Particle 101: Running

Running is often associated with sweating, heavy breathing and burning legs, but it's embedded in human biology. Millions of years ago, this form of exercise was key to survival.

Emily Evans
Emily Evans
Freelance Writer
Particle 101: Running
Image credit: Credit: Steven Lelham via Unsplash

In July 2024, the world’s greatest athletes will gather in Paris for the Olympics.

On the running track will be men and women who have trained for speed and endurance, using the dream of winning a gold medal as motivation to push their bodies to the limit.

Despite the power these athletes are about to display, humans have not always been destined to run.


Research suggests running only emerged around 2 million years ago as a way for humans to compete against other carnivores for meat.

But even then, hominoids – also known as great apes – weren’t running at a sprinting pace to hunt down prey.

Instead, they ran for endurance, using persistence hunting to pursue a meaty meal, at a time before weapons like bows and arrows were invented.

This technique involved following an animal for several hours at a trotting pace, ultimately leading the prey towards exhaustion and making it easier to kill.

The human body wasn’t initially suited for this type of hunting where running could be endured for extended periods of time.

But as evolution took hold, changes to the body allowed humans to adapt and excel.


One of the most significant features allowing humans to run is the many long spring-like tendons within the lower limbs.

These spring-like tendons store energy, then release some of it while we run.

This allows the human body to generate force in a way that can save up to 50% of the metabolic cost of running. In very simple terms, tendons are designed to reduce the amount of energy it takes to run.

One of the smallest body parts has also adapted to endure running, with shorter toes found to reduce metabolic cost of running and reduce the risk of injury.


However, the biggest advantage humans have against other mammals when it comes to running is the ability to regulate core body temperature using sweat.

Thanks to nearly 4 million sweat glands and relatively hair-free skin, humans have the ability to leak fluid, which then evaporates.

This helps the body to cool down, which can allow humans to run for longer.


While humans might be designed for running, it doesn’t always agree with the body.

Muscle soreness can be commonly felt after running, particularly in lower limbs like calves and thighs.

Conventional wisdom says this experience, sometimes called delayed onset muscle soreness or DOMS, is due to a build-up of lactic acid in the muscles, but this has been found to be untrue.

While the exact cause is still unclear, some say the pain is the body healing microscopic muscle tears developed during exercise.

Running can also put you at risk of other injuries, including spraining an ankle on unsteady ground or suffering pain in knees or calves, which begs the question …


There are multiple reasons why people tie up the laces and hit the pavement, including a desire to improve physical health, psychological motives, personal achievement or just pure enjoyment.

There’s science to back these positives in, with some research revealing just 10 minutes of moderate running can improve your health and boost your mood.

Not everyone will become an Olympic-level runner, but for those willing to give it a go, all you have to do is take one step at a time – you’ll be off and running before you know it.

Emily Evans
About the author
Emily Evans
Emily has worked in the media and communications industry in Western Australia as both a TV journalist and media advisor. She has a passion for scientific research and enjoys writing about the latest and quirkiest discoveries. Emily is also a big fan of going on adventures, eating Mexican food, and travelling the world.
View articles
Emily has worked in the media and communications industry in Western Australia as both a TV journalist and media advisor. She has a passion for scientific research and enjoys writing about the latest and quirkiest discoveries. Emily is also a big fan of going on adventures, eating Mexican food, and travelling the world.
View articles


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