Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human

An Interview with Vybarr Cregan-Reid

/ by Jasmina Kozina Praprotnik

When he speaks, he uses his whole body. Moreover, he does not just talk, he performs. To the point that he is sometimes physically exausted afterwards. Students like him a lot. He is a professor at the University of Kent, England, which is one of the country's leading academic institutions, with students of 158 different nationalities. In a survey among them, made in 2015, he was elected the university’s “Best Teacher.”

After his classes, he goes running. Mostly barefoot, so he can feel “embodied.” The embodiment helps him to forge new ideas, and some of them are written down in his excellent book, Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human, in which he shares his love for running. In the book, he recounts a number of the adventures that he had whilst out running, and shows how environmental science, physiology, psychogeography, literature, art, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy are all related factors in modern day running. While running, we use all our senses, and this is why running is a way to connect with both our surroundings and our inner selves. For him, running is much more than sport. It is much more than a search for health, more than escaping from society’s multiple anxieties, it is simply what we are – we are runners.

Currently, he is working on his third book, Primate Change: How the World We’ve Made is Remaking Us, to be published in September 2018. In this book, a wide-ranging study of the Anthropocene body, he explains how we have altered the environment and how it is changing us, inside and out. I talked with him on Skype, as he was seated in his office, with many colorfoul books in the background, just after finishing many hours of morning writing, and just before he planned to go out for a run. We talked about running, and how it makes us human.

Jasmina Kozina Praprotnik: So, if we start with the title, could we say that those who don't run are less human? The answer is probably that they could be better humans. Do you agree?

Vybarr Creigan-Reid: My answer is no. It is not that they are less human, but that running is hardwired into their DNA, and that people might be more prepared for it than they think they are. Our bodies are designed to reword our efforts to move (and running in particular) in complex ways over and above simple 'health and fitness' and that if you don't run (or exercise) your body will find it harder to express its gratitude for your efforts.

We do not “have: a body; rather, we “are” bodily… We are somebody who is alive, said Martin Heidegger in 1961. Does this mean that we are less alive if we don't run?

From a personal perspective, I would say yes. When I don't run, this is associated with something in my life that isn't quite right for me. When I am running, even if things are not going right, it makes me feel active and alive. It reminds me that there is much more out there that we are missing out on, when we stay in our seats. There is a whole vocabulary of reward that we can get some sense of, after being active. My current book is about what happens to our bodies when we are inactive, and almost all the research I have read for it is terrifying.

Running is an uninterrupted conversation with yourself. It is a journey back through modernity to your body, to times when we had nothing. It is a way out of technology (smart phones, emails, mass media). It is a way to be free. I am afraid that people are so involved in this modernity, that they don't even notice that it is possible to achieve this freedom. Do you think so?

Yes. It is difficult, very difficult. Running is all sorts of things. Just like walking or sitting. Sitting can be just waiting, or can be meditating, can be reading, can be writing. Running is also such an activity for which people have all sorts of motivations. I like the silence of running. At the moment, I spend most of my day writing my new book, which means in silence, but when I go out running, I still like the silence, because it sounds different. And I need the time that forces me, or better, prizes me from my normal desire to do nothing (which I struggle with, like everyone else). It is a time when I can be alone with myself. It is the same reason why people are using coloring books or practice meditation. Running is good at convincing us that there are solutions to our problems – and sometimes it even presents those solutions to us. When you step back from all this technology, you realize how refershing it is not to have it. I mean, do not take me wrong, I love technology, I am speaking to you from my brand new laptop, but being away from it regularly is good as well.

Writing while drunk doesn't work, but the hangover from runner's high is something different… You “feel” drunk, but you don't “think” drunk. So you go running and then you work – write, and you think your work would be different without the embodiment before?

