Is Running Natural?

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Today’s guest post comes courtesy of Mike Sheridan, a nutrition researcher, trainer, and author of the book Eat Meat and Stop Jogging.

That’s about as manly of a title for a book as I’ve ever seen. The only way it could be even manlier is if it said:

He-Man Says to Eat Meat and Stop Jogging.

My immaturity aside, I’ve long been a proponent of the saying “you need to get fit to run, not run to get fit.”

I understand why many people gravitate towards long-distance, steady-state cardio. There’s no equipment involved – all you need is a straight line and a pair of shoes (shirt and pants optional) – and pretty much anyone can do it.

Thing is:  running – especially long-distance, repetitive running – can be a joint killer if one is not properly prepared for the additional stress.  In addition, many people are programmed into thinking that jogging (and “cardio” in general) is the key to a lean, healthy body.

While it can most certainly enter the equation – I do feel it’s an often overprescribed and over-rated mode of exercise outside of actually being an endurance athlete.

More to the point:  it should be a component of one’s overall fitness plan, not the sole approach.

Nevertheless I like to think of myself as a middle-of-the-road kind of guy and hate using monikers such as everyone, never, and always.

Everything has a time and place – except maybe Crocs – running included.

That said I do lean more towards the camp which favors either walking or short bursts of sprinting and avoiding “stuff in the middle.” And, of course, lifting heavy stuff.

I enjoyed this piece by Mike and I hope you do too.

Is Running Natural?

Depends what you consider running.  The one for speed or the one for distance?

Based on the prevalence of marathons and triathlons, and the number of visible joggers in most neighborhoods, you’re likely thinking distance.  Moderate intensity running appears to be the most common form of exercise, but does that mean its natural?

The reason most of us start jogging is because that’s what we think is necessary to burn calories and lose weight.  Sadly, our sedentary, inactive, technologically driven jobs and lifestyles, and tendency to select high-carb, sugar-loaded foods, has given us the false impression that we need to eat less and exercise more.

Apparently our fatness is because of a lack of fitness (and an abundance of foodness!)

Don’t get me wrong, we all need to move more; but the question of ‘how’ is critical.  Instead of getting scientific, lets look at two simple questions that provide considerable insight into how we should be moving:

  1. What was our daily activity like in the past?  When we were hunter-gatherers.
  2. How did we move before we were taught how to move? When we were kids.

Prior to the agricultural revolution, we actually had to go out and get our food.  The cows weren’t in the barn, they were roaming the countryside.  The berries weren’t at the grocery store, they were out in the wild.  And you didn’t drive somewhere to eat, you gathered fruits and vegetables on your walk…as you looked for animals to hunt!

The biggest difference between then and now is that they moved frequently at a slow pace,[I] and we don’t. Many are surprised to learn that most hunter-gatherers walked more than six miles per day.  Any exercise outside of that was infrequent, and usually consisted of acute bouts of highly intense movement in order to survive.

Hunter-gatherers didn’t run for 20 miles at 70% intensity to escape a hungry wolf, they ran for 20 seconds at 110% intensity to escape a hungry wolf.

There was obviously some lifting, climbing, carrying, and building involved as well, but generally speaking their daily walking combined with a diet composed of animal protein, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit is what produced this physique:

Our ancestors would probably laugh watching us run for hours to ‘burn calories.’ Back then, energy was conserved, and you either walked to get somewhere, or you ran really fast to get away from something.

Even when organized hunting developed, hunter-gatherers relied on their brains and other resources to track and trap animals (not chase them around for 3hrs!).  Recent findings provide evidence that the earliest form of human was not designed to run long distances because the conical shape of the ribcage made it difficult for them to swing their arms.[II]

The same conclusion is reached when looking at early childhood movement prior to instruction from parents and coaches.  If you take a look at children playing in a park with no constraints, you’ll notice that they run and play with intensity for short bursts, and follow it up with ample recovery before running again.

If you don’t feel like observing it yourself (or you don’t want to look like a creep), science did it for you in a 1995 study in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.  Researchers found that children playing didn’t move consistently at a constant speed, they unknowingly exercised in intervals.[III]

Most kids have to be taught how to jog – instinctively they feel more comfortable walking or running fast.

Ask any rehabilitation specialist (physio, chiro, masseuse) and they’ll tell you how detrimental chronic repetitive movements can be on muscles, joints, bone, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons.

