Running as “ancestral necessity” — Swimming? Not!
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 26th, 2009

In this morning’s NY Times, Timothy
Egan writes
about running as an ancestally coded necessity as an intro to explaining why “Turkey Day Trots” are so  popular.

As his source, he cites Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run.” Unfortunately I found his overheated prose style – “encoded” by writing for mags like Men’s Health, Men’s Journal and Esquire – left me with a sense of cognitive dissonance as he described a people, the Tarahumara tribe of Mexico, so utterly lacking in pretense. I couldn’t maintain the motivation to read past Chapter 5. (Exactly the opposite is true of Egan. I look forward to each of his columns.)

However the idea of running as an “ancestrally coded necessity” has been advanced most authoritatively and eloquently by Harvard  evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. Early man often needed to run for hours – sometimes days – to chase down faster, but less enduring, prey. Those who were best suited to this task ate more regularly and thus survived in greater numbers to pass down their characteristics to descendants. Thus modern man has inherited a physiognomy well suited to endurance running.

As anyone who has experienced keen frustration with learning or improving at swimming (i.e. virtually everyone) will recognize precisely the opposite. Despite the theory that at some point our ancestors crawled from the water and gradually grew more erect and land-adapted, eons late, humans are “wired to struggle” in the water and the solutions to our struggles are counterintuitive.

This means that learning and improvement at swimming depend to a far greater extent than running on “rewiring” your brain and nervous system.

Nonetheless, the local pool is closed today while the roads and rail trail are open, so I too will trot through a 5K in New Paltz this morning with a 100 or so others before driving to Long Island for dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving

4 Responses to “Running as “ancestral necessity” — Swimming? Not!”

  1. Chris Hartwiger says:

    I admire your passion for swimmng and the gift you have for teaching others. I respectfully and passionately stick up for God, though, and reject the evolutionary overtones in your article. You, I, and all other mankind did not evolve from amoebas, fish, and monkeys. While I appreciate your point about the differences in swimming and running, evolution isn’t the answer.

    PS Your goal to swim the English Channel and how you have shared your journey is really cool! Good luck to you.


  2. Chris
    Thanks for your comments. There are probably better places than this to discuss evolution vs. creation. Personally speaking I’m agnostic on most religious matters, but inclined to greater agreement with Buddhist or Taoist thought than with Judeo-Christian traditions.
    My reference to man evolving from marine origins was mostly tongue in cheek. My central point was that we are clearly more suited by eons of natural adaptation for running than swimming, and therefore our practice of swimming needs to be far more mindful.

  3. Mike McGrath says:

    I agree that parts of “Born to Run” were facile and lead to an artificial denouement. However, I thought you might like the Tarahumara Indians’ mantra for learning how to run: easy, light, smooth, fast. Master the first three and “fast” will happen. Sound familar?

    “Light” struck me the most because not only did it mean landing light while running but also not becoming bogged down by thoughts of how many miles remain in the middle of a 100 mile race. During races I’ve always referred to it as “end watching”–a self defeating thought if there ever was one.

    Since reading the book that easy, light, smooth, fast mantra has lately transferred to my swimming and served me well.

  4. Mike Thanks for the tip on the Tarahumara mantra. Those are the kind of thoughts that will be calming and grounding, and thus should translate into running better – by a mysterious re-ordering of brain molecules.
    I particularly like their recognition that fast is not about going harder or even velocity. It’s a natural outcome when you stop interfering with your body’s natural ability.

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