I am a midday-to-afternoon runner. The limbic system in your brain is so old, it is the bit that dinosaurs had. It sits in the back of your skull and runs all of your most feared emotions. Everything from someone standing too close, to the “fight or flight” action, are limbic responses. So if your limbic system is busy telling you that you are stressed, or that you are worthless, or that your friends don't like you, or that there is no reason for you to be on this planet any more… Since the resources in our brain are basically competitive, if you go out and run, or go and do any complex motor activity, it will drain energy from that part of your brain, telling you to be stressed. And there are hundreds of other benefits that come with this exercise. Let's mention just one: Hippocampal neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells… All these incredible processes which happen in us during our running become a neurological recipe that sews our ideas together, which is great, but a run actually gives you somewhere to put them, too. When you come back from the run, not only do you have new brain cells, which have been created by the run, you have these ideas that have reached across synapses to make new connections that were not there before, and could not be created without that embodied experience. So, running is a way of getting the body’s creative juices flowing and actively getting it to make connections in a way that cannot be done while sitting in front of a computer.

Exercise can then have a hugely positive impact on how our brains work and, while it is not a cure for depression, it can return to us an element of control over misbehaving brain chemistry. So, it is also a tool, it is prevention?

It is preventon, but what really is, it is what is normal. We, as a species, have become more and more sedentary, to the point that we assume that sedentary life is normal. Our ideas for what is normal reset with almost every generation. What we think of as normal (a sedentary life with some exercise) is not. It is very bad for us. In the book I am working on now (Primate Change: How the World We’ve Made is Remaking Us – to be published in September 2018), I have done some work with the scientists who work on longevity. For a long life, what you don't want to be is a super-fit gym-goer or athlete. The higher metabolism shortens lifespan. Athletes tend to live a moderately long life, because many other aspects of their lifestyle are “healthy” – a good diet, low alcohol intake, reduced risk of big killers, like heart disease and cancers, but still, being fit will not net you the longest lifespan. People that will live the longest are those who don't have this pathological relation with fitness (like most of us in the West now do). People that exercise at a low level for sustained periods throughout their day live longest. An example of such a lifestyle would be a shepherd. A shepherd has to walk four miles to his flock and then four miles back, and when he is with them, he is no doubt moving, as well. They burn their 1000 calories gradually throughout the day. This is a very good relationship with exercise. Almost without fail, people like this, who have been working into their seventies, like shepherds in Sardinia, Costa Rica and in Japan, reported a high level of happiness and contentment with their lives. And this basic level of activity is, in modern life, quite hard to come by. As a result of this combination of sedentary living and our diets, we are acquring all kinds of symptoms.


Each of us has more bacteria in our guts than there are cells in our entire body. The bacteria in our guts weigh kilograms, and they affect all aspects of our digestion, our appetite. The current research even suggests that they govern our weight, but they are also a volatile psycho-active substance, as well. Research has been done on some microorganisms that live in our guts, to find out that you can pass on symptoms of depression from one to another by transplanting the microbiota. One of the most interesting experiments that I am going to write about in the next book is research in which they took genetically identical twins, who were discordant for weight – one was thin, the other was overweight. They harvested microbiota from both guts and transplanted them to two genetically clean and identical mice. The mice had exactly the same diet, same calorie intake, same environment, same calorific expenditure, same everything, just different microbiota. And guess what happened? The mice that received the microbiota from the overweight twin got fat, the other remained thin. So our diet has a huge impact, too, because it influences the kinds of microbiota that we have in our gut. The other key influence in the ecology of our microbiota is our immediate environment – and how clean (and unnatural) it might be.

We function better when exposed to natural environments. As simple as that. Why is it so and why are we inclined to ignore this fact so easily?

We like to ignore many things that are inconvenient. It is really hard to understand how long humans have been in natural environments. If we use the scale of a 50 meter-swimming pool, if the length of the pool represents the two million years that humans have walked the planet, then the amount of time we have been living in urban environments is only about a millimeter at the end. It is such a small amount of time, in the bigger scheme, that it is almost incomprensible. And our limbic systems are responding to this hostile environment with elevated levels of stress that we see in modern populations. A study of “healthy” people, recently completed in the US, found that they carried elevated levels of a protein called CRP. This is a protein found in the blood after an inflammatory event, like illness or a heart attack. But these were healthy people. An equivalent study in lowland Ecuador found no traces of CRP, and the only time that that population show it was when some of the trial subjects got sick. I’m of the opinion that it is urban life that is stressing us out. There is also a fascinating field of study called Environmental Psychology (which really started with Romanticism around 200-or-so years ago). Today's environmental psychologysts, for whom I have great respect, are studying the benefits that we receive from being in our natural environmets, even if our natural environments are simulated. Some of the most famous studies have dealt with things like the increase in worker productivity, if there are some house plants in the office. A plant! They also found out that patients recovered more quickly, if they had a view of a green space outside their window. The view! Also the crime rates of the people that had a view on green spaces from their windows in housing projects in Chicago were lower than from those that who had no view. I dont know of any research which would tell us that the natural environment is bad for us.