During the time of writing this article there’s a Dr. Scholls commercial with celebrity trainer, Dolvett Quince.  The commercial is about ‘clients missing workouts because of injuries.’ Interestingly, all three problems he mentions are related to running:

 Shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and runners knee.

Note from TG:  Listen, no one is saying (and I think Mike will agree) that going out for a jog here and there is going to steal all your gainz or turn you into a Christian Bale’s character from The Machinist overnight.

Moreover, no one is saying that jogging doesn’t have any health benefits – it most certainly does! And honestly, if jogging is something you like to do and enjoy….by all means jog to your hearts content.

But please don’t continue to espouse on all it’s “benefits” when you’re the one always hurt and paying for your physical therapists or chiro’s Porsche.

Looking at the medical records of most Cardio Kings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re consistently nursing injuries.  All of these conditions are because of the stress and impact from chronic cardio sessions.  And it’s the reason running shoe companies, like Nike, bring in trillions of dollars selling you pillows and cushions for your feet.

Other than musculoskeletal damage, continuous and prolonged exercise conflicts with our natural fight or flight response to stress.[IV]  Usually when there’s a threat to homeostasis (stress), our heart beat accelerates, blood vessels constrict, and we secrete adrenal hormones (corticosteroids), so that our brain and muscles have the necessary energy and blood flow to ensure we survive.

A beneficial adaptation for short periods of time, but when experienced chronically the body produces excess stress hormones (cortisol), and other important functions and systems must take a backseat (like digestion, reproduction, and immune function) as our muscles and brain take priority.

Excess corticosteroids are linked to heart disease,[V] poor reproductive health,[VI] and decreased immunity.[VII]

The irony in the term ‘stress fracture’ is almost laughable, when you understand the excess cortisol and oxidative stress attributable to chronic cardio.

Unfortunately, many that select running (the long duration kind) as their predominant form of exercise tend to seek more miles and higher speeds, which further damages muscle and bone, increases stress, and raises one’s risk of degenerative disease and early death.[VIII]

So What is Natural?

Obviously, we can’t mimic the exact daily regimen of the hunter-gatherer, but we can all take 30min or more per day to go for a walk.[IX]

It may not be 5+ miles/day, but it drastically lowers our risk of the common diseases affecting North Americans. Walking lowers cortisol, decreases inflammation, lowers blood pressure and triglycerides, improves cognitive function, and increases lifespan; with no muscle loss, hormone disruption, or potential for injury.[X]

Aside from daily walking, the exercise regimen that’s most in line with our genetics is functional strength training.  We can match the physical labor of our forefathers by lifting, pressing, pulling, carrying, and squatting a few times per week.  Sprinkling in the occasional ‘run for your life’ sprint every once in a while doesn’t hurt either.

The problem with most North Americans is that they attempt to make up for crappy eating habits and an inactive day with lengthy moderate intensity cardio sessions.  All these 3-hour bike rides and 10 mile jogs lead to is an increased appetite (for sugar!), elevated stress levels, muscle mass loss, free radical accumulation, decreased immunity, and chronic inflammation.[XI]

The time and effort wasted is not the sad part, it’s that this weight management strategy shows little improvement in body composition (muscle-to-fat),[XII] and the additional stress and overconsumption of sugar[XIII] to ‘fuel workouts’ actually increases belly fat.

Ironically, losing belly fat is the reason most start jogging or doing cardio to begin with.

We shouldn’t be running marathons, or taking part in the high-mileage, high-frequency training that goes with it, because we’re not designed to consistently handle that kind of stress.

Although it’s common for endurance fanatics to cite examples of long distance running in some of the earliest-known hunter-gatherer tribes that we descended from, this was not frequent.

Note from TG:  Born to Run is still one of the most interesting books I’ve read in recent years.

For example, the San People, or Bushmen, of the Kalahari Desert are known for their persistent tracking and hunting techniques to catch larger prey like antelope.  However, it’s clear that this was a rare occurrence.  The San People did a fair amount of trapping and practiced a variety of less labor-intensive hunting techniques.[XIV]

Furthermore, as you can see from this video,[XV] the tracking involves mostly walking, with only one tribesman taking part in the long-distance running portion.

I think it’s fair to say that the Bushmen doing the running wasn’t the same every month, and if it was the same, that would mean 99.9% of the tribe did no running.  Likewise, one could assume that a successful hunt would mean adequate food for some time.  Suggesting that these runs were very infrequent.

I don’t doubt that marathons, triathlons, and ultra-endurance events are possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re plausible.

