Sports Performance & Training Methodology: Animals vs Humans

Are you thinking about competing in a big race, e.g. a 10-miler or marathon, but are not looking forward to the months of gradually building up your fitness, pounding the streets mile after mile?

Perhaps you should consider sitting on some water and eating a lot! That is what the Barnacle Goose does.

“Until recently nobody had really asked whether exercise is as tightly connected to fitness in the rest of the animal kingdom as it is for us. In the past year or two, though, a handful of researchers have been inspired to do so by seemingly lazy creatures that manage feats of endurance that make marathons pale by comparison.” (Lovett, 2017, p.35).

Lewis Halsey, an environmental physiologist at the university of Roehampton (London), recently wrote an article for the Journal of Animal Ecology with the (some suggest) provocative title “Do animals exercise to keep fit?”

There is a broad assumption that because of the exercise that wild animals get from finding food and escaping predators, they must live at the peak of physical fitness – Lewis’ article argues against this assumption.

For example (Lovett, 2017, p.35):

  • “Most cats spend much of the day lounging around, apparently doing nothing. But over short distances, even the laziest could put Usain Bolt to shame.”
  • “Similarly, black and brown bears manage to come out of several months of hibernation with their muscle mass intact – without having to lift so much as a paw.”
  • “Barnacle geese go one better. In the process of sitting around, they don’t just maintain their fitness. They also develop stronger hearts, bigger flight muscles and – somehow – get fit enough to fly for thousands of miles in a migration lasting just two days.”

Many of us fitness junkies are infatuated (or at least some interested) in developing our physical prowess (i.e. faster, higher, stronger) but, biologically speaking, “all it means is that the body has undergone changes that make it stronger and more efficient.” (Lovett, 2017, p.35).

For us humans, these changes are induced by exercise whilst for most animals these changes are based on environmental cues, such as:

  • Lack of food;
  • Amount of daylight; or
  • Falling temperatures.

Research seems to suggest that muscle-protecting compounds in the blood has an effect on muscle loss (for hibernating bears at least). As with much of our anatomy and physiology, evolution plays an important role – meaning our evolutionary history made our bodies tie fitness to exercise.

“Our ancestors’ lives were unpredictable. They had to do a lot of running to catch food and escape danger, but they also needed to keep muscle mass to a minimum because food was limited. Seen through this lens, losing condition is an adaptation in itself.” (Lovet, 2017, p.36).

From a biological perspective muscle is expensive to maintain with each kilogram costing 10-15 kilocalories each day within our resting metabolic rate – remembering that, on average, 40% of a person’s body mass is muscle.

“Most of us are spending 20 per cent of our basic energy budget taking care of muscle mass…” (Lovett, 2017, p.36).

Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist and marathon runner from Harvard University, states that our physiology evolved to let our weight and fitness fluctuate depending on how much food was available. This makes us evolutionarily different from most other animals.

Most animals only need to be capable of short bouts of high-intensity activity (i.e. short, fast sprints). On the other hand, humans have adapted to run slower and for longer.

Lieberman goes on to state that although natural selection has made us into endurance athletes capable of running prey into the ground and ranging over long distances with unusual efficiency, this only appears if we train – otherwise we quickly degenerate into couch potatoes.

With regards to speed, most animals do not need to be the fastest, they just need to outrun (outperform) the predator chasing them.

“For humans, being fit is an evolutionary luxury. But for mice, being fit is the difference between survival and being cat food.” (Lovett, 2017, p.37).


Lovett, R. (2017) All Gain, No Pain. New Scientist. 22 April 2017.


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