injuries, when he's looking at things in an evolutionary point of view. All those things listed are just as abnormal, again, in an evolutionary point of view, as these big comfy shoes.

Perhaps the adaptive tradeoff we need are minimal shoes (or even just sandals - they not need to be so technologically advanced), with little or no heal. Lieberman even talks about how the tribal African people he was studying had no problems with say, fallen arches, but did have all matters of gunk in their sole of their foot.

I tend to also remember seeing photos of shoeless Bedouins, that amass incredible toughness on the soles of their feet. I'll spare everyone the image link.
posted by alex_skazat at 9:29 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


he other reason we often discount the importance of brawn in our lives is that we have a very strange idea of what constitutes athleticism. Think about the events that we care about most in the Olympics. They're the power sports. They're the 100-meter dash, the 100-meter freestyle events. Most athletes, the ones we really value the most, are physically very powerful. But if you think about it this way, most humans are wimps....Until extremely recently, you couldn't live, you couldn't survive as a human being without being an endurance athlete.

Doesn't this look like a fairly predictable cause and effect? Why would humans have begun celebrating endurance athletes if everyone was good at that? You only bother to create competitions for things that not everybody can win (until recently, at least).

I'm reasonably convinced by the idea that the 'natural' state of humans is to be able to run effectively, barefoot. I am frequently irritated by the people who jump to 'so everybody should run barefoot because it's natural!' Natural me is half blind and was born with twisted joints that made it hard for me to walk, modern-tech-and-medicine-me is a 'natural' athlete and there's no way I'm even interested in trying it the other way. I'd like to see someone get some numbers on how many babies are even born in this perfect 'natural' shape, although I don't know how you'd do it.
posted by jacalata at 9:37 PM on October 20, 2012


Great! So now even comfort is killing me! I can't win.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:50 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


think about the events that we care about most in the Olympics. They're the power sports. They're the 100-meter dash, the 100-meter freestyle events. Most athletes, the ones we really value the most, are physically very powerful.

Or it couldn't be that things that happen fast are exciting to watch and things that take hours are boring to watch? I mean, there may be a point in there somewhere, but come on.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:46 PM on October 20, 2012


I don't know if four billion years of evolution intended for me to sit on a chaise lounge sipping a mint julep, but either way, keep the mutations and the juleps coming.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:55 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


NEVER! Those are an abomination unto nature with their creepy rubber toes.


That's what I said too, until I found some on sale, and was overcome with curiosity. I put them on and they were like creaturefeets footpads. They didn't inspire me to run, but I to CLIMB ALL THE THINGS. All the trees and all the rocks.


They are not sexy though. Mercy, no.
posted by louche mustachio at 11:19 PM on October 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


My Dan Lieberman story: I was a test subject (the first, sort of the test-test-subject) in a study that one of the undergrads in his lab was doing as research for possible thesis work. I got these markers placed all over my body, and had to breathe through a tube to measure O2 rates while I was running at a moderate pace on a treadmill. At the end, I got to see on their computer a 3-D animated stick-figure that was me, showing the vectors of force on various points of my body as I ran.
posted by not_on_display at 11:27 PM on October 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Many years ago, growing up, I would sometimes experimentally run ball-first instead of heel-strike, as kids do. When I thought about the motion, mechanically it made more sense to me - it seemed like it should be superior and the correct way to run. But... I must be wrong because no-one did it. Watching running in slow motion on tv, running-shoe design, experts, no-one ran ball-first, so I was wrong somehow.

But I wasn't.

So it turns out that when there is a question of who is right - me or THE ENTIRE WORLD, the smart money would be on me beating THE ENTIRE WORLD!

Damn. I'm some serious awesome. Right here. Grade AAA++ The Man.
Don't worry, I won't let it go to my head.
Much.

:-)
posted by anonymisc at 11:51 PM on October 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


I also think a five-toe shoe could be built with an insubstantial fabric flap over just the top of the toes, to disguise it as a socially-acceptable shoe, while maintaining all the advantages of a five-toe shoe.

And maybe when you run into a lake, it doubles as webbed toes!
posted by anonymisc at 11:55 PM on October 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am a big fan of vivobarefoot shoes - I bought a pair to replace my business shoes (and because the fivefingers are neither socially acceptable at work, nor elsewhere).

I haven't tried running in them yet, though.
posted by fizban at 12:06 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Humans are capable of shedding excess body heat better than most animals because we're exceptionally good at perspiring.