Just because we have the hamstrings and Achilles tendon to run, and are equipped with the unique ability to sweat and release heat so we can go far, doesn’t mean we should.  When it comes to survival, we’re capable of staying awake for days, going without food for weeks, and running for extremely long distances until an animal tires, but that doesn’t mean we should turn these practices into habits.

I believe this quote from Dr. Mark J. Smith sums it up quite well:

“While the endurance athlete has a need to maintain a high sub-maximal intensity for long periods to be successful, the vast majority of athletes, and certainly humans in general, have no need for this type of activity.”[XVI]

About the Author

Mike Sheridan has been advising on nutrition and fitness for nearly a decade. He developed an obsession for research early in his career as he noticed the immense gap between the scientific evidence and the message to the public. 

 “I know conventional wisdom is not working for you, because it’s not working for anyone! The first step in rescuing your health is understanding why everyone else believes and follows the nutrition and training recommendations that have unfortunately become common knowledge.”

 Mike has helped a tremendous amount of people lose the fat and keep it off without counting calories, doing cardio, or sacrificing their health. His success is due in large part to his philosophy that ‘Transformation Starts With Education;’ not just showing his clients what to do, but teaching them why.

You can check out his book Eat Meat and Stop Jogging on Amazon.com, as well as peruse his website EatMeatandStopJogging.com.

References

[I] http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0064580

[II] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/340/6129/1234598

[III] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7564970

[IV]Cordain, L., Gotshall, R. W., and Eaton, S. B. 1998. Physical activity, energy expenditure and fitness: an evolutionary perspective. International Journal of Sports Medicine 19:328-335.

[V] http://www.google.ca/#q=Adverse+effects+of+corticosteroids+on+the+cardiovascular+system.+Can+J+Cardiol.+2000

[VI] Loucks, A. B. 2001. Physical health of the female athlete: observations, effects, and causes of reproductive disorders. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, 26: S176-85.

[VII] http://www.evolocus.com/Textbooks/Selye1952.pdf

[VIII] http://www.t-nation.com/training/cardio-kills

[IX] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23559628

[X] (a) http://www.unboundmedicine.com/medline/citation/22648342/abstract/Moderate_Intensity_Running_Causes_Intervertebral_Disc_Compression_in_Young_Adults. (b) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1758297

[XI]http://www.t-nation.com/training/cardiokills

[XII]http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/37/5/e95.extract#

[XIII] 1990. Utilization of fatty acids during exercise. In Biochemistry of Exercise VII, ed. A. W. Taylor et al., 319-28. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

[XIV] http://www.krugerpark.co.za/africa_bushmen.html

[XV] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=826HMLoiE_o

[XVI] https://gao.ca/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/07/Sprint-Interval-Training.pdf

  • Paul Bruce

    Great article. I squirm when I ask someone what they’re doing at the gym and they say, “Oh, just cardio.” There are so many ways to get in “cardio” while achieving other benefits.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I find that ironic, too. Like when someone DRIVES to the gym to run or walk on a treadmill…..;o)

      It all comes down to Jen Sinkler’s famous quote when asked by an interviewer “but what do you do for cardio??”

      “I lift weights faster.”

      • Paul Bruce

        Definitely, Jen speaks the truth. Why only “do cardio” (and risk pattern overload) when you can do a farmer’s carry for “cardio”, shoulder stability, grip strength, and core stability? How about walking lunges for “cardio” and hip strength and stability?

        I think what it really comes down to is people not finding weight training appealing. But it’s great when you can get them to try it and stick with it for a bit. I didn’t enjoy weight training off the bat – I did it because I felt it was good for me. Now, when I’m stuck studying for an exam, all I want to do is go to the gym!
        And part of that lack of appeal may be more pronounced for women. So I think your work on female training is so important.

        • TonyGentilcore

          No doubt. I can see how most people would look at weight training and think it’s about as exciting as watching paint dry……but that’s because they’re ill informed. And all they is watch people train at their local Y, which is about as boring as it gets….haha.

  • OBoile

    I disagree with the comments about our ancestors. There is significant evidence that we evolved to run long distances (and humans are among the best of all animals at doing it). If this was “rare” as the author claims, we wouldn’t have these evolutionary traits. Persistance hunting is the only plausable explaination that I’m aware of for how humans were able to consume large amounts of meat without advanced tools.
    I also disagree with the comments about jogging and stress. Slow steady state cardio is considered good for stress relief and is linked with increased parasympathetic tone. It’s one of the key recommendations for reducing stress in “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”.

