Uniqueness of human running coordination: The integration of modern and ancient evolutionary innovations

Kiely, J., orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-9817-0224 and Collins, D.J orcid iconORCID: 0000-0002-7601-0454 (2016) Uniqueness of human running coordination: The integration of modern and ancient evolutionary innovations. Frontiers in Psychology, 7 . p. 262.

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Official URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00262


Running is a pervasive activity across human cultures and a cornerstone of contemporary health, fitness and sporting activities. Yet for the overwhelming predominance of human existence running was an essential prerequisite for survival. A means to hunt, and a means to escape when hunted. In a very real sense humans have evolved to run. Yet curiously, perhaps due to running’s cultural ubiquity and the natural ease with which we learn to run, we rarely consider the uniqueness of human bipedal running within the animal kingdom. Our unique upright, single stance, bouncing running gait imposes a unique set of coordinative difficulties. Challenges demanding we precariously balance our fragile brains in the very position where they are most vulnerable to falling injury while simultaneously retaining stability, steering direction of travel, and powering the upcoming stride: all within the abbreviated time-frames afforded by short, violent ground contacts separated by long flight times.

These running coordination challenges are solved through the tightly-integrated blending of primitive evolutionary legacies, conserved from reptilian and vertebrate lineages, and comparatively modern, more exclusively human, innovations. The integrated unification of these top-down and bottom-up control processes bestows humans with an agile control system, enabling us to readily modulate speeds, change direction, negotiate varied terrains and to instantaneously adapt to changing surface conditions.

The seamless integration of these evolutionary processes is facilitated by pervasive, neural and biological, activity-dependent adaptive plasticity. Over time, and with progressive exposure, this adaptive plasticity shapes neural and biological structures to best cope with regularly imposed movement challenges. This pervasive plasticity enables the gradual construction of a robust system of distributed coordinated control, comprised of processes that are so deeply collectively entwined that describing their functionality in isolation obscures their true irrevocably entangled nature.
Although other species rely on a similar set of coordinated processes to run, the bouncing bipedal nature of human running presents a specific set of coordination challenges, solved using a customized blend of evolved solutions.

A deeper appreciation of the foundations of the running coordination phenomenon promotes conceptual clarity, potentially informing future advances in running training and running-injury rehabilitation interventions.

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