Why Humans have Evolved to be Great Long-Distance Runners

Daniel Lieberman, a prominent evolutionary biologist and professor at Harvard University, has conducted research and written extensively on the topic of why humans have evolved for endurance running.

According to Lieberman, humans have evolved to be great long-distance runners due to a combination of anatomical, physiological, and behavioural adaptations.

Here are some key reasons:

Persistence Hunting: Lieberman suggests that early humans developed the ability to run long distances in pursuit of prey. By utilizing a strategy called persistence hunting, our ancestors would chase animals over long distances, eventually exhausting them to the point of collapse. This method required humans to be capable runners.

Man running on horizon
©Guille Pozzi

Efficient Cooling Mechanisms: Compared to other mammals, humans have unique cooling mechanisms that allow us to dissipate heat efficiently during exercise. We have evolved to have a relatively hairless body, numerous sweat glands, and an upright posture, which promote evaporative cooling. This adaptation helps prevent overheating during endurance running.

Energy Efficiency: Lieberman highlights that humans have evolved specific anatomical features that enhance energy efficiency while running. These include long legs, short toes, an arched foot structure with a prominent arch, and various tendon and muscle adaptations. These features collectively allow for better shock absorption, energy storage, and elastic recoil, reducing the metabolic cost of running.

Superior Endurance: Humans have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, which are better suited for endurance activities like long-distance running. These muscle fibres have a greater resistance to fatigue and are capable of sustaining activity for extended periods.

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Cognitive Abilities: Lieberman suggests that humans possess cognitive abilities that provide an advantage in long-distance running. Our intelligence, ability to plan, and cooperation skills allowed early humans to coordinate hunts, track prey over extended distances, and strategize effectively.

Persistence Hunting

Lieberman’s persistence hunting concept revolves around the idea that early humans used endurance running as a hunting strategy to capture prey.

Unlike other predatory animals that rely on speed or strength for short bursts of activity, humans are thought to have capitalized on their exceptional endurance to pursue animals over long distances until the animals were exhausted.

Here’s a breakdown of how persistence hunting is believed to have worked:


Early humans would begin by identifying a suitable animal to hunt, typically one that was capable of endurance running but lacked the same level of thermoregulatory and cooling adaptations that humans possessed.

Examples could include ungulates such as antelope, deer, or even early hominid prey like small game.


Once the prey was spotted, the hunters would initiate the chase. Humans are capable of maintaining a steady pace and regulating body temperature through sweating, allowing them to maintain pursuit over long distances. Unlike the prey, which relies on panting and limited cooling mechanisms, humans could sustain a running pace for extended periods without overheating.

Tracking by Sign and Sight:

Persistence hunters would track their prey visually or by following signs such as footprints, disturbed vegetation, or other indications of the animal’s path. This required keen observation skills and knowledge of the prey’s behaviour.

Steady Pace:

Rather than relying on bursts of speed, persistence hunters would maintain a consistent, steady pace. By doing so, they would prevent the prey from recovering during brief stops or by engaging in short sprints, as most animals are better adapted for quick bursts of energy rather than sustained endurance.


Over time, the persistent pursuit would take a toll on the prey. It would become increasingly fatigued, dehydrated, and overheated, eventually succumbing to exhaustion. The hunters would seize the opportunity to close in on the animal and deliver the final blow, using weapons or tools to secure the kill.


Persistence hunting likely involved cooperation among a group of hunters. By coordinating efforts and taking turns in the chase, humans could optimize their chances of success. This would require communication, planning, and the ability to strategize collectively.

Efficient Cooling Mechanisms

Humans have evolved several efficient cooling mechanisms that allow us to dissipate heat during physical activity, including hunting. These adaptations are crucial for preventing overheating and maintaining optimal body temperature during endurance activities. Here are some key cooling mechanisms in humans:


Humans have a high density of sweat glands distributed across our skin, especially on our forehead, armpits, and palms. When body temperature rises during physical exertion, sweat is produced and released onto the skin’s surface. As the sweat evaporates, it absorbs heat from the body, cooling it down. Sweating is a highly effective thermoregulatory mechanism that helps humans cope with heat stress during prolonged activities such as hunting.