There is wonderful research going on in Japan and elsewhere, about substances called phytoncides. These are volatile compounds that are part of the immune defence of plants. In forests, the distinctive smell that is given off by fir trees, for example, are phytoncides. Research into phytoncides has shown them to possess an enormous impact on our wellbeing, in wonderful and complex ways. Early Japanese research (forest cover in Japan is probably the highest of a developed nation, at 67%). People with high blood pressure, who spent time in a forest (they call it shinrin yoku – “forest bathing”) found it lowered their blood pressure for up to 30 days after leaving the forest. This is incredible in itself, but more recent research has shown that if you suffer from low blood pressure, forest time will increase it for you, which is incredible. It is a difficult thing to understand, but we are adapted to be in the green. Green is in the middle of the color spectrum that we see. We see more shades of it than of any other color. As I have said in the book, it is the room temperature of our visual spectrum. It is where our senses feel they are at home.

Ljubljana is a small city, by surface area, but quite big in quality of life. Numerous changes happened in a short period, which is one of the reasons Ljubljana has become European Green Capital 2016. The aim of the award is to acknowledge and reward cities that are leading the way in environmentally-friendly urban living. You write: Green is the color. There are more and more runners in the park, which confirms your theory. But, as we are talking, autumn and winter are coming, and the green color is leaving, brown and white are coming, but they should have the same effect as the green one, when you look them from the outside, do you agree?

I think we have seen white for even longer than we have seen green. Our species has a special relationship with green, but I could say that green includes the autumn brown and the winter white. Because of the ice ages that we have lived through, there was a lot more of white than green. But green is the color of life. When we see it, it tells our limbic system: Calm down, there is life here.

The best reason to go out for a run, it seems, is not because it is good for you, not that it will make you stronger, fitter, more attractive or better at your job, or that it will improve your body image or make you feel calmer - but because the world is out there, it is now – and, quite simply, because you can. So all the reasons are additional values, the main one is that you have to go running because you can. It is quite a revolutionary idea…

Because you can, yes. Because your body requires it. We have adaptations, we are specifically adapted to move in that way. It is as inherent a part of being human as walking is. The habits of hunter-gatherer tribes were estimated to move as much as 10-18 km a day.

Non-runners think that running is boring. And they are partly right: Running can let you take your life at a slower pace, precisely because nothing happens. But there is nothing wrong with this or, even better: It is very important. And also, I think also the opposite is true, during running everything happens, new thoughts, new ideas, new points of view, new plans… Do you agree that during running both dimensions are possible?

If you are a creative person, and I think that all of us are, you have to allow yourself movement, so that creativity can happen. You also need to be able to do nothing. As I say at the end of the book: You can't create creativity, but you can create an environment in which creativity is likely to flourish. Some people are doing hand-carving or knitting, something that will allow you to switch off. Everything that allows you to switch off is good for your creativity. And for me, running is that thing. Most of the book was written in my head while running, immediately after it was on my phone, or when I came back through my front door. Creating an environment where you can allow your creativity to flourish is a really good and healthy thing to do. And if you do that while running, it means that you are strenghtening your bone density, your general strength, strenghtening your heart, creating new brain cells, and all these are great by-products of your practice.

Forests clearly have more to offer us than we can understand and explain… The forest was, is, and will remain a magical place, and we need it more than we know. How can we compare a run in the woods or on the treadmill?

