Every year, millions of people run and compete in road races around the world. Dressed in anything from shorts and T-shirt to superhero costumes to even complete hockey equipment, runners stream along roads lined with cheering spectators, punctuated by groups of volunteers offering water and Gatorade and musicians playing everything from Serenade No. 13 in G Major to Born This Way.
The evolution of running
Running of course, wasn’t exactly born this way. Our early ancestors gained bipedal mobility and the ability to run roughly 4.5 million years ago. Early humans relied on their running ability to capture prey. Large gluteal muscles, the plantar arch, a highly developed Achilles tendon and short toes relative to body size are all physiological adaptations specific to running. The loss of hair and development of efficient sweating mechanisms in humans are also believed to be adaptations to enable persistence hunting – a technique by which hunters pursue prey to exhaustion to facilitate capture. Persistence hunting is possible because, despite our slow speed, humans can efficiently regulate body temperature while running. Animals with fur on the other hand, primarily rely on panting to eliminate heat. When animals run, they can no longer pant and eventually overheat.
“Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.”
Amongst primates, endurance running exists only in humans. Aside from our proportionally larger brain and intelligence, it is one of the few physical strengths we possess compared to other animals. Although we are all capable of this remarkable ability, the end of hunter-gatherer societies signalled by the Neolithic Revolution and development of agriculture have essentially eliminated the need for endurance running. Only a few examples of persistence hunting remain in remote tribes of the world, including the Tamahumara of Northern Mexico and the Kalahari bushmen of southern Africa.
As a means of locomotion, distance running has been immortalized in legend – the best known being that of the Greek soldier Pheidippides. In 490 BC, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to seek help against the invading Persian army, and from Marathon to Athens to bring news of a Greek victory over the Persians. According to legend, Pheidippides died shortly after delivering the news, reflecting the belief at the time that running large distances would severely damage the body with fatal consequences.
Of course, we know that running large distances, given proper hydration and nutrition, is entirely possible and safe. Pheidippides’ run between Marathon and Athens was roughly 40km, and the Olympic marathon, eventually standardized to a distance of 42.2km, was named to commemorate his story.
Today, most of us run as a form of exercise. Running has skyrocketed in popularity, thanks in part to the inclusion of the sport in the Olympic Games and marketing efforts by Nike and Adidas, among others. The Sporting Life 10k, now the largest road race in Toronto, had over 27,000 participants in 2012. Vancouver’s Sun Run, the largest race in the Canada and one of the biggest in North America, had nearly 50,000 runners last year. The same race started with only 3,200 participants in 1985 – a ten-fold increase even when adjusted for population growth!
The accessibility of running may also help explain the large increase in participation. In contrast to many sports, no specialized equipment or facilities are required. Running shoes are the only equipment one needs to run, and for some runners, even shoes are optional. Along these lines, socioeconomics appear to have little to do with running performance. In fact, for the past 20 years, runners from some of the poorest countries in the world including Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya have managed to dominate the world stage in middle and long distance running.
Marathons and ultramarathons
The marathon, being the “king of distance”, is a challenging test of endurance because its distance typically exceeds the point at which most people will “hit the wall”, a term that refers to the depletion of muscle glycogen, resulting in severe fatigue that may force a runner to walk for the remainder of the race. The wall is typically encountered between 32-36km and is not experienced at shorter race distances despite running at higher speeds. Avoiding the wall requires significant training so that the body relies more heavily on fat as fuel while conserving glycogen stores.
More recently, ultramarathons have also seen an increase in popularity by those looking for an even greater challenge. An ultramarathon is any race that exceeds 42.2km. Some examples of extreme ultra-endurance events include the Canadian Death Race (125km through the Rocky Mountains in Alberta) and the Badwater Ultramarathon (217km in California’s Death Valley). The Canadian Death Race features over 5,100m of elevation change while the Badwater Ultramarathon occurs in mid-July, with temperatures exceeding 49°C. These events are completed by only the toughest of runners and up to 40% of entrants do not finish.
The running legends
There are numerous talented runners in history who have defined, and continue to redefine, the limits of human running ability. Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia was a double Olympic marathon champion and best known for winning the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome while running barefoot. Paula Radcliffe of Great Britain is one of the most decorated female runners of all time and the current women’s world record holder for the marathon. Paul Tergat of Kenya and Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia are considered to be some of the greatest distance runners in history and were at some point in their careers world record holders for distances from 5,000m up to the marathon.
Runners who have exemplified even more extreme feats of endurance include Annette Fredskov, a Danish woman with multiple sclerosis who completed 366 marathons in 365 days, Dean Karnazes, who ran 560km in 80h without sleep, and of course Terry Fox, who, despite being an amputee and battling cancer, ran 5,373km in 143 days to raise money for cancer research. Are these athletes outliers, or instead an indication of the running potential that we all might possess?
