Why Humans are Better Grapplers than Runners.
“I swear it upon Zeus, the outstanding runner cannot be the equal of the average wrestler.”
This is a quote that is commonly ascribed to Socrates, who lived more than 2,500 years ago.
Modern scientific research appears to offer support to this claim. The proof? It is in the design of our foot.
Modern science backs up Socrates. Humans, apes and bears are among the few mammals that step first on the heel when walking, and then roll onto the ball of the foot and toes. A University of Utah study shows why.
Walking heel to toe provides us with a larger foot surface – which increases our leverage and allows kinetic and potential energy to be converted more efficiently. This may compromise our running efficiency, but it improves our ability to defend ourselves against aggressors within our own species.
“Our heel touches the ground at the start of each step. In most mammals, the heel remains elevated during walking and running,” says biology Professor David Carrier, senior author of the recent study that was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Why do the vast majority of mammals walk on their toes? Think of gazelles, deer, horses, dogs and cats. “They are adapted for running,” Carrier says. “They’ve compromised their economy of walking for the economy of running.”
Most elite human runners also strike first on the balls of their feet. Even so, “We are not efficient runners,” says Carrier. “In fact, we consume more energy to run than the typical mammal our size.”
So why have humans, great apes and bears adapted a pattern of walking that differs from that of most other mammals? It has to do with more than walking efficiency. All three are relatively aggressive and have to ward off attacks from members of their own species.
“Plantigrade feet, in which the heel makes contact with the ground, allow large torques to be applied to the ground,” explained David Carrier. “Animals with this foot posture are able to apply larger forces to opponents during fighting that involves wrestling and possibly also larger forces during striking with the forelimbs.”
A heel-first foot posture “may be advantageous during fighting by increasing stability and applying more torque to the ground to twist, push and shove. And it increases agility in rapid turning maneuvers during aggressive encounters.”
Are We Born to Grapple or Run?
Although we are clearly designed to do both – humans are extraordinary long distance runners – it appears that from an evolutionary perspective, grappling was an even more fundamental skill than running. Is grappling actually more integral to human nature than running?
The ability to defend one’s self and our offspring, the ability to work with our hands and manipulate our environment, an increased problem solving ability – these are some of the traits that have taken precedence over our ability to run from predators or chase prey.
The history of grappling can be traced back to prehistoric times. Most people undervalue its importance, but grappling has been an essential component to the human experience, and part of our genetic imprint. Evidence of this is abundant – 5,000 year old tomb paintings of Beni Hasan in Egypt show many scenes of standing and ground grappling. Wrestling was the foremost Olympic sport in Ancient Greece. The oldest martial arts in the world were grappling based. Ancient civilizations such as Africa, China, India, Iran and Greece all had strong wrestling traditions. Even the structure of our body reflects the strong connection we have to grappling.
What do you think? Have we underestimated the role grappling-based activities like Jiu Jitsu have played in our evolutionary development? Does the ability to grapple promote other qualities and attributes that have been advantageous to our survival? Although clearly we can do both, are we designed more as grapplers than as efficient runners?