Are you built to be a runner?

Me finishing the Amsterdam marathon 2010 in 2:57.

“I’m just not built for running” this is something that I often hear from people as an excuse for why they don’t/can’t run (often after expressing a desire to run, or admiration for runners). I disagree with them almost every time. Here’s why…

Butt what?

Think of two things you’ve got that animals don’t have. A social security number? An Iphone? no – not what I mean. I’m talking about your achilles tendons, and glutei maximi (buttocks). You’re probably thinking they’re among the most useless parts of your body – after all, many people wish that their glutei were a little less maximi, and an achilles heel is a synonym for weakness. However, these two physical adaptations are what make humans the only animals capable of running on two legs (for more than a few seconds, anyway).

The Hunter-Gatherer-Runner

What we lack in terms of speed compared to our four-legged friends, we make up for in endurance. Most animals can run faster than humans, but like sprinters, they tire quickly. When people hunted and gathered to survive, it’s thought they stalked their prey for several hours before attempting to chase it down. In short, humans were made to run long distances.

That was all a long time ago, yes. But humans have existed for some 200 000 years, and they lived as nomadic hunters for the vast majority of that time. Only around 10 000 years ago did people begin cultivating crops and establishing settlements. So physically, despite our best efforts, we’re all still hunter gatherers (perhaps some more than most!)

'Barefoot Caveman' Glen Raines finishes the Boston Marathon. (From, click photo for link.)

All shapes and sizes

We imagine runners as long-legged and lean, with compact, toned muscles – but does that mean you can’t run if you don’t fit the description? What if you’re big framed, muscular or short?

Yes, people come in all shapes and sizes, but that doesn’t necessarily have an impact on running ability. Look at Chris Solinsky – with a muscular build and weighing 160 lbs (72 kg – about 40 lbs/20 kg heavier than the average distance runner) he set an American record at 10 000m. Commentators had suggested he would have to slim down in order to run world-class times, yet he did it all the same. At the other end of the spectrum, former marathon world record holder Haile Gebrselassie is only 5 ft 3 inches (160 cm) tall, yet has consistently beaten taller (and longer-legged) competitors.

2000 Olympic 10 000m final - Haile (second) stands almost a head shorter than his Kenyan rivals yet triumphed. (Wikipedia)

The further we move away from the world of elite track and field, the less our body shapes matter. You have stumpy legs? You might never make the Olympic team, but you can probably manage a jog around the park!

Case in point: Me

Me back in 2006 - looking rather less like a runner!

My body is not particularly suited to running. I have short-ish stocky legs and big shoulders. I didn’t inherit good running genes: Mum rowed, Dad took a short cut in school cross country and Grampa was a shot-putter. With my stocky build, the only sport I was any good at as a child was swimming, and in my teenage years I did almost no sport at all.

Now, people remark on my marathon runner’s build, or how I look like a natural when I run. (Although I’m sure it’s meant as a compliment, the natural comment grates a little -bearing in mind all the miles I’ve run and exercises I’ve done.) I look like a natural runner because I am one – we all potentially are. This potential will only show itself if we put the work in.


We need to forget the idea that running ability is pre-determined. The bottom line is, if you can walk comfortably, you can run (why not try my routine for beginners?). Whether you want to run or not is another question – but if you don’t, you’ll have to think of a better excuse in future!

The Centenarian Runner:

Still need inspiration? Here’s a video about Fauja Singh, a 100 year old British-Indian man who is looking to set the first Marathon record for the 100+ age category this weekend in Toronto (the oldest ever certified marathon finisher was 98). Having taken up running at 81, he ran 5:40 for the marathon in 2003 (aged 93) – a performance many people in their prime would be happy with!

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2 Responses to Are you built to be a runner?

  1. OrlandoRuns says:

    Fauja did it! He finished in 8hrs11 and becomes the oldest person ever to have run a marathon!

  2. Most people are able to run if they try. However, some of us without the long legs and lean body just seem to be a bit slower. Mr. Singh is definitely an inspiration.

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