Thursday, April 3, 2014

Is excessive running unhealthy?

Note: After I had already published this blog, I became aware of this Runner's World article by Alex Hutchinson:
This makes good reading. It is interesting that it addresses some of the points I make below like how subjective "excessive" running is, the importance of increasing your mileages slowly and the potential role of a runner's high carbohydrate/processed junk food roll.

Is excessive running unhealthy?

That’s a loaded question.  I do not know where to start addressing this…

You might have heard people say that humans are not made to run long distances or that our distant ancestors did not run long distances so neither should we.  There are also some studies indicating that too much running is bad for you.

I have a problem with these statements and studies.

Problem #1:  They are using the actions of the majority as the standard for us to follow.  What the majority does or did in the past is in no way an indication of what humans should be doing.  Those who say that our ancestors did not run long distances, are thinking about the average person in these populations.  The same is true today: The average person does not run long distances.  As a mater of fact, the average  person does not run at all.  Should we all follow what the average person does, just because this is the norm?

In every society, the majority might have done very little running, but there were members of that society that did a lot of running. Hunters, or news carriers, for example.   Take the Ancient Greeks.  Maybe the average Athenian was not very active, but they had news carriers who ran incredibly long distances.  Like Pheidippides who ran to Sparta and back (150 miles in 2 days).  (But didn’t Pheidippides die after he ran from Athens to Marathon?  Not really, see my footnote about this.)

Problem #2:  It is all relative and subjective.  These studies tend to stress “intense running” and seem to conclude that “moderation” is the best source of action.  But terms like “intense”, “extreme” and “moderation” are subjective.  A 20 mile run is extreme for the average non-runner but a weekly routine for the long-distance runner.

When I run long distances in trails, my running is not intense at all.  Anything up to a half marathon race is “intense” but it is short. A 100 mile race involves a lot of walking (at least 20%) and the overall pace is slow.  So, “intense” and “long distance” do not go together, for me.  I feel that my effort when running slow long distances is similar to someone walking long distances, yet I have not heard anyone say that walking long distances is bad for you. 

Famous local ultrarunner, Connie Gardner, is quoted saying something like: “What’s more crazy, running for 12 hours or sitting for 12 hours?”  It is a matter of perspective, but there are those who think that sitting for 12 hours (while driving, for example) is more extreme (unhealthy and to be avoided) than moving for 12 hours.

Bottom line: There is no reason to adopt the majority’s idea of what is extreme, intense, unnatural, or to be avoided.  Humans are terrific long distance runners (much better compared to most/all? animals).  So, even if the vast majority, today or in the past, do/did not run long distances, I see nothing wrong with those who do it and enjoy it.

 My Burning River 2013 100 mile race (I finished in 21 hours and 39 minutes) is up to date my longest run.  It is interesting that this race was in the middle of 14 weeks of racing every week.  The week before BR100 I raced “Shot in the Dark" 4 Miles and the week after the  Independence 5K (my time was 20:08, a great time for me).  The day after BR100 I went for a 8 mile walk.  I was back to running in 3 days.  So much for long distance running being excessive or damaging to the body.  It did not feel excessive to me.  My average pace was 12 minutes and 52 seconds per mile.  There was a quite a bit of walking involved.

I posted these thoughts in facebook and they gathered some interesting reactions. Most people agreed, but one long distance running friend said that running for 24 hours is not normal or healthy for the body.  Another friend jumped in to agree and say that any distance from 50-100+ miles is not good and neither is running 100 miles per week.

It is interesting that the authors of the latest study draw the limit at 20 miles a week or running a marathon in a life time.  Specifically, one of the researchers, a cardiologist no less, is quoted saying that humans are not designed to run 26 miles at a time.  I am sure he used this distance because it is iconic (marathon).  I want to ask him, exactly how many miles are humans designed to run at a time?  3, 5, 10?  Some humans have run races of 1000 miles.  Others cannot run one mile.  It is all subjective.  What some people find excessive, others find reasonable, and visa versa.  Any attempt to draw a line at a certain distance or mileage, is artificial, in my opinion.

