Functional Locomotion Requirements in the Human

There are some questions that clients ask me so often, I wanted to pay tribute to these inquiries. Honestly, rarely does a week go by that I don’t have a stimulating conversation on at least one of these topics. For the sake of brevity as well as clarity, I’m going to address these questions one at a time, over some time. I think I’ll call these posts VFQA’s in deference to the fact that these are Very Frequently Asked Questions.

I’ll open each of these cans of worms, or dive into these rabbit holes, one at a time. My answers will combine the available scientific evidence with my observations, experiences, and opinions. In explaining my current position (which may change as new information comes available) I’ll try to use the ancestral lens, and attempt to express a viewpoint that is somewhat evolutionarily consistent for humans. I welcome your consideration of these positions and I invite you to disagree, comment, or engage as you see fit.

OK…here’s today’s VFQA:

What are the functional locomotion requirements for a human? First, let’s define locomotion as the ability to get around on two legs. That’s fairly obvious and when we throw in the word functional we are saying there should be a reasonable amount of this capacity in every person, or Lifetime Athlete. So, we are talking about running and walking here. Next, let’s exclude folks who can’t (either temporarily or permanently) ambulate safely due to orthopedic and systemic problems, congenital issues, or obesity. What we are trying to describe here will be a reasonable baseline of locomotive capacity that every person, regardless of body type or sport, should possess throughout the majority of their lifespan.

We need to get a little fancy here. Walking is walking but we should subdivide running just a bit, mainly for the sake of semantics. Sprinting is maximum velocity running. Jogging is pretty much minimum velocity running. Locomoting at every velocity between sprinting and jogging is generally considered just plain ol’ “running.” The mechanics for each of those three phases is slightly different, but they are also quite similar. All running differs from walking in several ways, but the main difference is that when running at any speed, at some point you have both feet in the air. When walking, you always have one foot in contact with the ground.

When contemplating the locomotive patterns of ancient humans, we look to modern hunter-gatherer societies as a potential reference. You generally see three patterns or types of movement ability:

  1. The ability to walk (and move about in other ways) most of the day when necessary. This would be the primary means of acquiring food via hunting and gathering, and migrating.
  2. The ability to pick up the pace and jog a bit. Imagine a scenario where you were coming across the savannah back to your cave (more figurative than literal) and storm clouds were building on the horizon. You’d hustle along to get to shelter since the Gore Tex jacket hadn’t been invented yet.
  3. The ability to sprint at top speeds for short distances. Let’s say a saber-tooth tiger rolled into camp and everyone needed to scatter for the nearest tree. Or, you were playing an early version of soccer, lacrosse, or football, and had to turn on the jets. 

These examples probably make sense and in most cases they are practically inarguable. But now we are talking about modern humans here, the Lifetime Athletes. Well, over the past several centuries, it has become possible to exist without regularly utilizing or maintaining those capacities. This ain’t too good. Along with other types of activity and training, we know without a doubt that this level of locomotion is inexorably tied to both health and performance. 

I want to briefly discuss health first. We can certainly make a case that if you do enough walking, and probably some strength and mobility training, you can get a person about as healthy as possible. Or said differently, that mixology will fulfill the movement requirements of health and will work together with other things like diet, sleep, and stress management. And if walking ability is limited, we can probably come fairly close in accomplishing that goal with cycling, water exercise, etc. And of course we need to encourage this and help every person on this planet to embrace life-sustaining movement. 

But function is a different term. It speaks to performance on two levels. First, the ability to locomote in all three of the manners described above is actually a part of our genetic programming. To not have these capacities is problematic, and not just in the sporting sense. Let’s say your vehicle breaks down and your cell phone is dead and you are in a rural area. Being able to walk a few miles would be useful. Or maybe you want to need to trot a bit to catch your bus, train, or plane (recognizing the TSA factor). Or, you didn’t see the oncoming delivery truck as you were crossing the street and you needed to haul ass to make it to safety. These are real depictors of basic human function. Everyone deserves to have these movement tools in their Lifetime Athlete toolbox.