    • TonyGentilcore

      I’ll see if Mike can come on to respond to this OBoile. He’d be the better person to do so anyways.

      Thanks for reading nonetheless!

    • http://docsmith.org Mark Smith

      Hi Tony and OBoile – I have been researching and working clinically with
      this topic since the mid 90’s and wrote a fairly lengthy position paper
      in 2008 that Mike referenced at the end of his article (the latest copy
      of this can be obtained at http://docsmith.org/SIT-HIITbyMJS-1312.pdf).
      I think both Tony and Mike summed up well the main issue, which is, not
      that running has no place at all, but that it became the go to mode of
      exercise with poor results and negative orthopedic consequences for the
      majority of individuals. Further, when time is limited, we should be
      directing individuals to the most efficient forms of exercise that hit
      multiple facets of health and performance. In that regard, running falls
      well short of being successful and that is a very easy position to
      defend. OBoile, in regards to your statement that “there is significant
      evidence that we EVOLVED to run long distances (and humans are among
      the best of all animals at doing it), I have not found this in my research and so I would ask you to reference the “evolutionary traits” that you reference. I would say that we are a species that falls somewhere in the middle of the animal kingdom when it comes to endurance and sprinting. Humans obviously couldn’t compete with migratory birds when it comes to endurance no more than they could out sprint a cheetah. However, humans have clearly shown that they can be decent at both and the example of persistence hunting demonstrates the conditioning ability of humans to adapt to their environment. It was, however, limited to specific climates where heat exhaustion plays a role and also doesn’t support an optimal approach to conditioning the human body. You can also be assured that persistence hunters did/do a fair amount of sprinting in their lives which would also be what most conditioning specialists would recommend today for any endurance athlete. But we can also look at current research to see which mode of exercises are more successful in reversal of chronic disease, in particular those associated with metabolic syndrome. And when doing this, the research clearly shows sprinting (aka SIT, HIIT) is a more effective modality compared to low- to moderate-intensity exercise. One of my most astonishing case studies is with a client who increased their power output output from 147 Watts at age 81 to 881 Watts at age 83 utilizing a SIT protocol on an upright stationary bike. Endurance training has little effect on power output which research has shown to be the number one predictor of independent living. Further, It simultaneously increased the client’s CV capacity which is also supported in the scientific literature, i.e., a two for one so to speak!

      So in summary, I think the point of Mike’s article and Tony’s introduction is to make people aware of the more beneficial and particularly efficient modes of exercise and simply doing long distance running doesn’t fare well in that department.

      • TonyGentilcore

        Mark – that was amazing! Thanks so much for taking the time to chime in and offer some insight!

        • http://docsmith.org Mark Smith

          My pleasure! Loved the article, your introduction and your very sensible comments. Hopefully it will contribute to helping people get more out of their investment in an exercise program. Thankfully the acceptance of this approach to CV training has come a long way since I first started purporting this methodology when people would literally look at me like I was insane!!

      • OBoile

        A list of evolutionary traits can be found here:
        http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041123163757.htm
        Comparing humans to migratory birds is silly. It’s akin to saying cheetahs aren’t fast because there are birds who can flow twice as fast as they run. How many land animals are better at covering long distances than humans? Particularly in hot climates which is where we evolved.

        As for persistance hunting only being applicable certain areas, while this is true, it is applicable in the area where early humans evolved.

        Whether jogging is better than tempo runs, HIIT or some other technique is subject to debate and largely open to interpretation. There are clear benefits to including training that keeps the heart rate well below the anaerobic threshold. The author himself states: “Walking lowers cortisol, decreases inflammation, lowers blood pressure and triglycerides, improves cognitive function, and increases lifespan; with no muscle loss, hormone disruption, or potential for injury” and recommends 1/2 hour a day yet gives no real reason why this wouldn’t apply with an easy jog as well.

        • Josh

          “Walking lowers cortisol, decreases inflammation, lowers blood pressure and triglycerides, improves cognitive function, and increases lifespan; with no muscle loss, hormone disruption, or potential for injury”

          If you’re having trouble understanding why none of this applies to jogging, you’re just not up on the research.

          • OBoile

            Really Josh? *None* of this applies to jogging? I’m actually quite certain jogging has been shown to do all those things. About the only potential difference between jogging and walking is the potential for injury.

            But, by all means, show me research that says jogging doesn’t lower someone’s blood pressure, or that it doesn’t increase lifespan.

