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During the athletics world championship, a commentator mentioned casually during the marathon discipline that humans are faster over long distances than all animals. I'm unsure if this can be said generally. Obviously some individuals cannot run, so consider the speed of the fastest individuals of each species.

Were there any scientific experiments performed to compare humans and animal? Alternatively, are there medical/biomechanical reasons upon which one can base this statement?

Additional research turned up the following Nature abstract:

Here we assess how well humans perform at sustained long-distance running, and review the physiological and anatomical bases of endurance running capabilities in humans and other mammals. Judged by several criteria, humans perform remarkably well at endurance running, thanks to a diverse array of features, many of which leave traces in the skeleton. The fossil evidence of these features suggests that endurance running is a derived capability of the genus Homo, originating about 2 million years ago, and may have been instrumental in the evolution of the human body form.

Take this as proof that this question is trickier than it looks. The following articles also seem to support this theory: Born to Run, The Human Body Is Built for Distance.

The main factor seems to be temperature, which complicates an objective comparison of specific mammals. Standard ambient temperature is from my knowledge around 25° C. It seems this a temperature where it gets tricky for horses and especially sled dogs to keep up with our best marathon runners. On even longer distances, likely even more. Probably a doubled marathon distance will already change the whole mammal endurance ranking. It would be interesting to see how desert/steppe animals like camel/antelope/cheetah do compared to dog/horse/human.

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It is not even remotely true, unless you consider a human flying an F16. So if we will compare a human to ANY animal, over a long distance, then I'll pose a migrating bird as one counter example, most of whom travel far longer distances than any marathon. You did not state this had to be ground contact travel. Fish and aquatic mammals also move far faster than a human, over long distances. And if we do restrict this to ground travel, then you need to look at animals such as wolves, who have large hunting ranges, covering them in far shorter time than any human could. –  user3344 Sep 11 '11 at 12:55
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ANY time ANY commentator tries to make humans unique in any way, I pretty much know they are just pulling stuff out of their butt. ;) –  Larian LeQuella Sep 11 '11 at 14:19
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As a true skeptic I'd be only satisfied with scientific experiment involving said commentator and a hungry cheetah. –  user288 Sep 11 '11 at 14:38
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@woodchips has long-distance RUN an ambiguous meaning to you? Neither birds nor fishs are running. Can a human run longer distance than a wolf on one day is a serious question from my point of view. –  Hauser Sep 11 '11 at 15:24
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@woodchips sry im new to this site. But is this about personal convictions/belief or proving claims? Havent read so far the FAQ Your statement is as subjective as the commentators one, isnt it? Im not asking for personal beliefs here. –  Hauser Sep 11 '11 at 16:01
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7 Answers 7

up vote 37 down vote accepted

We just need to look at sled dogs and do a little math.

In 1986, Susan Butcher broke Rick Swenson’s record, set in 1981, by completing the 1049+ miles in 11 days.

1049/11 = 95 miles per day. This dwarfs a marathon, and marathon runners don't pull sleds. However, there are other races where we manage 71ish miles per day. This is for the Self-Transcendence, which purports to be the longest foot race on the planet. The Iditarod is in particularly cold climates. There is a case of 100km being ran in 6:13. 100km is 62 miles, which starts to get into the Iditarod range. Someone also ran the AT, 2000ish miles in 50+ days. None of these accomplishments conquer the mile eating 95 miles per day that Iditarod champion dogs accomplish.

Most speculation I read is that the dogs outperform us only the in the cold. However there's no comparable opportunity in warm climates (sledding requires snow, but if someone has an example, I'll include it.), so it is not clear that this is due to the dog being unable vs. humans not having a reason/method/desire to race dogs long distances in warmer climates. Dogs can certainly handle warmer location in day to day living, for instance Dingos exist across hot and inhospitable areas, such as the Simpson desert in Australia.

One reason that this is significant, is that it's contrived. Humans are the only species to create physical challenges where people train for a large portion of their lives just to accomplish this purely contrived challenge. The only animal I've been able to find that beats us is an animal we have harnessed to compete to the same end. The comparison breaks down with most other animals, not because they aren't fast, but because it's not accurate to compare an olympic marathon runner with the average (as opposed to the best) kangaroo. But it's not really possible (within ethical contrants) to find the "best" kanagaroo. Yet even in this contrived contest, we are not the best.

If you compare the average human, we would fare less well, but that comparison is also harder to achieve, as we'd have to have numbers on what the average human can run.

The other animal that came to my mind is the ostrich. Unfortunately all I have found so far is wikipedia. Still looking for more on this, however the cites look good so:

People race Ostriches in Africa O.o

When being pursued by a predator, they have been known to reach speeds in excess of 70 kilometres per hour (43 mph), and can maintain a steady speed of 50 kilometres per hour (31 mph), which makes the Ostrich the world's fastest two-legged animal.

These birds blow us away in both short and long distance running (we can't even come close to a sustained 31mph) and they handle a 104 degree F range of temperature., which is not as great as ours, but is much above "cold only" climates.

