Is distance running bad for your health?

My dad inspired me to run my first marathon. Now he’s trying to talk me out of doing another one.

The problem is all the buzz lately about the potential long-term danger of “chronic” endurance exercise. Marathoning in particular has been linked to surprising levels of arterial plaque – more so than in a sedentary control group – in this study published in the March/April issue of Missouri Medicine.

The problem appears to be “oxidative stress,” which is what happens when an overabundance of free radicals produced over long periods of exertion begin to overwhelm the body’s supply of antioxidants, according to this piece on Now, with the popularity of endurance events at an all-time high, runners and triathletes are being advised to scale back on weekly mileage.

Not surprisingly, Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World has a more relaxed take on the issue. He notes that this study looked at a specific marker for arterial plaque without taking into account mortality rates, longevity or whether the test subjects —  all men with an average age of 59  who’d completed at least one marathon a year for 25 years – had developed wider arterial pipes that may compensate for the excess plaque.

“This has been a frequent finding since a 1961 autopsy report of seven-time Boston Marathon champ Clarence DeMar found his coronary arteries to be ‘two or three times the normal size,’” Burfoot writes.

So, is this cause for concern? Maybe. More specifically, does it mean I should cut my mileage and give up my hopes and dreams for future marathons and even ultramarathons?

I was doing 15 mile weekly long runs when I first heard about this issue. Since then, primarily because I’ve been busier (but also because of nagging uncertainty), my long runs have been more in the 10-mile range and my weekly mileage has dropped from 30 to around 20.

But I’m not giving up on distance running. A weekly long run feels so good mentally, physically and emotionally that it’s hard for me to believe that it does more harm than good. These aren’t  strenuous runs; I do them at a relaxed pace. If anything, they feel stress reducing rather than stress causing – almost like meditation.

I’m still planning to do one more marathon this year (as yet unscheduled) and a 50K in December, but in both cases I was already planning to try a 4:1 version of the Galloway run/walk strategy to see if I can cut my time.

I suspect that will cut down on the physical stress on my body as well.  I haven’t seen any studies that examine arterial plaque in Marathon Maniacs – who complete multiple marathons a year, often using the Galloway method — but the people I’ve talked to say they have less fatigue and muscle soreness because they build in recovery time during the race itself.

Finally, just to be safe, I plan to start eating more chocolate. I can’t be sure that distance running widens my arteries, but this study cited recently in Scientific American says that eating one small square of 70 percent cocoa dark chocolate a day for a month improved arterial flow up to 23 percent.

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17 Responses to Is distance running bad for your health?

  1. bgddyjim says:

    I’ve heard all of this before, there will always be someone out there reporting that being healthy is unhealthy – especially when they can use medical papers that so too much of a good thing can be bad. This is usually the way it goes. Medical experts show that too much is bad and the media takes that and says that running long distances (or cycling long distances or swimming long distances) is bad. I’m not going to slow up even a little bit. I hope you take that report with a grain of salt.

    • tischcaylor says:

      Oh, I’m not too worried about it. My slowdown is temporary, due to scheduling and just giving myself a little break before I start some more focused training.

  2. triathlonobsession says:

    This is interesting–someone was asking me if I checked my heart regularly (I do) since I do so much. As for the chocolate–I’m a firm believer in that benefit—it’s also filled with antioxidents! 🙂

    • tischcaylor says:

      You’re also very balanced in your training, with all your yoga and mountain climbing and space exploration and whatever else you do. That’s gotta help! 🙂

      • triathlonobsession says:

        This is a matter of me having ants in my pants too Tanya! I still think we all have hereditary issues that are out of our control so that’s why this was interesting to me. 🙂

      • tischcaylor says:

        So true, on both points, Elizabeth. Good to have fun with your fitness challenges, good to keep an eye on those hereditary factors.

  3. triathlonobsession says:

    Reblogged this on Triathlon Obsession and commented:
    Before embarking on endurance events, it’s important to get a checkup to make sure all your parts are in good working order. I’m a firm believer that healthy living, eating, exercise and otherwise contributes to longevity and health. We only get one body, so we’ve got to do the best we can to take care of it!

  4. Nice write up. I agree more people seem to be fearful these days of overdoing it. I believe in moderation of everything, no crazy diets, or irrational distances without breaks to recover. The law of diminishing returns always comes to mind when I hear of ultra’s and I wonder how long can people continue to go and when does the body eventually quit. Without doubt there is a stopping point, physically for everyone, it is just a different place for each athlete. I employee the 4:1 method during my runs. It has helped me continue to do what I love post hip replacement.

  5. brian63 says:

    Reminds me of the line from “Annie Hall”: “Everything our parents said was good is bad — sun, milk, red meat, college.” No matter what this week’s research may suggest, it’s simply intuitive for me to believe that action trumps inaction every time. Also your point of the emotional and mental benefits is right on the mark. Those, far more than the physical, are what motivate me to get out there three times per week.

  6. I kind of think that distance running may not be BAD for you, but I don’t think it’s great for weight loss or muscle building. I think moderation is key to everything.

    • tischcaylor says:

      Running helped me lose 90 pounds back in 2010, but I think it would be easy to gain weight now, even running as much as I do, if I didn’t watch what I eat. I’ve never been very good at being moderate but I’d like to be.

  7. Terry Adams says:

    Let me get right to the point: these so-called “studies” are nothing but complete and total junk.

    In reality, there is NO group of folks anywhere that is doing any kind of comprehensive study that involves sizable numbers of people and how much they do or don’t run in a given time and how much plaque they all have or don’t in their arteries.

    If anyone were to try and conduct any meaningful study of plaque buildup in arteries from distance running, it would take DECADES and thousands and thousands of test subjects to complete. And then the results would only be beneficial if we were all the same; ate the same; had the same living habits and our body makeups were identical to one another…and we are not!

    These “studies” are nothing more than someone coming up an hypothesis and then finding a few pieces of data that support the position they have already taken while discarding and disregarding anything and everything to the contrary of their position.

    Sorry for the rant.

    • tischcaylor says:

      No need to apologize; this is a rant-inciting topic. You make some good points. I think given the lack of such a comprehensive study, everybody just needs to figure out what their own comfort level is. For me, running is a stress reducer. I think my arteries would look a lot worse if I didn’t run.

  8. You’ve found a great solution with the chocolate! 🙂
    Unless it’s proven that long distance running is highly dangerous and could kill me, like, tomorrow morning, I’ll still be running.
    Everything we do is dangerous in one way or another, and although I certainly like studies and the overflow of information (I say this in a good way) we have on pretty much everything these days, I choose to keep doing a lot of things that I love and enjoy, aware that they will have some positive and some negatives effect on me.

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