The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

The Evolution of the Foot: Humans Were Born to Run

Posted by on Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013


Running is an interesting pastime. It’s something most of us can do: just put one foot in front of the other, and go. You don’t need lessons. Even small children intuitively know how to speed up their walking steps into running steps. Many other animals run too, so it may not seem like anything very extraordinary. But it turns out humans are particularly good at long distance locomotion. In the animal world, we’re excellent runners. According to evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, human beings were born to run.


Dr. Lieberman has two seemingly disparate specialties: feet and heads. He started out studying the evolution of the skull, fascinated by the enormous size of our brains and the challenges they present to many aspects of our lives, not the least of which is childbirth. It’s our heads that make us human, after all: all that thinking, creating, and problem solving have brought us rather far in the scheme of life on earth. But while Dr. Lieberman was studying how running stresses the bones in the head, he stumbled upon a startling fact. As opposed to pigs and other animals whose heads sway and wobble wildly as they run, the human head stays remarkably stationary. Keeping the head still at high speeds offers a huge evolutionary advantage. It reduces the risk of falling, allows the eyes to spy possible threats, and to spot sources of food quickly and from far away. These advantages directly led to our ability to survive and to find nourishment to feed our huge brains.


Just like other animals’ adaptations – the giant puffed up bodies of the pufferfish, the electricity of an electric eel, a spider’s poison, and a constrictor’s powerful muscles – running allowed humans to survive. Our adaptations allowed us to engage in persistence hunting, chasing down large game animals until they collapsed from exhaustion. Wildebeest and zebras don’t pant while they gallop, so they overheat easily. Running for long distances was all early humans needed to win giant, nourishing meals. Other research suggests the “runner’s high” evolved to sweeten the deal, making long-distance animal hunting more attractive.


Dr. Lieberman also has some interesting things to say about barefoot running. Today, barefoot runners who remain injury free are a particular subset of the running community. These tend to be people who either have never worn shoes (like many of the great marathoners out of Kenya) or who have slowly embraced the barefoot running lifestyle. The key is that they run very differently from their shod counterparts, striking lightly, on the ball of the foot.

However you run, remember this: you were born to do it. So lace up (or don’t) and enjoy


If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.