Kind of makes me want to see an ostrich marathon :)

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Is this for one sled dog (95 miles/day)? how about a human-horse comparison? I think there are horses trained for maximum endurance performance. Also if we couldnt order food via internet and had to "hunt" for food probably there would be much less "fatties" :) Kids get according to studies more and more unathletic the last decades. So yeah, average joe is probably in a pretty bad condition compared to average animal (not living in a zoo) but trained horses/sport-athletes look comparable to me. –  Hauser Sep 11 '11 at 16:10
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Long-distance running is not inherently contrived. For example, there are "persistence hunters" in Africa that run down an animal by tiring it out. See eg youtube.com/watch?v=fUpo_mA5RP8 -- a human runner chases down a kudu over ~30km in two to five hours. In this case, not being able to outrun a human over a marathon distance isn't contrived: it's life or death. –  A. Rex Sep 11 '11 at 16:19
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The intent is not to claim that all endurance running is contrived, but "let's go out and run for as long as I can run for no other reason than to prove I can run it" is certainly contrived. 30 kilometers in two to five hours is not like a marathon. The top marathon time is about two hours and that's 42 kilometers. The claim isn't "are humans faster than some animals over distance", the claim is that humans are faster than all animals over distance, and that claim is not true. –  Russell Steen Sep 11 '11 at 16:43
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The Iditarod is a great example! I was just reading a scientific article that claimed that non-human animals could run long distances only in cool conditions that lower the potential for hyperthermia. It never occurred to me that this was one thing making the Iditarod possible. Do you have other examples of fast distance runners in more temperate climates? –  A. Rex Sep 11 '11 at 17:31
    
@russell I specified a bit more the question. Your answer is imo correct, but you could add or specify a bit the temperature/distance problem as this seem to be the crucial factors. Or we get the question how do humans vs. animals on 2xmarathon :) I think its ok when you simply mention a 2xmarathon can change drastically the ranking. Who is interested can use the links given here then. –  Hauser Sep 12 '11 at 10:30
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Short Answer As other have noted, it's not true under all conditions. For example, sled dogs can outrun people easily in cold weather (see DARPA studies). However, it sounds like the commentator was referring to the endurance running hypothesis, which says ancient humans were able to hunt down nearly any animal by outrunning it. The context is key, because the hunter can start the chase in the mid-day heat of the African plains.

With that qualification, it's possible that humans can run down anything except dogs*. A study of tribesmen in Botswana concluded that this way of hunting, "produces a higher meat yield than hunting with bow and arrow, clubs and spears, or springhare probes and about the same as snaring. Only hunting with dogs produces a significantly higher meat yield."

Background The limiting factors in long-distance running are primarily oxygen intake and heat dissipation, both of which people excel at. One explanation, proposed in this paper by David Carrier is that humans evolved to run long distances under the mid-day sun of the African savannah, hunting large game by chasing it to the point of heat stroke or exhaustion.

Specialized Physiology Our bodies are specialized to address the two limiting factors noted earlier:

  1. Oxygen: Both humans and dogs have very fine (and easily damaged) lung tissue. This maximizes oxygen intake to support sustained energy output. Although many animals can sprint faster than a person, their lungs cannot supply enough oxygen to sustain those speeds. After a minute or so, when the muscles cells have depleted their internal energy stores, their output is limited by the supply of oxygen.

  2. Heat: Even with enough oxygen, there's still the issue of overheating. People have two advantages here: Sweat glands (rare in the animal kingdom) and an upright posture, which exposes a very small surface area to the sun.

Sources:

*By dogs, I mean Canidae, the family of animals including the domesticated dog, wolves, coyotes, etc.

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Hey Konrad, thanks for your contribution, however I am afraid that the lack of sources makes your answer not very meaningful on this site. Can you look better and try to find confirmation? Otherwise you are just posting a similar (if opposite) claim, instead of clearing up what is going on here :-) –  Sklivvz Sep 12 '11 at 20:17
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The German wikipedia talks about an average, daily distance of 22,1 km for female and 27,6 km for male wolfes. Yes, it is only the average, and probably more than what the average man performs, but a marathon runner absolves that distance in 1 to 1.5 h. Wikipedia: Wolf(de) –  user unknown Sep 12 '11 at 22:11
    
@user: an average can be misleading. How frequently do the wolves hunt? One 60 km hunt per three days, still could fit well within 27 km average. Still other info in the wikipedia seems to confirm what you write: " Wolves usually give up chases after 1–2 km, though one wolf was recorded to chase a deer for 21 km." –  Suma Sep 14 '11 at 8:02
    
Konrad didn't mention any numbers in his post. –  user unknown Sep 14 '11 at 8:14
    
Scientists find gene clue to athletic endurance mentions that a gene mutation useful for endurance running has undergone strong positive selection. (Conflict of interest: I used to work with one of the researchers) –  Andrew Grimm Aug 16 '12 at 10:14
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No, horses run faster and longer.

