Is Distance Running an Evolutionary Signal for Desirable Male Genes?

A new study out of the UK suggests good distance runners could be good breeding partners.


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A new study out of the UK suggests good distance runners could be good breeding partners.

A new study reports that males with higher “reproductive potential” are better distance runners. According to the study from the University of Cambridge Division of Biological Anthropology, it may have been used by females as a reliable signal of high male genetic quality during our hunter-gatherer past, under the notion that good runners are more likely to have other traits of good hunters and providers, such as intelligence and generosity.

Researchers report the finding that males with greater “reproductive potential” from an evolutionary standpoint are better distance runners suggests females may have selected for such athletic endurance when mating in the past, perhaps because persistence hunting–exhausting prey by tirelessly tracking it–was a vital way to get food. The newly released study on marathon runners using finger length as a marker for hormone exposure shows that people who experienced higher testosterone in the womb are also better at distance running—a correlation particularly strong in men, although also present in women.

Related: How Your Running Affects Your Relationship

The team analyzed 542 runners (439 men; 103 women) at the Robin Hood Half Marathon in Nottingham, England, by photocopying hands and taking run times and other key details just after runners crossed the line. The study found out that 10 percent of men with the most masculine digit ratios were 24 minutes, 33 seconds faster than the 10 percent of men with the least masculine digit ratios. The correlation was also found in women, but was much more pronounced in men, suggesting a stronger evolutionary selection in men for running ability. The 10 percent of women with the most masculine digit ratios were, on average, 11:59 faster than the 10 percent with the least masculine.

“The observation that endurance running ability is connected to reproductive potential in men suggests that women in our hunter-gatherer past were able to observe running as a signal for a good breeding partner,” said Dr. Danny Longman, the study’s lead author. “It was thought that a better hunter would have got more meat, and had a healthier—and larger—family as a consequence of providing more meat for his family. But hunter-gatherers may have used egalitarian systems with equal meat distribution as we see in remaining tribes today. In which case more meat is not a factor, but the ability to get meat would signal underlying traits of athletic endurance, as well as intelligence—to track and outwit prey—and generosity—to contribute to tribal society. All traits you want passed on to your children.”

MORE: University of Cambridge Research Summary