Does endurance running damage health?

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By Paul Oppenheim

Running Columnist

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled "The Exercise Equivalent of a Cheeseburger" raised the startling indications of some recent research showing "that extraordinary amounts of exercise may diminish the benefits of modest amounts." Previously, medical research seemed to indicate that regular running can provide an extra six years of longevity. Now, however, some researchers suggest, "that benefit may disappear beyond 30 miles of running a week."

Hey, maybe I was right after all.

I never cared much for marathons, and I joked for years that the human body wasn't meant to run farther than six miles. Of course, the marathon junkies just laughed at my claim or called me rude names. But according to the aforementioned WSJ article, some sports medicine doctors are revising their beliefs about "exercise overdose."

All the overweight people in society provide plenty of evidence that most Americans need more exercise. So the medical community is understandably hesitant to issue any warnings that might further dissuade people from exercising. And the evidence is not yet conclusive, even though recent studies found high levels of coronary plaque in marathon runners. This would seem to counter the opinion that distance running provides full protection against heart disease.

"Heart disease comes from inflammation and if you're constantly, chronically inflaming yourself, never letting your body heal, why wouldn't there be a relationship between over-exercise and heart disease?" said John Mandrola, a cardiac electrophysiologist, who was quoted in the WSJ article.

So what should we recreational runners do? In my opinion, keep running marathons if that's part of your running routine. But one, or possibly two marathons, per year should be plenty. The rest of the time run the shorter stuff, and keep your weekly mileage to around 30.

My problem with marathons is that they require a huge training commitment if you're planning to run them well (and not simply cross the finish line). Then, if you have a bad day, all that hard training was wasted. And marathons also injure your body, requiring recovery time afterwards. I've known very few people who run marathons and bounce back quickly. For most of us, marathons take a physical toll on your whole body, not just your heart.

Instead, regular training and competition at shorter distances can keep you in great shape without the time commitment and physical damage incurred in a marathon.

Before I retired, I always got a kick out of getting my annual physical exam, where the nurse would check my low blood pressure and pulse. Sometimes she would re-check to make sure the first readings were accurate. Once, a doctor at the clinic in an apparent hurry, just looked at me and listed my pulse at 72. "Whoa!" I said. I made him check it again. It was about 48 as I recall.

So keep running, race occasionally, and do marathons in moderation (or not at all). I'm sure that more research into the effects of running mileage on cardiac health will provide more data. So stay tuned.

 

Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

Reader Comments

3 Comments - Add Your Comment

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Another Runner from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: July 12th, 2013 2:47 PM

@Not a... - Agree with Marathoner. For every person who dies of an enlarged heart, and I deeply question your logic FWIW, there are 1000 who will die because they are fat. I'll take my chances and keep running a marathon or so a year as part of my regiment as long as my body will let me. It's not for everyone, but for those who love it there is no greater high than crossing that finish line.

Marathoner  

Posted: July 12th, 2013 2:22 PM

I encourage everybody who wants to try one to do one. But let's also admit that not everybody has the physical gift of being able to handle more/longer distances. That said, something is going to kill us. Might as well be running! The risks of over-training are so small compared to the risks of bad health from sitting on the couch, I say pay no attention to this "research" and go have fun.

Not a Brain(or cardiac) Surgeon but...  

Posted: July 12th, 2013 1:09 PM

Heart = Muscle Work a Muscle Hard = Enlarged Muscle Enlarged Heart = BAD Extreme cardio work leads to extreme work of the heart muscle which will/can lead to heart muscle growth. We all know an enlarged heart is not good!

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