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By: Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior Writer

Published: 01/13/2012 12:02 PM EST on LiveScience

Humans have always spent a lot of time running, which has led to the modern-day running gait, researchers reported in today’s issue of the journal Nature.

“Running has been a staple of life in humankind since long before recorded history,” said coauthor Peter Hirschfeld, an associate professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University.

About 10,000 years ago, people began running in the African savanna in search of food and to stay warm, so they could hunt and kill large animals.

But it wasn’t all for fun, Hirschfeld said.

“Running has also played a role in helping people survive: by running they create their own social structures and gain experience for the future, giving them the ability to form durable groups,” he added.

Hirschfeld and his colleagues analyzed running-related genome scans from people in the American West who have been living in remote and inhospitable settings for thousands of years, with the exception of the last 800 years.

In total, they studied 38 individuals who ran about 100km during the last five to six years. They were part of a larger study and included people in the same geographical region.

They identified four genes in the common ancestor of all modern-day humans, as well as more than 150 other genes that have been linked to extreme endurance running, including genes involved in insulin signaling on the surface of cell membranes.

The genes varied significantly in the individuals’ genomes, and they also had a lot in common.

“It’s quite a diverse set of genes, a good mixture of what is probably adaptive, but also very interesting to us,” said Hirschfeld, who is also director of the Genome Program