Man, I must be, like, super human.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:13 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Having actually read tfa, he mentions the thing that really stood out to me, both when jogging in fivefingers and walking around London in the equally minimal vivobarefoots.

I noticed that I have to take smaller steps, and that if I want to move quickly I have to use my forefoot. But this feels unnatural, so I assumed I was doing it wrong! Maybe it is time to try some (minor, gentle) barefoot running again?
posted by fizban at 12:55 AM on October 21, 2012


Yesterday I bought some very nice but very non-barefoot shoes. But I normally wear Vivo Barefoot shoes, and have done for years. I like the added feel - I actively enjoy the bobbly pavement you get near pedestrian crossings here in the UK - but I also haven't had Achilles problems for years.

I run occasionally but I'm not very good at it, either in barefoot shoe or traditional trainer. The forefoot strike feels more natural to me - it's what I used to do when running on sandy beaches when I was younger.

I have read Born to Run and a few of Lieberman's papers, so the barefoot running stuff isn't new to me. But the article concentrated more on brain and upper body evolution, which I found fascinating.
posted by milkb0at at 2:24 AM on October 21, 2012


I'm sorry...very little tolerance for those five toe gloves. Every single person I've met who uses them is completely socially unaware that their feet smell like vomit with the density and smell stamina of patchouli oil. If you own those god damn things wash them right now. Wash them every day...consider them socks.
posted by varion at 2:36 AM on October 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Barefoot running is interesting if one is a runner - but what is much more important is the part of Lieberman's theory about the why humans are such good endurance athletes. If we came face to face with a Neanderthal then we might notice that they are stronger than us - and perhaps even smarter - yet there was only a gap of a few thousand years between our arrival and their extinction. Why was that?

It seems that the one area in which we could beet our ancestor was in endurance - humans were (and are) able to kill large game using persistence hunting - we are smart enough at observation and tracking to be able to target an individual antelope in a herd as we chase it. And we are good enough at running to chase it over marathon distances until if collapses of exhaustion. Brain plus brawn indeed - and a compelling explanation of what makes our species special.

Chris McDougall's "Born to run" is has a nice summary of both Lieberman's work and some more to the details I mention above.
posted by rongorongo at 3:28 AM on October 21, 2012


Vibram Fivefingers look dorky. I think most of us agree on this point. Until everyday users reach critical mass, if you're wearing street clothes, stick to Vivobarefoots or a similar minimalist shoe. This is common sense.

These rules fly out the window for running or hiking, however. Think I look like a dork when I'm running in my Fivefingers? Fuck you. I dress to the nines okay when I'm on the street, and I usually switch to standard shoes after I run or hike, and before I set foot in your convenience store for post-exercise rehydration. Running time is my time, and I'll do it in Vibrams.

Conventional running shoes make running feel like runnning. Vibrams--and barefoot running, if you can handle it--make it feel like dancing. It's that feeling you got when you were five, running barefoot in grass, feeling goofy and alive. It's carefree and effortless. My knee injuries vanished after Vibrams, but even if studies, in the future, confirm that minimalist or barefoot running is very, very unhealthy, I'll stick with it for the pleasure alone.
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:45 AM on October 21, 2012


our bodies are so good at running long distances

Yup. Right up to the point where the T-11/12 disc decides to rupture. After that, not so much.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:44 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are tons of minimal running shoes that don't have toes (which you don't need). Merrell, New Balance, Vivo, ZemGear, and a bunch of others. Even Nike has a graduated minimal shoe system that allows you to step down to a zero-drop shoe.

My main gripe is that nobody makes minimal shoes in wide sizes and, if you go truly barefoot long enough, your feet spread out. Sucks. Also, nobody makes minimal casual shoes that look good.
posted by middleclasstool at 6:38 AM on October 21, 2012


There are no vivobarefoot shoe stores in my zip code yet.

I started using vibram five fingers in January of 2011 motivated by the ideas in Lieberman's talk. It took me ten minutes to get them on at first. It was painful to walk a hundred feet in them at first. It was four or five months before I could walk in complete comfort with them. I now love these shoes.