A lot of runners prefer to run on a treadmill, the proportion could be as much as one-third, and they are very good at it. The treadmill allows people to outsource responsibilities for their exercise. You can just punch a number into a machine, which is cognitively easier to do. The treadmill is the junk food of exercise, though: It looks like real food, but it is not. What happens is that the processing of junk food takes away a lot of the things that are really good for you. If you imagine a burger, all of the wheat germ is removed from the bun. The wheat germ can’t really be used by our body, but our gut bacteria love anything that is fibrous. The treadmill is like junk food, because a lot of the good stuff that we might associate with running has been taken away. Minerals are gone. All of the benefits of being outdoors has gone. Nature is taken away. The motion that it requires looks the same, but our hip flexors have to do most of the work in lifting our knees, and there is no need for the body to generate any propulsive energy, because the movement of the belt achieves this for us.

And, as if to make exercise an even less attractive prospect, the treadmill was invented 200 years ago as the harshest form of punishment, just short of the death penalty.

Touch, movement, the need to forage, explore and play, these are the things that make us human and make our lives feel real… To run, you have nothing to lose “but your chains,” as Marx put it; you have nothing to lose “but your boredom,” as Situationist Raoul Vaneigem said. You have nothing to lose but oblivion, regret and perhaps a little weight. So to say, you lose the negative. Are you otherwise carrying it with you?

My next book is about all the ways modern life has changed our bodies. From 2 million years ago up to today. So, things like the shape of our jaw, why so many people wear glasses or suffer from lower back pains…

But running also hurts. In your book, you cite Prof. Irene Davis from the Spaulding National Running Center, who says that up to 79% runners are getting injured each year. This is a lot. But that doesn't mean we should stop running, does it?

We shouldn't stop. There are two ways of looking at it: The first is that these injury figures say that running is very bad for you and that we are just not built to run. The other way of looking at it is suggesting that our relationship with exercise is slightly pathological. It is not the exercise itself that causes injury, it is our relationship with it that is pathological. One of the things – sedentariness, is really damaging to our health. There is a lot of research on why sedentariness is bad for us. It makes us store abdominal fat, it makes our insulin work harder, it overstreches and weakens our muscles, decreases our bone density… And what happens after 7 hours of our sitting? We suddenly jump up and decide we are going to run. It is wrong to sit all day and then go to the gym, where we are supposed to run for 30 minutes and think that this will solve all our problems. I have been doing this for a couple of decades, and there are some benefits to it – it is better than sitting all day. But you can become physically fit and still be sedentary at the same time. Those are not two different things. So, the reason why we get so injured, I think, is because we have such sedentary lifestyles, even many gym-goers. We pick up injuries when we are sitting, and they find their opportunity to express themselves when we step out to run.

You write: I feel like running has taught me how to be in my own company. I totally agree with you. But I wonder, how long did you need to feel this and again: Non-runners could say, “Ah-ha, you don't want to be in other people's company…”

I am an introvert (laugh) and people like me are not going to big races. I haven't been in a race since I was 15. What I want to get from running I can't get from running with other people. Running in races is just not what I want. Running has taught me to be kinder to myself. Most people don't understand that we can be our worst enemies. And when we are not feeling good, we are doing more harm to ourselves than any other person could do to us. And, running also gave me this book. This book is the reason I talk with people like you. I receive messages every day from strangers, and that is fantastic. Maybe I will become an extrovert (laugh)? I dont think so, I am just a high-functioning introvert, good at putting on a show of extroversion.

Running barefoot is more fun than wearing shoes, but is it also more dangerous? The street is not clean.

Running barefoot is my favorite kind of running, because it is both kinder and harder for our body. The risk of barefoot running is really just blisters or redness. I hurt myself only once, when I stepped on some broken glass, in 2011. I was looking around and, before I realized a shop window had been smashed, I stepped on the glass. But it didn't hurt, I brushed it off and I ran on. Another thing is dog's droppings. People always ask about it, but not once have I stepped in them. I am sure there is a gene in our brain that switches on to scan the ground in front of us and negotiates all the time. You just pay more attention to what is around you when you’re barefoot. Where the ground is too hostile, I carry some light running shoes with me, so I can slip them on and off if I want to. If I see a gang of young kids, I also put my shoes on (laugh). Each spring, the feet come out to play and they take a little time to adjust, but the pleasant sensation of begin earthed far outweighs any discomfort. And it feels like it is a very nice thing to do, it feels kind to your feet, you run more carefully, you feel the temperature, you remember better where you run, not just how places look, but also how places feel, and in terms of environmental psychology, it means a greater depth of immersion in an environment. When I look at a tree from my window, I am not very immersed in it. Standing next to the tree would constitute second-level immersion, but the highest level of immersion is haptic - by touch. So, if you run barefooth your level of immersion is better. And we need to be immersed. Running barefoot is also dirty, but this dirtiness has more to do with our habits and customs because, when we come home, we don't clean our shoes, while I always clean my feet.