When comparing marathon and endurance riding we get the following numbers :

  • Human : 42,195km in 2:03:38, average speed of 20,5km/h (world record at 2011 Berlin Marathon)
  • Human : 160km in 11:28:03, average speed of 14km/h (100miles ultramarathon world record)
  • Horse : 160km in 6:21:12, average speed of 25,2 km/h (world record at 2010 President's Cup in Abu Dhabi, source: FEI)

Not to mention the horse carries a 75kg weight on his back. UAE are well known for their endurance rides. I don't see the time when we'll be able to run a marathon 25% faster than the current WR four times in a row...

FYI, we also learn that :

Camels competed against horses in this 40-km pioneering event in the dunes of Dubai and the first 15 places were taken by horses. (source)

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To answer the second part (and A.Rex's comment), humans sweat a lot. In addition, we're hairless and breathe through the mouth. This all helps to dump heat, which is one of the most limiting factors. It's thought this helped in scavenging (run to a carcass if you sport vultures, before they eat it) and later hunting.

If you eliminate heat as a factor, e.g. by staging a run in Wales, horses generally do better.

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There is an event in england that is run every year:

In 1980, in the mid-Wales town of Llanwrtyd Wells, an argument broke out in the pub concerning an age-old matter. “Yes, we all know that horses can sprint fast,” one man declared, “but, over a real distance, man is its equal.” The pub was the Neuadd Arms and the speaker was the landlord, Gordon Green. To resolve the dispute, Green suggested a full public test: a race. A £1000 prize was put up to attract competitors willing the attempt the feat, and the Man vs Horse Marathon has been staged every year since.

Still organised by creator Gordon Green, the Man vs Horse Marathon is run over a rough, cross-country course of 22 miles, and has become the largest horse race in Britain, attracting more riders in recent years than the forty competitors in a Grand National. Numbers of entrants on the side of the runners now usually reach over two hundred and fifty, and are also increasing.

Runners are given a 15 minute head start (A skilled runner can have over 2 miles down in that time some almost 3) Dispite this

Runners start 15 minutes earlier than the horse riders but the event is a timed race. So times are compared not who comes in earliest.

Here are the results from 2007(the last time a human won) and 2012. The site has other years but not all the Man v Horse results on a single easy to link page.

Horses have had the upper hand on runners in all bar two of the races to date.

So it is possible for a man to run faster than a horse over a marathon but not as the norm. In 2012 the first 8 times were all horses. Though the top human did beat several horses. It seems a good horse will beat a good human runner most of the time.

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@Oddthinking: It's a timed race so the amount of headstart doesn't affect the final score; it's the time taken that counts. The headstart is just to stop horses trampling humans at the start line! –  Tynam Aug 16 '12 at 14:47
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@tynam - That comment was before my update and that was clarified. –  Chad Aug 16 '12 at 15:21
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In the examples given so far of animals outrunning humans over long distances, the animals have been human trained and controlled. The situation may be different if the animals are allowed to operate themselves.

It is widely reported that the San (Kalahari bushmen) can outrun antelopes. They do it by having the animal run away from them, catching up with it before it has a chance to regain its breath, and continuing this until the antelope gives up. In a test in New Mexico, marathon runners managed to get close enough to a pronghorn for a kill. Pronghorns are capable of more than 80 km/h over short distances and 50km/h over several km.

I will admit though that wolves will probably beat even the best humans, especially in snow. I can't see anyone volunteering to test it though!

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I remember listening to ... umm... This American Life? where someone tried this with deer, and found they would mix in with other deer until he could no longer tell which deer was the one he selected to run-down. Anecdotal, but interesting. –  Oddthinking Feb 7 '13 at 4:11
    
The same happened to the guys chasing the pronghorns. But I assume that the San, with many millennia of experience, would be able to distinguish their prey rather better. –  hdhondt Feb 8 '13 at 9:35
    
Or just heave a clod into the herd and whichever one you wallop on its fleeing backside (leaving a mark) is the one you concentrate on thereafter. –  Kyle Jones Feb 11 '13 at 21:28
    
Another example of men outrunning animals (horses): slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/06/… –  hdhondt Sep 29 '13 at 10:27
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Distance record in a day for a human is 188.590 miles.[1] I can't find any record of an attempt at more than 100 miles for a horse. This makes it very difficult to say which can run further in a comparison of human ultramarathon vs endurance riding, contrary to some of the other answers. It's also not ideal to compare different races of the same distance across different terrain. However, the question was with regard to a marathon distance which is 26.2 miles[2]. Some of the other answers have already pointed to the annual Man vs Horse marathon in Wales, which has only been won by a man twice out of thirty-three races.[3] It has the advantage of comparing both man and horse on the course, on the same day. Given that fact, it's probably the fairest source of an answer to the question despite the fact that it actually falls approximately 4 miles short of being a true marathon.

Sources:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/24-hour_run
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marathon
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon
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Welcome to Skeptics!. I am trying to understand what your answer offers over other answers that you refer to. You can't find more than 100 miles for a horse, but someone else showed sled dogs can. You comment on not knowing who can run further, but the question was about faster. The Man v Horse race is discussed in more detail in other answers. –  Oddthinking Apr 2 at 13:10
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