Mostly I pace back and forth in my apartment though.
posted by bukvich at 8:33 AM on October 21, 2012


Maybe it's because runners are distracted, or quite dogmatic, but I always felt a huge disconnect between coaching and otherwise professional/academic advice about shoes and injuries. A former midfle-and-long distance track runner myself, I would hammer out miles upon miles of repeats in spikes, no socks, entirely on the balls of my feet with nothing but a 1mm-thick foam pad between the rigid spike plate and my sockless feet. Injuries were rare. So, I used to train in racing flats - what prople now call minimalist shoes. I figured that it was closer to what I raced in, and would be better for me. Never noticed any increased injuries, and indeed the only time I'd hurt my achilles was when I'd worn soft shoes.

You won't find many elites wearing five fingers, but equally they shy away from bulky, soft shoes. I think the reason nobody serious trains in barefoot shoes (i dont count freaky deaky ultra runners etc into this) is that they seem they would require more of you - more concentration and less tolerance of surface. When you're running 100 miles a week you want a bit of a stable and protective outsole for a platform by which to chug out the miles and not worry about a pebble ruining your day, or your next paycheck.
posted by jimmythefish at 8:54 AM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I have a pair of Merrell/Vibrams in bright pink and yellow; I get a surprising number of compliments on them on a regular basis. But they don't make running a pleasure, and the sole has worn thin after maybe five months of low mileage walking. I am considering buying a new pair because they are easy to travel with, but the quality is just not great. They are not good at all in water or in situations where my feet need to remain dry, and the ginkgo tree fruit that I have to dodge twice a day is doing a number on the tread. Then again, I have always hated running with the forefoot stride, and my walking stride is extremely fast but opposite to their described ideal. But hey, as with everything, it's a good thing to have more evidence and testing. Anything that gets more people running or moving comfortably is a good thing.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:25 AM on October 21, 2012


All you people half assing it are a bunch of poseurs. I tattooed my feet black. Nobody ever notices. The only time it's been awkward was when we took a candidate to lunch at a japanese restaurant. "Please sir, to remove shoes?" Imagine the look on her face!
posted by varion at 10:23 AM on October 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Alex_skazat, I want pictures of shoeless Bedouins!



Great! So now even comfort is killing me! I can't win.

Padded shoes better than padded chair.
posted by BlueHorse at 10:58 AM on October 21, 2012


May inspire tolerance for people who wear five-fingered shoes.

Nothing could do that.
posted by Decani at 11:02 AM on October 21, 2012


This is a great talk. There can be so much hype and almost mystical enthusiasm about barefoot running. This was refreshing.

He was, however, wrong about nobody climbing trees anymore.
posted by beau jackson at 12:33 PM on October 21, 2012


Your bodies, maybe. Not mine.

Generalizations are often used to make a point about the overall nature of things such as in this case the basics of human physiology.

Sorry this kind of thing just gets to me sometimes.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 3:06 PM on October 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've tried to start running several times but have always failed as parts of my body gave out.

Awhile back I listened to this guy's TED talk on audio only. I had never seen a picture of Lieberman, but after a few minutes of his talk I decided to think of him as a morbidly obese guy with thick glasses and cane in order to make myself feel better.
posted by miyabo at 3:49 PM on October 21, 2012


I've tried to run many times in my life and always quit, feeling after my run like a bunch of discombobulated joints and bones. Never managed to run for more than 2-3 months at most. After reading Born to Run, I got a pair of light weight running sandals and off to the races. After 8 months or so, I can now run 3 miles casually without really getting winded or tired. My feet have gotten much stronger. I used to have aching heels in particular from the unfamiliar usage pattern of running with mid foot strike and no support. Now I never really think about it. I have a standing desk now at work and home and am strongly considering getting some barefoot style shoes for every day wear. Typical shoes just suck IMHO and I think some back issues I get are due to trying to work in typical raised heel shoes with support.
posted by diode at 6:23 PM on October 21, 2012


For those of you with joint pain issues, try water walking if you can find a place to do it. the local municipal water park has a 'lazy river' that they use in the evenings for exercise. the higher density of the water makes it a workout even if you are just walking with the current; if you want to go extreme, walk against the current.

The first time I did it , it was really weird being tired after a workout without being sore.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:55 PM on October 21, 2012


If we came face to face with a Neanderthal then we might notice that they are stronger than us

Indeed.
posted by homunculus at 10:32 PM on October 23, 2012


Why Don't Apes Have Bigger Brains? They Can't Afford To Eat Enough
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:47 AM on October 24, 2012


What made us human? Being ARMED with lethal ranged weapons: Early kill-tech let us beat Neanderthals, dominate world
posted by homunculus at 1:47 PM on November 8, 2012


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