  • Responding to the commenters

    Long distance running tightens hip flexors, weakens abdominal muscles, and glutes, which will put your body into pelvic tilt. If this is something your into, than by all means go long distance running. Just know that the output hour body can create will be seriously lacking.

    My point, long distance running is un natural. Which is why you reap the rath of doing it by getting weaker muscles

    Splints and explosive movements, they utilize the muscles and help them grow, while in turn no pelvic tilt or miss alignment will generate off this excersize.

    • Ryan

      Run in better (minimal or barefoot like) shoes, learn proper running technique (check out the pose method) and injuries go out the door, so long as the runner transitions slow to rebuild the strength they’ve lost in their feet and legs to absorb the shock of that style of running. Running injuries weren’t nearly as common as they are today until the modern running shoe hit the shelves in the ’70s.

      Give it a solid try for a couple weeks/months and I guarantee you’ll notice a difference. I’m being medically retired from the army because of back and knee injuries brought on by bad form and improper technique while running and switching to this along with proper mobility work and strength training i have almost zero pain in my back and knees. I still have bad days but the road to recovery is always long and winding.

  • BON

    Really enjoyed the article! As someone who enjoys dividing their training time between both lifting and running/sprinting (mainly hill sprints and tempo runs) I wonder what your thoughts on running for military, both recruits or operational soldiers. From the basic training I am aware of in the UK most of the running throughout training is basically sprints (flat and hill), tempo runs and loaded marching with kit for training or on exercises (some loaded marching is conducted at a shuffle as well) and operational soldiers spend their time on operations patrolling with their patrol packs and then sprinting to cover and like during any firefighting. My question would be for someone who wishes to join the forces and then be operationally fit at all time would lifitng combined with running comprised of sprints (flat and hill from 50-800m depending on the session) and tempo runs (5-10k) cover my bases? With regards to lifting I spend 80%ish of my time doing compound lifts and the other 20% doing assitance stuff plus circuits, massive fan of Dan John’s circuity stuff and similar stuff. Sorry for the long ass comment but do you think that would cover someone running base for the military?

  • http://thetravelingpipelinerswife.blogspot.com Shelby Lynn Downey

    This article definitely makes me feel better about my decision to cut way back on running. I had been running four-five days per week and was hoping to keep it up, but then my husband and I had to share a car and have been doing so since June. Rather than wait for him to come home from work, where sometimes he could work 12 hour days and not want to go workout afterwards, I walk the 4 mile roundtrip to the gym to lift 3 times per week. I’ll still run once a week and then bike the other days, but in the past year I have shifted my training focus to weights and strength rather than running and cardio because I see better aesthetic results that way. I still love running, but as you and Mark explain, it has its time and place in training, but shouldn’t be the focus of a regimen for the average person. And I can guarantee I am not an endurance runner type!

    • TonyGentilcore

      Right on Shelby! If I had to guess I walk around 4-5 miles PER DAY while coaching!

      It adds up for sure.

  • Cagney Amerson

    Tony, really enjoy your site but have never commented. This article struck a chord with me seeing as I wrote on a similar topic but in the other direction. I think valid points can be made on both sides for distance running as long as there is an equal mix of strength and cardio and specific goals are taken into account. If you are interested you can see my POV at http://amersonfitness.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-truth-about-cardio.html

    • TonyGentilcore

      Thanks for chiming in Cagney and for sharing your link! I’ll be sure to check it out ASAP.

      Stick around and chime in some more……;o)

  • clampitt

    ” … we’re not designed to consistently handle that kind of stress”

    Challenge accepted.

    But seriously, what does running being natural have to do with anything? Even IF it were (which seems plausable for some cultures), most of us are so de-evolved now from unnatural things (shoes + computer chairs) that it would still destroy us.

    • TonyGentilcore

      Very true.

  • cable

    “Just because we have the hamstrings and Achilles tendon to run, and are equipped with the unique ability to sweat and release heat so we can go far, doesn’t mean we should.” This is true, but it is enjoyable for some. This is the same for all physical activity.
    Not all people that engage in sport care about body image/burning fat. I just completed 40k run across mountains. I didn’t have to do it, but for me it sure beats lifting weights indoors (once upon a time I preferred that).

    Which sports are natural? Football/soccer, rockclimbing, lifting weights? (they are all awesome and part of our range of activities)

    Almost all runners I know try to balance running with other complementary activities. Chill out and stop criticising running – which is a trend amongst the Personal Training community.