Potential can only be achieved with training
An athlete’s running potential is only realized at the intersection of genetic ability and training. Miracles don’t happen in running. Success is built on sweat and hard work and luck has little to do with race day performance. Being part of a genetic lottery, some of us might naturally be better equipped for running than others. Some might even be able to run a marathon without training. However, most of us will never train (or have the time to train) at the levels needed to realize our full potential. Elite runners, as gifted as they are, train at levels that appear superhuman for many of us. Haile Gebrselassie ran 20km every day for 10 years as a child, going to and from school, and on average runs between 160-250km a week. Examining the training habits of most top distance runners reveals a similar trend with an early start in running at a young age and average weekly training distances exceeding 200km.
“Running is a frequent lesson in the power of hard work and persistence; a constant teacher from which we learn to challenge the boundaries of our own endurance and discover the untapped potential that we possess.”
Parallels between running and research
Despite all the training, results are never guaranteed. Like research, it’s entirely possible to have a poor outcome after days, weeks or even months of hard work. The good news is that running performance, nine times out of ten, is proportional to input. The bad news is that running, like research, can be fickle and unpredictable. A lack of sleep, stress, illness and sudden injury can all negatively impact race day performance or even prevent one from running. Many of these factors are beyond our control and even elite runners will unfortunately suffer from their effects. Radcliffe and Gebrselassie for example, have both had DNFs (did not finish) in their racing careers; the 2004 Olympics for Radcliffe and the 2010 New York City Marathon for Gebrselassie.
Similar to research, running also requires discipline, a strong work ethic and a large time commitment. Getting an experiment to work might require optimization and practice to master techniques. Training too, necessitates such dedication and perseverance. Waking up to run while it’s cold and dark outside or completing a 36km long run after a punishing week of workouts will strengthen resolve and develop discipline.“Most people run a race to see who is fastest. I run a race to see who has the most guts.” -Steve Prefontaine
These challenges, in many regards, are opportunities to improve mental and physical toughness. In research, running and life, we will all encounter obstacles and at times, adversity. In these moments, problems may appear so difficult that they seem insurmountable. Running teaches you, in the words of Muhammed Ali, that “impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it.” Running is a frequent lesson in the power of hard work and persistence; a constant teacher from which we learn to challenge the boundaries of our own endurance and discover the untapped potential that we possess.
Sacrifices and the work-run-life triangle
Scientific research, with long hours and time commitments outside a 9-5 workday can be difficult to reconcile with training. At the same time, one of the greatest advantages of research is flexibility in the work schedule. Balancing research, running and a social life, however, can be a juggling act. Not only does running and its associated strengthening exercises require a dedicated amount of training time per week, it also places additional demands on recovery, which translates into longer sleep hours and more stringent requirements for nutrition.
Probably the most difficult aspect of running for your financial health is the increase in the number of calories a runner (or any athlete) needs to consume to balance the energy expenditure of daily runs. As students, a rapidly rising grocery budget only adds to the stress of making ends meet on a stipend. Additional allowances also need to be made for running shoes, clothing and entry fees for races. Thankfully, all of these expenses are comparatively minimal if you’re willing to make some sacrifices in other miscellaneous expenditures in your life and entirely possible to afford on a student budget.
The rewards of running
Despite the large time investment and opportunity cost, running can be incredibly rewarding. One of its benefits is that it helps empty the mind and improve focus. In running, there are occasional moments of clarity; a state of intense focus in which, as the scenery is blurring by, you are precisely aware of your motion; of each footstep and breath, and in ultimate control of speed, momentum and direction. Floating over the ground, it is both awesome and euphoric. These moments, however ephemeral, are one of the many joys of running.
Runners also share a unique camaraderie despite being an individual sport. The runner that passes by at 7am on a Sunday could be a neighbor, a student, a friend, or a stranger, but there is a common connection in the brief second your eyes meet. In races, fellow runners and complete strangers will sometimes offer words of encouragement in difficult stretches of a race; they themselves tired and weary as you struggle to maintain your pace.
Finally, in addition to the mental and physical benefits of regular exercise, running is as much a journey of improving physical endurance as it is of learning and personal development. By entering races or setting goals, runners can also benchmark their progression and improvement, and importantly, develop the discipline necessary to achieve them. The transferable skills that come from training may serve one well in all aspects of life. So, go for a run. Train hard and realize your potential, because the ability to run is within each and every one of us.
The psychology of running
Running is 90 percent mental and the rest is physical, claims the old adage. According to Tim Noakes, author of Lore of Running, the brain holds the body back in order to maintain a reserve of energy. In other words, you can always push a little harder and a little further. If this is the case, there must be some way of thinking, consciously or not, that raises the internal threshold that separates the possible and the impossible.
Non-runners often wonder what runners do to keep their minds occupied while running. If asked this question after a run, the average runner would not know how to answer it. Whilst running, thoughts are ephemeral and are gone almost before they arise. This leaves the runner in a meditative state post run, with perhaps only the odd thought recollectable. If asked whilst running, the answer would be different. The mind is working overtime; it monitors the condition of the body, it thinks about how far the body has to go and adjusts the intensity of exercise accordingly, it admires the beauty of one’s surroundings, sometimes it dives deep within itself, contemplating its existence through reliving past experiences. But which type of thought is beneficial to the runner, and which is harmful?