But there are some things to consider:

1. Building up slowly.  I read some interesting comments on-line, response to this latest study. One guy said that he destroyed his health after running his first marathon. Clearly, he was unprepared for the challenge. It took me 4 years of running to run my first marathon, 7 years to run my first 50K and 12 years to run my first 100 miles. If done slowly, the body adapts to running. Right now my longest run is 22 hours and only once I've run 100 miles in one week. I do not run more than 40 miles a week (maybe 60 at the peak of training) and most of this is easy running with a good amount of walking. This seems a good & natural amount of running for my body at this stage.

2. Type of running and running terrain.  Running long distances in flat roads can lead to injuries due to the repetitive nature of the movement.  Running in trails with various topographies, mixing running with walking, helps a lot.  Not to mention that the environment is uplifting, vs. a boring road.

3. Cross-training. If all you do is run long distances, you are going to get injured sooner or later. It is important to do some cross-training to strengthen muscles that are not used much when running.

4.  Listen to your body. There is something also to be said about smart training and “listening to your body”.  Some people follow a strict training regime. I tend to go by how my body feels. I have dropped runs or even races, when I felt I was not ready or I was too tired.  It is good to be flexible and learn to listen to your body.

5. Diet & nutrition.  Long distance runners need a lot of calories and usually rely on large amounts of inflammatory foods that include sugar, processed junk, and lots of carbohydrates.  It is possible that the observation of reduced mortality in long distance runners is related to an unhealthy diet.  You never know.

Footnote:  Someone said to me, “Pheidippides isn't the best example, since didn't he die from running those miles? LOL! ;)”

The legend says that Pheidippides, the news carrier who run from Athens to Sparta and back, after the battle ran to Athens (his run inspired the Marathon race) to announce the victory and dropped dead. But this is a legend and some people think that this is a "romantic invention" and it never really happened. For example see:

What we know about the battle of Marathon comes from the historian Herodotus who wrote his history 30-40 years after the events, based on eye-witness accounts.  "Herodotus's silence on the subject of a herald running from Marathon to Athens suggests strongly that no such event occurred."

The story of the marathon runner first appeared in Plutarch, 500 years after the battle.  "It seems likely that in the 500 years between Herodotus's time and Plutarch's, the story of Pheidippides had become muddled with that of the Battle of Marathon and some fanciful writer had invented the story of the run from Marathon to Athens."

No one knows for sure, but the legend of the first marathon runner dropping dead has been used to suggest that maybe running marathons is not good for you.  Runners do drop dead from time to time (like the famous Jim Fixx.)  But that does not mean that it is the running that killed them.

Happy (long distance) running, my friends!


K. Stone said...

I like your take on this. I am not an ultrarunner, but I have daydreams of it. I have been slowly increasing my mileage over time. Right now I probably run 20-25 miles/week.

I used to run 15-18 miles per week.

As I increased my mileage I slowed down my pace to develop my aerobic base as prescribed by Dr. Phil Maffetone. (Also espoused by ultrarunner Stu Mittleman)

I want to take care to not damage my heart as I increase my mileage. I'm 45. I had my heart checked this year (to rule out a genetic problem my mother had recently-which I don't have) and the doctor said I don't have any enlarging.

I have 2 questions for you:
Have you ever had your heart checked? And more specifically after a long endurance race?

Also, I notice that I have stiff legs and joints upon waking, but they quickly unstiffen as I walk around getting dressed etc.

I'm guessing this is normal, but would like your opinion.


DrT said...

I have not had my heart checked. I am not very worried about heart issues since I have absolutely no family history of heart problems. Now, cancer is a different story.

Yes, I feel stiff too first thing in the morning. I guess it is normal and gets worse with age :) Yoga or gentle stretching might help.


K. Stone said...

Thanks Dr. T. Wishing you all the best.