What is the fastest land mammal?
I ask this because my entire wellness writing and practice depends on the answer to this question, and you will soon see why.
It is also in fact a trick question because there are a couple of ways to answer this question.
If you answered Cheetah, you would be correct, of course. Sort of. Here is a picture of Sarah the fastest mammal in the world, courtesy of Wikimedia. Over a 100 metre distance, she is faster than the fastest human ever, Usain Bolt, by over four seconds!
But when you think about it, the answer to the pop quiz question is in fact another question.
Over what distance are we measuring?
If the answer is a 100 metre sprint, then yes. Sarah the Cheetah would leave Usain Bolt behind in the dust.
But what about any distance over, say, a marathon, which is 26.2 miles?
The answer may surprise you. It is this species below.
That’s right. The fastest land mammal over any distance that is above approximately that of a marathon is actually human. In other words, it is you!
In Scotland and in Wales, they have annual marathon races between humans and horses which are just short of the length of a traditional marathon. Humans have beaten horses several times in these races, and it is accepted that as the distance gets longer, humans are at an increasing advantage. Where humans can routinely do 50 mile ultra-marathons without stopping, no land animal can do that (it would be cruel and likely illegal to try to get a horse to run 50 miles on the trot).
An interesting factoid here. Marathon race actually refers to the distance between the ancient Greek cities of Athens and Marathon, which were 25 miles apart. If you look at a map of ancient Greece, many cities were just over 25 miles apart, which makes one wonder if they actually built cities so runners could communicate messages between them faster than horses, so that a human runner would always be able to get across a message about an invading army ahead of the army! But I digress.
Many human hunter tribes in our ancient history had a very simple, if patient, technique for hunting, called persistence hunting. They would simply follow an animal over a period of a day or more until the animal literally collapsed from exertion and could no longer move, at which point the hunter would slaughter it at leisure.
Interesting stuff, so what does this have to do about health? A lot!
Humans as the highest evolved species on this planet are built for endurance. We have the ability to lose huge amounts of body heat through sweating, and in fact, sweating makes us healthier. Our physiology is optimized for distance running, and it is at our peril that we ignore our physiology.
The healthiest and longest-lived people as a group are distance runners, because the human body is optimized for running. I recommend the classic book “Born to Run” by Chris McDougall which you can buy here.
Just remember that his book is inspiring and entertaining, and he doesn’t always let facts get in the way of a good story, so with that caveat, read this book…and start running!
The point is that the human body evolved for long distance walking and running. We know that the brain actually rewards runners with endorphins, natural mood-enhancing chemicals. The flip side is that people who have sedentary lifestyles that don’t involve walking outdoors are often depressed and unfulfilled.
Imagine a bird that has spent its whole life in a cage, or an animal in a zoo enclosure. You would expect a lot of dysfunctions to develop in this animal, both physical and emotional chronic dysfunctions as it ages. This is the state of us humans, who despite a physiology that is made for running, less than 1% of us have ever run even a single half-marathon.
I believe that training and running for a marathon at age 16 should be part of the school curriculum for all able-bodied teenagers and should be mandatory for school graduation. Running a single marathon will give health benefits that will last a lifetime.
I recommend this for people of any age, but consult a good doctor or running coach first if you have been sedentary all your life.
The next best alternative is walking, although it is much less efficient than running. Just go out and walk, preferably at either sunrise or sunset, for at least a half hour as many times a week as you can.
My personal prescription is that you should ideally run a full marathon or a half-marathon at least once in your life, and the maintain the ability to run 5 miles (8km) throughout life by doing it periodically. In terms of cardiovascular efficiency, there are better options such as High Intensity Interval Training, which I will discuss in future articles.
But in the first instance, go and find that Meetup group for runners in your city (www.meetup.com), and find your tribe! You will be a lot healthier for it.