Woman running in sunset
©Marcos Paulo


Compared to other primates, humans have relatively little body hair. This reduction in body hair is believed to have occurred as our ancestors transitioned from a forested environment to open savannahs. The absence of a dense fur coat enhances heat dissipation, allowing air to circulate more freely across the skin’s surface and facilitating evaporative cooling.

Upright Posture:

Humans have an upright, bipedal posture, which exposes a larger surface area of the body to the surrounding air. This upright stance promotes air circulation and heat dissipation, helping to cool the body during physical exertion.

Nasal Breathing:

Humans primarily rely on nasal breathing during rest and light exercise. Nasal breathing helps humidify and cool incoming air before it reaches the lungs. This helps regulate the temperature of the respiratory system and minimizes water loss through respiration.


During physical activity, the blood vessels near the skin’s surface widen, a process known as vasodilation. This allows a greater volume of blood to flow close to the skin, facilitating heat transfer from the body’s core to the skin’s surface. The warmed blood then dissipates heat to the environment.

These cooling mechanisms collectively enable humans to engage in endurance activities such as hunting for extended periods without succumbing to overheating.

By effectively managing body temperature, these adaptations increase our capacity to maintain a sustained running pace and outlast prey animals, contributing to the success of persistence hunting strategies in our evolutionary history.

Energy Efficiency

Daniel Lieberman has identified several anatomical features that contribute to the energy efficiency of humans as runners.

These features include:

Long Legs:

Humans have proportionally longer legs compared to body size when compared to other primates. Longer legs provide a mechanical advantage by increasing stride length, allowing for greater ground coverage with each step. This reduces the energy expenditure required to cover a given distance.

Humans enjoying running
©Joshua Earl

Short Toes:

Humans have relatively short toes compared to other primates. Short toes reduce the moment arm (lever arm) of the foot, decreasing the mechanical work required for push-off during running. This feature helps conserve energy by minimizing the effort needed to propel the body forward.

Arched Foot Structure:

Humans possess a distinctive arch in the structure of their feet. The arch acts as a natural spring, storing and releasing elastic energy during the running gait. This elastic recoil assists in forward propulsion and reduces the metabolic cost of running.

Efficient Tendons and Ligaments:

Humans have long and elastic tendons, such as the Achilles tendon, which store and release energy like a spring. These tendons help in energy transfer during the push-off phase of running, improving running efficiency.

Muscle-Tendon Unit:

The muscles and tendons in the lower limbs are structured in a way that allows them to work together as a functional unit. This integrated system minimizes energy losses during each stride, optimizing energy transfer and reducing the metabolic cost of running.

Collectively, these anatomical features enhance the energy efficiency of human running by reducing the energy expenditure required for propulsion, minimizing energy losses, and utilizing elastic energy to aid forward movement.

These adaptations have likely been shaped by the evolutionary pressures of endurance running throughout human evolutionary history.

Superior Endurance

Lieberman believes that humans have evolved to have superior endurance compared to many other animals due to a combination of anatomical and physiological adaptations. These adaptations are evident in the human body and contribute to our ability to sustain prolonged physical activity. Here are some key reasons:

Slow-Twitch Muscle Fibres:

Humans have a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, also known as Type I muscle fibres, compared to fast-twitch muscle fibres (Type II fibres). Slow-twitch muscle fibres are more fatigue-resistant and are better suited for endurance activities. They have a high capacity for aerobic metabolism, allowing them to produce energy efficiently over extended periods without tiring quickly.

Efficient Oxygen Utilization:

Humans have a well-developed cardiovascular system that efficiently delivers oxygen to the muscles during exercise. We have a larger heart size relative to body size, enabling greater stroke volume (the amount of blood pumped per heartbeat) and cardiac output (the volume of blood pumped per minute). This enhanced oxygen transport capacity supports sustained endurance activities.

Humans running in city
©Zac Ong

Aerobic Metabolism:

Humans have evolved to rely on aerobic metabolism, which utilizes oxygen to produce energy. Aerobic metabolism is more efficient than anaerobic metabolism (which occurs in the absence of oxygen) and allows us to sustain physical activity for longer durations. Our respiratory system, including the lungs and the ability to exchange gases efficiently, supports this aerobic energy production.

Efficient Heat Dissipation:

As mentioned earlier, humans possess efficient cooling mechanisms, such as sweating and an upright posture, which aid in dissipating heat during physical exertion. This allows us to regulate body temperature and avoid overheating, contributing to our endurance capacity.