A number of studies have attempted to peer into the psyche of the runner to identify how the mind can be trained to improve the performance of the body. In a retrospective study of non-elite London marathon competitors, finishers were asked to classify their thoughts into two broad categories; internally directed and externally derived thoughts. These thoughts were subdivided into associative thoughts, those that relate to the monitoring of the current run, or dissociative thoughts, those that provide a distraction from the run. For example, internal association might be the monitoring of pain, whilst external association would be monitoring the run through calculation of one’s pace based on the distance marker passed. On the other hand, internal dissociation would be daydreaming and external dissociation would be watching scenery and people go by. These four subcategories of cognition were correlated to “hitting the wall”. From this it was determined that the more you inwardly monitored yourself, the earlier you hit the wall, and the longer the wall lasts. Thus it was posited that paying too much attention to oneself is detrimental as it magnifies discomfort. In support of this, outward distraction was associated with a delayed onset of the wall. The authors did warn that cognitions do oscillate naturally during running and that internal monitoring should not be completely ignored as this could lead to injury.
The idea that external dissociative thoughts are beneficial to the runner was further investigated to include changes in feelings. In this controlled, prospective study, participants ran for 25 or 40 minutes, or rested for 40 minutes. They were asked to categorize their thoughts as above, and additionally asked to characterize their feelings before, during and after the experiment. These experiments revealed the feeling of tranquility to increase 25 minutes into exercise, with external dissociation providing minimal physical exhaustion and maximal feelings of revitalization post-exercise. Such a study provides mechanistic evidence of exercise’s ability to combat negative psychological traits such as anxiety and depression, and provides a means to protect against them through consciously directing thoughts.
So what do you think about when you run?
Running in Toronto
Maybe you are not so impressed by 5,100 m of elevation change and feel ready to tackle the Canadian Death Race; or maybe you have more humble aspirations and would like to run your first 5km or 10km race. If we have learned anything from this article it’s that irrespective of your goals, preparation and training are vital components for enjoyment and success in running. If we have managed to convince you of this, join the Immunology Department running club on our morning runs. We meet every Monday at 8:15am at the U of T Athletic Centre for an easy 5-8km. E-mail Josh at email@example.com with any questions.
Below are three excellent running loops around Toronto.
View Running in Toronto – IMMpress Magazine in a larger map
The Spadina Classic
This route is a longtime favourite of the immunology run club. At 5.3km it is short enough to be accessible for everyone, but includes enough hard sections to still provide a solid workout. Finally, varied terrain including both city streets and park ravines make for a lively run.
The route: starting at the U of T Athletic Centre, head north up Spadina Ave. Climb up the steep Spadina Road stairs and continue past Casa Loma until you pass the bridge over the Sir Winston Churchill Park ravine. Turn right into the park and follow the trail until Boulton Dr. where you can turn right to head back to U of T (keep heading south).
A run for the more enthusiastic, this route opens up nearly endless possibilities and some of Toronto’s finest running terrain. At its most basic, this run will require 12km, but can easily be extended to marathon distances. The majority of the route is through parkland with trail surfaces ranging from paved to steep and technical. Watch out for mud, but be sure to enjoy the beautiful scenery year-round.
The route: starting at the U of T Athletic Centre, head north up Spadina Ave. until you reach Eglinton (about 3km). Turn onto Eglinton for about 100m to catch the Key Gardner Beltline trail. Follow this until you cross into Mt. Pleasant Cemetery (2km). Pass through the cemetery to reconnect with the trail at the visitation centre on Moore Ave. Follow this trail until you reach the Brick Works community centre. Here the choice is yours: you can head deeper into the Don Valley and north past Sunnybrook, or cross Bayview and head south to Lake Shore Blvd., or continue on the Beltline, catch Milkman’s Ln. and return to U of T via Mt. Pleasant and Bloor.
Lakeshore (Martin Goodman Trail)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget we live next to a gigantic body of fresh water (yes, Lake Ontario). If you want to prove to yourself it exists, or you enjoy shoreline views, this is the run for you. The route: start at Coronation Park (just west of Bathurst St. and Lake Shore Blvd.) and follow the well-marked and paved Martin Goodman Trail west. Look back from the Humber Bay Bridge (5km out) for fantastic views of Toronto’s skyline and the lake. This trail actually never ends (at least we’ve never made it to the end) so run as long, or short as you wish. Summer is the time for this route, but it’s cleared during the winter as well. During weekends and peak hours however, be prepared to dodge the obnoxious cyclists ignoring trail speed limits and parties of picnicking daycare kids.
History of The Vancouver Sun Run. 19 November 2012. http://www.vancouversun.com/2013sunrun/event/History/5617152/story.html
Haile Gebrselassie: Mr. Berlin-Marathon returns to his favourite race. Accessed 2 October 2013. http://www.germanroadraces.de/224-1-12214-haile-gebrselassie-mr-berlinmarathon-returns-to-his.html
McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.
Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
Noakes, Tim. Lore of Running. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2003.
Suzuki, David. “The Perfect Runner”. The Nature of Things. CBC Television. 14 Sept 2013.
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