Last year, after running my sixth marathon — in Death Valley of all places — my doctor gave me a sobering look during my annual physical and asked how many more marathons I planned on running. I told him maybe a few more and he proceeded to tell me about a study he had recently read that was undertaken by a doctor and his son, both marathon runners. They loved running and wanted to study how running a marathon effected runners’ hearts.
They were surprised by their findings. Apparently, at least in the people they studied, in the days following a marathon the runners’ hearts showed just as much damage as if they had suffered a heart attack. Sobering findings indeed. Even worse, people who had run ten or more marathons showed increased blockage and calcification in their arteries. My doctor, who has known me for 22 years, quietly told me he hoped I wasn’t planning on running that many marathons.
I laughed and agreed. I had, after all, just run 26.2 miles in Death Valley! In the back of my mind, however, I was rolling my eyes and thinking there was no way running could be bad for you. Data can be manipulated.
Today a friend posted a link to an article in The Wall Street Journal about two new studies on the effects of running, especially in older athletes. The news is, once again, not very good. Here’s the part that stood out the most to me:
What the new research suggests is that the benefits of running may come to a hard stop later in life. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.
It’s that last sentence, emphasized by me, that makes me cringe. In my circle of running friends, 20 to 25 miles a week is small potatoes. Especially now that I’m training for a 50 mile race in nine weeks, and regularly hit weekly mileage of 50-60 miles, I often run 20 to 25 miles in one run.
This sentence from the article calmed me down somewhat:
Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.
It would take about a 7:30 minute pace to run 8 miles per hour, and I’m far from ever achieving that pace for longer than, oh, ten seconds, maybe? I’m a solid middle of the pack runner. I like an occasional good, fast tempo run, or a race where everything comes together and I surprise myself with a faster than expected pace, but I don’t train for speed. If it’s a byproduct of hills and distance, all the better, but it’s just not that important to me anymore. I guess I’m starting to mellow in my old age.
I’m all about distance. Nothing makes me happier than spending a few hours on a Saturday morning running a 20 mile route around the city with my friends. Even better, spending five or six hours on a trail, pushing just hard enough to enjoy the experience and still have enough energy to make it back to the car and the drive home, is what fills me with the deepest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever known. Nothing else in my life has ever made me feel as satisfied with myself as running.
I like to think I run intuitively and listen to my body. I’m pretty good about taking rest days and not being a slave to the training plan. I don’t race half as much as others I run with, and I don’t push myself as hard either, especially on long runs.
It seems like common sense that running really hard, day in and day out, over fairly long distances, will eventually wear out your heart faster than if you did nothing but sit on the couch. Moderation is the key. Maybe speed is the culprit, and the studies don’t give us all the variables.
I have a deep down feeling that our bodies were made to run. The only thing more natural than running would be walking, something I plan on doing more of when I get much older. And I don’t intuitively feel that running long distances, at a comfortable, conversational speed, can really be the same — or worse than — doing nothing at all. Someone will need to show me the data on that to make me a believer.
For me, at this point in time, I’m in the best shape of my life. It took me 52 years to get here, and nothing beats the feeling of power and strength I’ve gained from running these past seven years. I love being able to go out for a 10 mile run on a cold autumn morning and have it feel easy. I feel energized the rest of the day, it keeps me in a great mood, and I sleep better and deeper than when I’m not running.
But, honestly, if I had to, I could be happy with 20 to 25 miles a week. If someone could prove to me that I would be able to have an extra five or ten years of running if I cut my current mileage in half, and have the same physical and psychological benefits I garner with 50 mile weeks, I could do it.
Because that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Being healthy and staying alive, and being able to appreciate the gift of running — even if it’s “only” 25 miles per week.
Besides, we all know that anything done to excess can be bad for you, and that includes something as healthy as running. Just keep it simple, and listen to your heart.