Faster long-distance runners may be more attractive

New research from Cambridge University has found that men (and to a lesser extent women) who are better at endurance running show characteristics of greater ‘reproductive fitness’.

The researchers found that the male runners who had been exposed to a lot of testosterone in the womb ran significantly faster in a half marathon than runners who had been exposed to less prenatal testosterone. Prenatal testosterone levels have previously been implicated in other desirable traits such as increased sex drive and sperm count, and therefore running may be an indicator that females look for in males to show they are reproductively suitable. This effect was smaller in women, suggesting that long-distance running ability is more important for sexual selection between men (the traditional hunters). The testosterone level was measured with the ratio between ring and index finger (2D:4D): a longer ring finger compared to index finger ratio indicates exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the womb. However, it is worth nothing that the study did not investigate whether women actually do find faster runners more attractive.

Nevertheless, long-distance running is a logical way to signal reproductive fitness. Many scientists think that one of the secrets to the success of early humans was a technique known as ‘persistence hunting’ which depends on being able to run long distances efficiently. Humans are poor at sprinting compared to other animals (and previous research found that the 2D:4D figure does not correlate very well with sprinting performance), but better long distance runners. This allowed us to outlast our prey. As study leader, Dr Danny Longman says, “You can still see examples of persistence hunting in parts of Africa and Mexico today. Hunters will deliberately choose the hottest time of day to hunt, and chase and track an antelope or gnu over 30 to 40 kilometres for four or five hours. The animal recovers less and less from its running until it collapses exhausted and is easy to kill,” Longman said.

The data was gathered from 542 (439 men, 103 women) runners crossing the line at the Robin Hood half marathon. The 10% of men who had been exposed to most testosterone in the womb (had the most ‘masculine’ digit ratios) ran on average 24 minutes and 33 seconds faster than the 10% with the least prenatal testosterone exposure.

While other factors, such as muscle strength and training are obviously more helpful for endurance running than prenatal testosterone, this study does give an insight into a factor shaping reproductive potential and how persistence hunting may have shaped our sexual preferences.



Longman, Daniel, Wells, Jonathan C. K., Stock, Jay T. (2015). Can Persistence Hunting Signal Male Quality? A Test Considering Digit Ratio in Endurance Athletes, PLoS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0121560


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons; Chicago marathon 2012; original author Benjamin Lipsman, derivative work: Sillyfolkboy


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