What a 2,000-Year-Old Skeleton Can Teach Athletes

The more "advanced" we become, the less athletic we seem to become. Even modern-day endurance athletes are no match to our ancestors' ability to travel long distances without injury.

In a 10-week study of 131 triathletes, overuse injuries accounted for 68 percent of injuries in preseason and 78 percent during the competition season.

For athletes trying to improve, this is made more frustrating by contemporary revelations that our ancestors were very good at going far and fast without the conscious and intentional training triathletes do on a daily basis.

Tribal people around the world were running hundreds of miles at a time long before anyone heard of Dean Karnazes, as Christopher McDougall discussed in his book, Born to Run. And at one time, long distance walking was actually one of America's most popular spectator sports, with competitors walking 600 miles in six days.

Is evolution somehow working against us? A 2,000 year-old skeleton tell a different story, one that suggests "overuse injuries" are caused by the modern sedentary lifestyle, not evolutionary changes. You don't get hurt because you do too much; you get hurt because you do too much after doing too little.

See what these 2,000 year-old skeletons can teach you can about avoiding this modern injury.

More: Do Endurance Sports Make You Age Faster?

What We Know About Our Ancestors

What we know from Dr. Colin Shaw, of Cambridge University's Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution Research Group and other researchers, is that ancient human leg bones adapted to bear loads modern man would consider extremely heavy. Yet these people didn't necessarily have to engage in athletic activity to have bones of an athlete, according to Shaw. That is a vital clue.

Another bit of information comes from specific research on skeletal adaptations in humans. Excavations of sword-wielding warriors from different time periods and parts of the world exhibit a peculiar similarity. In sites where the remains are clearly identified as professional warriors--such as knights or gladiators--the skeletons show a consistent asymmetry in arm bone length. The right arm is always longer, sometimes as much as 18 millimeters.

Archaeologists have hypothesized that the asymmetry is a result of intensive long-term training in using a sword in the right hand, while the left arm remained more or less immobilized. This would indicate that they began their training at a young age, engaged in practice nearly every day, and remained active throughout their lives.

More: How to Avoid Tired Legs on the Triathlon Run

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