Paleofantasy: Our ancestors’ lives revolved around sprinting barefoot after prey.
Modern mimic: On his blog, Evolutionary Fitness, Paleo lifestyle coach Arthur De Vany emphasizes exercises that he feels emulate “the activities that were essential to the emergence and evolution of the human species.” He goes on to explain: “High intensity, intermittent and brief training mixed with power walking and play is closer than aerobic exercise, high-volume weight training, or sedentism to how our ancestors lived.”
Science weighs in: De Vany and other Paleos are in direct opposition to a growing number of scientists and athletes who believe that running long distances can be healthy, and that humans may have evolved doing just that.
We are surprisingly good distance runners, with numerous skeletal features that allow us to accommodate a marathon-like pace. Some scientists suggest that our skills evolved in the context of persistence hunting—or running down prey by keeping it moving until it dropped from heat exhaustion.
According to Greg Downey, an anthropologist at Macquarie University in Australia, “long-range endurance running wouldn’t have just been for hunting: Humans cover immense ranges, even when foraging and scavenging.”
Regardless of whether we evolved running short distances or long ones, we certainly did not evolve to run, or walk, with shoes. Some evidence suggests that heavily structured and padded shoes actually increase injuries rather than prevent them, resulting in a growing cadre of barefoot runners, or at least runners who wear “minimalist” shoes.
The key may lie in how a runner’s foot strikes the ground; experienced barefoot runners tend to hit the ground with the forefoot, with occasional midfoot or heel strikes, whereas shoed runners are predominately heel strikers. It’s the forceful collision of the latter, Harvard University biologist Daniel Lieberman claims, that causes runners the most harm. If a runner takes off his or her shoes but doesn’t adjust technique, injuries are still likely.
The larger lesson here is that all of our traits, even those influenced by our genes, are affected by our surroundings. A child who goes barefoot will end up with differently shaped feet than one who wore cute tiny sneakers.