Jog or Sprint? An Evolutionary Perspective

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Power Lifters and Weight Lifters may tell you that jogging is a load of crud and Marathoners will say that heavy resistance training makes you bulky, less agile and gives you a heart attack. Pretty profound statements but that’s just the truth of the matter when there’s an emotional attachment. It seems engrained in people’s minds, especially female minds, that Cardio Is King for fat loss; no matter how many times this has been disproven scientifically and in collective personal experience.

The Palaeolithic approach will tell you that to jog for hours in a primitive environment is lack of common sense, that we would have evolved from either sprinting or walking long distances in search for food/shelter, stating confidently that it is too energy consuming to jog for hours and also too noisy to be huffing and puffing in the wild. However, and this is a new concept to me; jogging has allowed us to be the dominant species because chasing a jogging animal ultimately wins. The animal cannot pant while jogging, therefore eventually keels over with body overheating. Jogging was how we hunted.

To say that jogging was how we hunted concluded of a study published in the Nov. 18 issue of the journal Nature by University of Utah biologist Dennis Bramble and Harvard University anthropologist Daniel Lieberman. Humans are poor sprinters compared with other running animals, which is partly why many scientists have dismissed running as a factor in human evolution. Human endurance running ability has been inadequately appreciated because of a failure to recognise that “high speed is not always important,” Bramble says. “What is important is combining reasonable speed with exceptional endurance.”



Anti-Jogging

Initially, most people will have a small to moderate weight loss with aerobic exercise. Thereafter their bodies adapt, becoming more efficient and so fewer calories are burnt. So why are distance runners so skinny? Lots of aerobic exercise stimulates the production of cortisol and other stress hormones which are catabolic (tissue breakdown) in nature. Your body perceives itself as under a stressful situation, and these hormones oppose the development of muscle mass, in fact with chronic exposure, cortisol breaks down muscle tissue, as well as other tissues including bone. Cortisol also tells your body to hold onto fat stores available, just in case that lion comes again and you’ll be running for days. The body is swept into a sympathetic (flight-or-fight) state, whereby blood is shunted away from the internal organs to the peripheral muscles in preparation for you to take action (fight or flee from danger). Chronic or long term exposure to these stress hormones compromises your tissue building and repair, digestion, production of vital hormones and many other parasympathetic functions which are essential for our survival. Disorders destined to develop are likely to include diabetes, osteoporosis, infertility, menstrual problems, digestive disorders, psychological disorders, heart disorders and impaired immune function. A study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that marathon runners had higher inflammatory markers at rest than a control group or sprinters.

Elite endurance athletes have, by no doubt, a lower percentage of body fat compared to the rest of the population, however sprinters and other anaerobic athletes are certainly number one. The marathoner is a “skinny-fat” compared to a sprinter. Since anaerobic and strength training exposes the body to anabolic hormones to counter the catabolic effects of cortisol, these athletes have less inflammation and negative cortisol-related effects.

 

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Pro-Jogging

Humans are the only primates that can run for extended periods of time; chimpanzees and gorillas are incapable of running upright for more than a few minutes. We are pretty darn slow than either the predator or prey animals, however we can outrun them by jogging over a long distance.  Physically, humans are the most vulnerable, needy species there is, but we do have big brains (some of us), clever hands and the other thing is that we jog! Humans can efficiently shed heat by sweating which animals struggle with, having big fur coats. This means that endurance hunters don’t have to outrun an animal, they just have to chase it until it drops dead from heat exhaustion – it may take you half the day, but at least you can replenish the energy used by hunting the damn thing!

Humans evolved three ingenious adaptations that are remarkably well-suited to endurance running, allowing us to compete with the other mammals: our upright skeletal structure, our ability to breathe, and our ability to sweat. By standing upright, the movement of our legs as we walk and run does not affect the expansion of our lungs. Unlike cheetahs, we can breathe faster than we can move our legs, getting the maximum amount of oxygen to our muscles. The regulation of our breathing allows us to run for extended distances because we constantly remain in an energy-efficient gait. A third ingenious and unique adaptation allows humans to compete against other mammals: the ability to cool our body temperatures by sweating. Most animals cool themselves by seeking the shade or by panting to release hot, moist air through their mouths. However, animals cannot cool themselves and run simultaneously. Harvard scientists once measured the body temperature of a cheetah on a treadmill; as soon as its temperature reached 41º C, the cheetah halted and refused to run. Sweating allows us to regulate our internal body temperatures while running, without having to stop for shade or to pant.