Running cannot be enumerated, measured and weighed so easily. What running does for us, what it is, is always something more than what the neuroscientists, environmental psychologists, biologists, philosophers and poets can say… Can we say that it is undescribable, but very real at the same time? We are just after the biggest Slovenian event, the Ljubljana marathon. On the last km, some people’s faces looked tired… Running can be also exausting. How can you find beauty in something that sometimes can bring you to the point of suffering?

People struggle to get to the bottom of this, because there is an attraction to the pain and discomfort. It is one of the innate things about our species, it has to do with creativity and curiosity, and this curiosity has driven us to explore all corners of the planet. The pain that we experience on the other side of the wall is a way of being that we don't have access to, unless we put in an enormous amount of work. In an absurd way, the pain and discomfort are a reward and acknowledgement that what you are doing is a tremendously difficult and challenging thing. Because if it were easy, it wouldn't be worth doing it. It has to do also with pride in one's achievement. And with our ability that we feel we were able to to deal with what life brings us. It is accentuated and endowed with meaning by the experience.

There are people, even some experts among them, who say the running technique is not important. How can you understand them, and why do they think so?

I will never say that it doesn't matter. As time goes on, though, more and more experts confirm that heel striking is something we are not designed to do. People with uncushioned shoes don’t heel strike. We all have issues like back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain or pain in our hip, and those things are usually and indication that your body has found functionality in its disfunctionality. I still think that the way your foot hits the ground is the most important part of what happenes in the gait cycle of your running. And when we are walking? We are designed to heel strike, when we are walking. The thickness of our heel shows us that it is designed for some impact.

How do you understand people who say running is just a trend? That it will, as with all trends, pass soon?

In terms of our species, you can say exercise more generally is a trend. People didn't need to exercise until about the mid-twentieth century, when almost everybody had a lifestyle that required less of their bodies than in preceeding generations. We could say that exercise and running is just a trend, but in truth it is an inherent part of our biology, of our biomechanics. It is about who we are, as a species. And it is something we are designed to do.

Your book is all about how feeling the earth beneath our feet is a necessary and healing part of our lives, even though there are just so many people that don't want to move, not even walk… If we know that humans evolved to become one of the best running animals on the planet, how is it possible that only 10% of the people run? If I ask 6-years-olds if they like running, they will all say yes, but if you ask to 18-year-olds, they will almost all say no. What do you think happened?

School! Without school, we would be more inclined to say yes, even at 18. Although at this age we are not easy people, are we? I think school instils in us, trains us, for a sedentary life style. School is like a factory – we go in one end as bundles of explosive and playful energy. It teaches us to sit still, and we come out the other as sedentary people, which is something we are not designed to do. As I said, running can be all sorts of things, while in school, running is just a competitive sport and what it does and the ways that it is done, it immediately disselects people so that they cannot enjoy it. There have been educational trials in the US where school kids’ desks were given active desks with pedals underneath. They were asked to pedal during their reading hour, but were not measured and were free to take a rest whenever they wanted. The tests were completely informal, and have yet to be done scientifically, but they found that the group with the active desks learned to read quicker. It was a good way to keep children active in a completely non-competitive way. Exercise can be all sorts of things, the problem at the moment is that our education sees it just as a competitive sport. We owe it to the next generation not to teach them our bad habits.

Jasmina Kozina Praprotnik

is an anthropologist, writer and a running trainer. She is the author of a book about an octagenarian runner, Helena Žigon, called Bela dama. With her husband, she leads the club called Urban Runners. She lives in Ljubljana and has 3 children.