Humans have evolved to maintain a relatively stable body temperature during physical activity. By efficiently regulating body temperature, we can avoid excessive energy expenditure on cooling or heating the body, thus preserving energy for endurance tasks.

These adaptations collectively contribute to humans’ superior endurance capacity. The combination of a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres, efficient oxygen utilization, reliance on aerobic metabolism, effective heat dissipation, and thermoregulation enables us to engage in sustained physical activity for extended durations without experiencing rapid fatigue.

These adaptations have likely been favoured by natural selection due to the evolutionary pressures of endurance running and other physically demanding activities throughout human history.

Cognitive Abilities

Lieberman suggests that humans possess cognitive abilities that have played a significant role in long-distance running and hunting.

These cognitive abilities have provided an advantage in terms of planning, coordination, and strategizing during endurance activities.

Here are some key cognitive abilities that have likely aided humans:


Humans have a high level of cognitive intelligence compared to other animals. This includes skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances. These cognitive abilities have allowed humans to develop sophisticated hunting strategies and tactics, including persistence hunting.

Planning and Coordination:

Humans have the capacity to plan and coordinate complex activities. In the context of hunting, this involves strategizing and organizing group efforts to pursue and capture prey. Cooperative hunting requires coordination, communication, and the ability to adapt strategies in real-time based on the behavior of both the prey and other members of the hunting group.

Spatial Awareness and Tracking:

Humans have the ability to navigate and track prey over long distances. This includes reading signs and clues in the environment, understanding animal behaviour, and predicting the movements of the prey. Spatial awareness and tracking skills are crucial for successful hunting and endurance running.

Memory and Learning:

Humans have a remarkable memory and learning capacity. This allows us to accumulate knowledge and experience related to hunting, including identifying prey behaviours, understanding their habitats, and recognizing patterns. Memory and learning enable us to apply past experiences and adapt strategies for future hunting endeavours.

Man on bridge
©Fabio Comparelli

Social Cooperation:

Humans are highly social beings, and cooperative hunting requires effective communication, trust, and teamwork. Cognitive abilities such as empathy, perspective-taking, and social coordination have allowed humans to work together effectively during endurance activities like hunting.

These cognitive abilities, combined with the physical adaptations discussed earlier, have contributed to the success of humans as endurance runners and hunters.

They have allowed us to plan and execute hunting strategies, track prey over long distances, adapt to changing conditions, and cooperate within social groups, ultimately increasing our chances of securing food through persistence hunting and other endurance-based hunting methods.

Books and Articles by Daniel Lieberman

Daniel Lieberman has authored several books and articles in the field of human evolution, anthropology, and biology. Here are some notable works by Daniel Lieberman:


“The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease” (2013): In this book, Lieberman explores the evolutionary history of the human body and how our ancient adaptations have shaped our susceptibility to modern diseases.

“Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding” (2020): Lieberman delves into the evolutionary biology of exercise, discussing how physical activity is intertwined with our evolutionary history and why exercise is essential for human health and well-being.


“Endurance Running and the Evolution of Homo” (2004): In this influential scientific article, Lieberman and his co-authors discuss the hypothesis of humans as endurance runners, examining the anatomical, physiological, and behavioural adaptations that support the persistence hunting theory.

“Bipedalism: Origins and Implications” (2013): This article explores the evolutionary origins and significance of bipedalism in human evolution. Lieberman examines the anatomical changes associated with bipedalism and discusses its impact on human physiology and behaviour.

“The Evolution of the Human Head” (2011): In this article, Lieberman investigates the evolutionary changes that have shaped the human head, including adaptations related to feeding, speech, and brain development. He examines the fossil record and compares the human head with other primates.

“The Evolution of Human Running: Effects of Energetic Demands and Climate” (2007): This article focuses on the energetic demands and environmental factors that have influenced the evolution of human running. Lieberman and his co-authors discuss the impact of endurance running on human evolution and its connection to climate change.

These are just a few examples of Daniel Lieberman’s written works.

He has contributed to numerous scientific journals and publications, and his research has significantly influenced our understanding of human evolution, endurance running, and the impact of evolutionary history on modern human health and well-being.