Book review: Bernd Heinrich's Why We Run: A Natural History

By: Matt Reno

Many runners speak of the thrill, the euphoria even, that comes from running a race or simply logging miles in a beautiful location. It’s an often indescribable phenomena, usually summed up by the term “runner’s high.” But why do we feel this way after performing what is, in our modern society, a fairly unnecessary activity? Bernd Heinrich attempts to explain the human affinity for running through the lens of evolutionary biology in his fascinating book Why We Run.

Heinrich, an accomplished ultramarathoner and University of Vermont biology professor, treats much of the book as an autobiography, recounting his long running career, from high school cross country to his first 100 kilometer (62.2 mile) race. At first, I was surprised by how much time he spent on himself, having thought this was more a book on evolution than about one person. However, he ties his stories into larger issues of biology nicely. His anecdotes are interesting and educational, as his curious, scientific mind leads him to experimenting with his running style and learning from his, often major, mistakes.

The book does contain a good deal of evolutionary information, all related to running. He smoothly weaves between personal stories and detailed descriptions of various animals’ adaptations that allow them to travel great distances. He discusses the body structures of cheetahs, the lung functions of migratory birds, and of course the aspects of the human body that allow us to run great distances. You may be thinking, “Wait, ultrarunning is just for crazy people. We can’t all do that.” Not so fast. As also detailed famously in Christopher MacDougal’s Born to Run, early humans may have been endurance hunters. Before we developed weapons, we ran after sprinting animals such as antelope for hours on end until finally the prey died of exhaustion, unable to escape the slow and steady human.

Heinrich’s accounts of various animal running mechanisms are fascinating and provide great insight into our own running capabilities. Were this purely a science book, it would be quite interesting. However, by adding in his own stories, Heinrich ties the biology more closely to the modern human experience. We may not all be runners (or ultrarunners, at that), but readers should find that they can relate to much of Why We Run. Heinrich has an excellent writing style that avoids being overly technical and instead uses biology to show what we are all capable of. That is what makes this book both informative and inspirational.

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