Now we can expand our viewpoint and consider athletic performance. Every athlete, regardless of sport, body type, or age, needs to be able to do the following:

  • Sprint a 40-yard dash (or thereabouts) without blowing a hammy or anything else.
  • Jog 1 mile without needing to stop due to exhaustion.
  • Walk 5 miles continuously without significant fatigue.

This is the exact point in many of these VFQA conversations when things get interesting, if not adversarial. I’m going to explain those three different locomotion requirements by describing some of the actual discussions which have occurred.

On sprinting: A lot of athletes, but particularly those involved in long distance running, have said “But I don’t need to do that kind of training. My sport doesn’t require going that fast and I don’t want to risk straining a muscle.” My response is severalfold. First, they are right. They don’t really use that high gear when running at submax paces for hours on end. That’s true. But what is also true is that being proficient in maximum velocity mechanics has a trickle down effect on running economy and efficiency at all speeds. They could actually enhance their pace, probably reduce overall injury risk, and possibly even improve their running experience — as long as they incorporate speed training intelligently and progressively into their program. I’m not suggesting that they need a lot of this, as such a training shift would be counterproductive. But they do need enough sprint training to maintain this all-important and athleticism-defining capacity. Despite what some say. It’s not a case of “I don’t because I can’t.” It’s a case of “You can’t because you don’t.” I’ve pissed off a lot of people talking like this but I really don’t give a flying rat’s ass. If you don’t do something because you are pretty sure you will pull a hamstring…don’t you see that as a problem and a weakness?

On jogging: There are a number of athletes whose primary sport does not involve locomotion as a component. Unlike soccer, boxing, tennis, football, hiking, and basketball (and many more examples), for numerous people their sport itself does not directly involve running a step. Let’s take the powerlifter for example. In competition, lifters will walk just a few steps to the rack, bar, or bench, and proceed to execute one maximum effort. But in training, they may undertake lengthy gym sessions which involve multiple sets and reps of potentially many different exercises. Research supports that having a baseline of aerobic fitness, such as being able to jog just one mile without stopping, can actually help to accelerate both intra-workout and interworkout recovery, thus ultimately enabling the lifter to train harder, get stronger, and perform at higher levels. Now, yes I agree that a very large, heavy person should only do a limited amount of running due to joint loads. I also agree that in any mass or strength sport, too much running can impair the gains. But a small amount that preserves the capacity, supplemented with cycling or rowing that doesn’t beat up the legs, is smart training.

On walking: You would think that every sensible human would recognize the value of walking and embrace it. Not so in my experience. I’ve worked with a number of swimmers and cyclists, all healthy and fit people, who were less than fully functional in their necessary ambulation skills.Their arguments were primarily this: “Look, I am fit and healthy. I don’t see why I need to be able to walk 5 miles.” All I can say is every once in a while do something like that so that you don’t wind up needing to do so, and being surprised that it destroys you. There is also another group of people who are generally overweight, unhealthy, and quite sedentary. They are anger-filled delusional deniers who are loaded, cocked, and locked with arguments why exercise isn’t their thing, or it just doesn’t feel good. Then I serve up another dose of piss-off when I say of course it doesn’t feel good. Any time you do something that you haven’t done for several decades, your body is shocked. The tough love of getting consistent with some regular walking is what they need, even if they can’t hear it. 

At this time, we have to talk about the concept of ability versus practice. You’ll notice that I framed this piece around the concept that every capable human needs to be able to perform the 3 locomotion requirements. All you need is the ability to do those things. It really doesn’t matter how you get there. I’m not saying you have to practice each of those things one or several times per week. Your mileage will vary. In reality, when you are healthy, fit, and regularly participating in multi-faceted training (as a Lifetime Athlete), you need very little actual sprinting, jogging, and walking to be reasonably good at and safe with those patterns. We just need to retain these abilities and not let them slip away. 

Many athletes will agree with the aforementioned statements and say “piece of cake.” I’m preaching to the choir there. I’m not worried about these folks. They are in the inner circle of Hard to Kill. But there are many fitness-minded people who might want to do a self-check and make sure they have the minimum functional locomotive requirements of the human beast. Thanks for reading.

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