The Evolutionary Psychology of Marathon Running: Long May You Run!

Marathon running is not evolutionarily natural. While our ancestors ran a heck of a lot more than we do (on average), 26.2 miles in a single shot is not likely something that our ancestors did frequently. And intensive training for this kind of experience (which is required to do it at all) was likely never something built into the day-to-day routines of ancestral humans. Sure, early homonids exercised a lot more than we do (on average) – but marathoning is something else. It’s pushing something natural (regular running across moderate distances for practical purposes) beyond the bounds of natural.

This is not to say that modern-day marathon running is unrelated to our evolutionary heritage. Everything about our species is ultimately and importantly related to our evolutionary heritage.

I ran my 8th-ever marathon today in coastal New Hampshire. It was painful, it was hours, it was cold, it was rainy. And, for some reason, I loved it. I guess this blog is partly me trying to figure out why!

Marathoning is, in its own way, the ultimate in self-sacrifice. And it’s conspicuous. When someone says that he or she has run a marathon, people think lots of things – they think “bucket list” – they think “wow, why would anyone ever do that?” – they think, in a very literal sense, “that’s extra-ordinary.” You’re putting your body through something dangerously rigorous – and you’re paying money to do it – and … why???

I think of marathoning largely in terms of the evolutionary psychology of signals – signals to others as well as signals to oneself. Sure, marathoning is a clear signal to others – it indicates things such as:
– I can work extraordinarily hard – and then-some.
– I can handle an unnatural physical feat.
– I have more perseverance than average.
– I can put the short-term interests of myself to the side.
– and probably more …

But it’s also a signal to oneself. As a lot of things are. As Darly Bem (1967) taught us years ago, we often see ourselves as if through the eyes of another. What did I learn about myself in that 4-hour-and-43-minute span of time in the rain on the New Hampshire Seacoast this morning? Well I guess 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 persevere through adversity. That I can achieve something extraordinary (even if my time was way slower than my times from a decade ago!).

Marathon running is a big-time industry – for complicated reasons – but for reasons that importantly result from our evolutionary heritage. It’s not that running 26.2 miles is “natural” – it’s not – it’s actually beyond reasonable in terms of what human bodies would encounter under ancestral conditions. And in terms of what human bodies can handle. But as conspicuous-consumption theorists such as Geoffrey Miller (2000) point out, many of the conspicuous things about human nature have much to do with signaling – and such signaling is often just as much signaling to oneself as to others.

Some things about humans just make little sense unless we apply an evolutionary lens. In my analysis of why I ran – and actually enjoyed – the Smuttynose Rockfest marathon in NH today – marathon running emerges as exactly this kind of uniquely human phenomenon. The training was painful and time-consuming. The financial and time-related costs of the race (and the travel) were tangible. The weather was unpleasant. My body is in extraordinary pain as I type. Why do people do these things? What did I gain? Why did I enjoy this experience? Why did thousands of people sign up for this “relatively small” race?

Clearly there are lots of questions here and they’ll only be partially answered at best. But from an evolutionary perspective, it strikes me that I learned something about myself with this experience – 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. Let’s hope I’m at least partly right, because my legs are killing me!


Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-Perception: An Alternative Interpretation of Cognitive Dissonance Phenomena. Psychological Review, 74, 183-200.

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature, London, Heineman.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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2 Responses to The Evolutionary Psychology of Marathon Running: Long May You Run!

  1. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    John – good point – I haven’t read “born to run” but am aware of this book and its thesis. And yeah, I think I overstate a bit – I guess I try to draw the distinction between “running long distances out of necessity” versus “doing a necessarily unnecessary act (in a society like ours) such as marathoning. Good luck with your training – and I’ll keep an eye out for McDougall’s book!

  2. I feel your pain, Glenn! Well, actually not, as I haven’t just (nor have I ever) run a marathon. But I understand the seductive pull of the idea of running a marathon, and I agree that a costly signal analysis could be a useful way of looking at marathon running. At the same time, after reading Born to Run I’m not ready to quickly the abandon the idea that our ancestors ran down game in Africa by outlasting them. And the modern Tarahumara demonstrate that humans can run extraordinary distances without necessarily suffering the crippling pain marathoners frequently report. I’m wondering if you’ve read the book and have thoughts on Christopher McDougall’s “born to run” idea.

    Personally, I’m drawn to McDougall’s thinking, and have begun to do more running in minimalist shoes. I also have my sights set on the first marathon to be hosted right here in my home town September of next year. The question is whether I will have the resolve to go beyond the training I do for my typical 5K, 10K, and rare half-marathon races to prepare myself for this event a year from now.

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