It is important to consider that we are not all descendants of endurance hunting and this would be dependent on where your ancestry lies.

A study article in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 2011, revealed that antioxidant pills prevent major mitochondrial benefits of endurance training. In this study, those that were given vitamin E and alpha-lipoic-acid did not increase the aerobic enzymes necessary to increase the size and number of mitochondria. Free radicals can be beneficial; they target gene induction, insulin sensitivity and are used in the immune system to destroy bacteria and viruses.

Verdict?

So who is correct? Is aerobic training beneficial to stress the oxidative system, create free radicals to target gene induction, strengthen the immune system and subsequently adaptations to become a fit beast? Or is it best to avoid all that oxidative-stress, inflammation and hormonal disruptions and stick to strength training and high-intensity intervals? In my opinion, if weight loss is your only concern, stick with the later, but in terms with creating all-round fitness-machine-of-a-body, completely avoiding cardio can be detrimental to aerobic pathways and including it in your strength training schedule would serve to enhance general physical fitness or competitive preparedness for a given sport. It just doesn’t need to be overdone.

Fitness & Strength Tips

  1. STRENGTH TRAIN. Every responds differently to exercise loading and every exercise has a benefit-to-risk ratio. Correct any posture, joint or movement dysfunction before any loading. Injuries with weight training have more to do with suboptimal structures, shabby technique and poor programming than the exercise itself. Learn how to lift correctly and create an effective program through periodisation.
  2. Go for intermittent sprint or metabolic resistance training. Metabolic training is particularly good for fat loss and muscle building as the lactic acid accumulation stimulates insulin-like growth factors.
  3. If you want to get lean, look at your diet. Eat a balanced, wholesome diet with plenty of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, polyphenols, bioflavonoids, beta-carotenes, prebiotics, probiotics (from real food) and get enough good quality water.
  4. It is better to do aerobic training than absolutely nothing at all. Initially there will be some weight loss as the body is adapting to a new stimulus. I am not going to recommend to jog or not to jog… everyone responds differently to exercise and I also enjoy a bit of longer distance bike-riding, walking, trekking, running, ocean swimming, dancing or an adventure race from time to time to mix things up and give my mitochondria something to play with. Surfing is a daily passion of mine and that is a mix of aerobic and anaerobic training.

I do not believe that long duration aerobic exercise is inherently bad, as some strength gurus may be stating, and personally can feel a definite “clearing out of cobwebs” when I do end up going for a jog, swim, ride, dance (for HOURS nonstop!) or surf. It is definitely a different type of fitness and to not include any form of aerobic training will eventually reduce the size and number of mitochondria and aerobic enzymes. This, for example, can lead to the ‘gassing’ out of MMA fighters when all they focus on is anaerobic high-intensity interval training and dismiss other aerobic conditioning.

We don’t necessarily need to do aerobic exercise everyday and I do not believe in the standard physical activity recommendations for the general population that has been so engrained in our minds, along with the food diet pyramid for that matter. It is also absolute BS that females should only do cardio for weight loss and that resistance training will bulk them up. I am more of a proponent of strength training, metabolic resistance training and intermittent sprinting exercises and would play around with longer-duration aerobic exercise depending on athletic requirements or personal preference. See what works for your body and notice when things aren’t working or when weight loss is not actually fat loss and is contributing to a cocktail of secondary health dysfunctions. Being active should be something that feels natural and fun, and if something seems horribly offensive to you – such as running for 60 mins – your body is probably telling you something invaluable.

 



References

Bramble, D., Lieberman D. Nature 432, 345-352 (2004).

Cakir-Atabek, H., Demir, S., Pinarbassili, R., Bunduz, N. Effects of Different Resistance Training Intensity on Indices of Oxidative Stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. September 2010. 24(9), 2491-2498.

McDougall, C. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, 2009).

 

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