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 active.com. 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.