Professor Examines the Evolutionary Psychology of Marathon Running

Marathon.By Despina Williams Parker

Marathon running is not evolutionarily natural. So why do runners enthusiastically race for 26.2 miles, sprinting through pain, sweat and unpleasant weather?

Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher

It’s a question Glenn Geher, Professor of Psychology and Director of New Paltz’s Evolutionary Studies Program, attempts to answer in the recent article, “Long May You Run: The Evolutionary Psychology of Marathon Running,” published in the online magazine, Marathon Running.

In it, Geher notes that while early hominids exercised, on average, much more than modern man or woman, they would not likely have engaged in marathon running or the kind of intensive training that prepares one for it.

Geher positions marathon running within the framework of the evolutionary psychology of signs, which he defines as “signals to others as well as signals to oneself.”

Runners get positive feedback from others who marvel at their strength and determination, but they also receive internal rewards. As Geher noted of his own recent 4-hour-43-minute race through the New Hampshire seacoast: “I learned that I’m a hard-worker – that I can put my immediate interests to the side to reach a bigger goal – that I can achieve something extraordinary (even if my time was slower than my times from a decade ago!)”

Geher believes marathoners share a sense of accomplishment and bolstered faith in their innate potential. “From an evolutionary perspective, it strikes me that I learned something about myself with this experience,” Geher wrote of the New Hampshire marathon, “and the many brave souls who ran alongside me (and who often passed me) learned the same kinds of lessons. If I can do this, I must be capable of lots of great things. And this sounds to me, like a pretty adaptive lesson.”

In an interview with LA&S, Geher noted that marathons and other types of extreme, voluntary physical challenges are “something of a luxury and an artifact of modern living.”

“For the thousands of generations in which people were hunters and gatherers exclusively, I don’t think folks would have had much time for hobbies or extra-curriculars,” he explained. “They could have been happy with a job well-done, but I don’t think a guy from 100,000 years ago who said, ‘Kids, I’m going to be running without hunting for food or anything else useful for two hours a day for the next three months – and I’ll be exhausted all day afterwards’ would have necessarily been very popular. I think that many of the ways that humans now challenge themselves are only possible in light of the comfortable lives we’re able to live in a modern society.”

Geher frequently writes about his hobbies and personal interests in his Psychology Today blog, entitled Darwin’s Subterranean World. Geher’s marathon running article was originally published on the blog.

“The blog has been a great opportunity for me to address lots of things that I find interesting from an evolutionary perspective. Topics have ranged from such issues as dog ownership, Bob Dylan’s lyrics and coaching little league to Star Wars, hiking and marathon running,” Geher said.

Read the complete article, “Long May You Run,” here.

– Despina Williams


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