And Here I Thought I Was Saving My Life

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.

Bold in the Cold 2012

At one of the few races I ran this year, Bold in the Cold, with my friend, Hari.

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.

Palo Duro Trail Run 2012

At the Palo Duro 50K Trail Run last month.

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.

Here’s a great rebuttal published by Runner’s World on the studies mentioned.

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32 comments

  1. sahbinahvioletflynn

    Inflammation causes heart disease and the associated heart attack risks. Not all the stuff they’ve been talking about all these years. Yoga International just published a great article about it and gave very good info on how cholesterol etc works in the body. Keep running and doing yoga and whatever you do, don’t take statin drugs.

  2. iRuniBreathe

    I read the first study when it came out but haven’t yet read the second one. I agree with you that anything is moderation is the key. I was once in a race where a younger guy (30s) collapsed right at the finish line because his heart gave out. A few places behind him was a cardiologist. The dr said sometimes it just happens, not because of what you are doing or not doing.
    It’s like when people spend a year training for an Ironman and then collapse in the race. Was it the training, the race, or their pre-disposition?
    If we know and listen to our bodies, this is the best gauge. Nice post!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      A young girl in her 20’s collapsed and died a few miles from the finish line in my first marathon. We pass her memorial often on our long runs. She had a heart defect that no one knew about until the autopsy. It’s scary to think of all the things that could go wrong, or that something we do that we think is healthy could actually be hurting us, but I’m not going to stop running as long as I can be smart about it!

      • iRuniBreathe

        The girl who died is a perfect example. It could have happened on a walk, in a marathon, or one day in bed. We never know and that IS scary, but we need to do what makes us feel better along the way.

      • Mind Margins/Run Nature

        Exactly. I also read an article about a man who sprinted to the finish of a marathon and died of a heart attack immediately thereafter. A doctor who was consulted said that the overexertion of sprinting to the finish is too much of a shock for some people’s hearts, especially after such a long period of exertion. He recommends keeping an even effort all the way to the end. It makes sense to me, and you really don’t gain that much time by sprinting anyway. It just feels bad-ass!

      • iRuniBreathe

        I’m all for even keel. I don’t have much left in me to sprint. My mind does the sprinting for me, but my legs move just as slow as always. Good point to remember when someone asks me why I didn’t “go for it” at the finish line. I can say I was saving my heart.

  3. imarunner2012

    I’ve seen these articles before. It really scared me when they said your blood chemistry after a marathon was about the same as some who just had a heart attack!
    I think you are right about moderation. I think you can run long and hard if you listen to your body and give it the rest breaks it needs to heal.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      But we’ve also heard that eggs were bad, then they were good, and margarine was really good, and now it’s really bad. More data and research is needed, but as long as we’re sensible and listen to our bodies I think running is still a lot better than a life of inactivity.

  4. MikeW

    Thanks for this concise personalized summary. I had not read these. Maybe I’ll ask some questions after reading the studies. I’m skeptical of the whipsaw findings and announcements filtered through health care media.

    I wonder if distance cyclists or swimmers show similar results to distance runners. If not, what directly causes marathon running to be so damaging versus other distance sports? Is it the speed? The tempo of pounding with higher speed? Body temperature? Unhealthy proportions of the wrong blood chemical accelerated against vessel walls? A combination?

    Let’s stay in touch on new discoveries. An important post.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Cyclists are actually included in one of the studies, with the same results. It will be interesting to see more research and data on this issue, which will become important as more and more people train for marathons and longer distances.

      • MikeW

        I’ll keep a close lookout too. Enjoyed what was longer distance for me this past year, however, do have an affinity for multi-dimensional, adaptive training with a heavy dose of feel. Looks like you have a similar approach within your running discipline and that the speed factor does count. I think yoga is a balancing factor too in its tendency toward tissue relaxation and deep oxygenation. I’d like to see info on track athletes too. Very courageous post in its honesty coming from an ultra runner.

      • Mind Margins/Run Nature

        I’ve done yoga since I was a teenager, but I think I appreciate it more now that I’ve been running for these past seven hears. It’s like the magic pill that keeps me supple and loose, and it’s done wonders for back stiffness that came out of nowhere a few years ago. I pretty much let yoga lapse when I started running and it’s taken a full year to get some of that old flexibility back. It definitely balances everything out.

  5. riverlaketrail

    I agree that you should listen to your heart and go for quality of life, whatever that entails. Moderation with a bit of added spice seems good to me.

    Extreme endurance sports can be hard on the heart, but I guess it depends on a lot of factors. The WSJ article merely refers to an upcoming Editorial in “Heart”, so who knows? The studies they’ll refer to are mostly correlative, so they don’t tell us enough. Of course we’ve all heard most of our lives that middle-aged and older people should consult a physician before undertaking exercise, etc. The docs would all agree that we should take care not to let our electrolytes get out of whack.

    Those speed studies usually include people who don’t get all that much aerobic exercise, but I did not try to look up the one referred to in the WSJ article.

    When I’m 99, I wouldn’t mind dying in the woods when I’m off trail. Nothing to fear at any pace.

    Thanks for the post, and keep running!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Kind of like Caballo Blanco, eh? I agree, it would be a nice way to go, just head off into the woods and not return.

      Yes, the studies mentioned leave out a lot of factors, I’m sure. Running long distances may cause some heart damage, but the alternative — running less just to play it safe — seems akin to “a life less lived.” I think I’ll keep paying attention to what my body tells me and take my chances.

      Thanks for your insightful comment!

  6. Andy Coleman

    Thanks Angela. I think you are right – you need to listen to your body and also slow down. My days of 7:30 miles are over also. I’ve seen many articles on the benefits of exercise, but its like everything – you can overdo a good thing. I suspect we’ll see additional studies that contradict this one – but its another good metric to consider. For me personally, I’ve had a loved one affected by Alzheimers. Study after study indicates that to help prevent that you need to ensure your brain gets a good dose of oxygen – and what better way, imho, to do that than to go on a long slow run. Depression, insomnia, are also reduced (or eliminated). I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but of course to me the best part is the camaraderie we have – spending 2 hours talking to good friends is definitely the other reason we run (as Kenneth Cooper suggested). One of my good friends at work always says: You’ve got to die of something – which is true, but I’m still going to put up a heckava fight.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Me, too! I plan on living forever, or at least I’ll go down fighting! Running feels right and natural and I plan on continuing as long as I’m healthy enough to do so, regardless of what the studies say.

  7. AndrewGills

    I also think it’s about moderation. It makes sense to me that running a lot of hard miles would strain the heart in the same way it would strain other muscles. But it also seems equally likely that running at conversational pace for long distances would strengthen thrust heart just as moderate weight exercises strengthen the bones and muscles.

    The whole overdoing it thing seems unsustainable anyway over a lifetime. But your seemingly balanced approach where you focus on enjoyment not training to pain does seem sustainable.

    With lots of races, I think it’s not the number of races but the effort exerted that is the critical factor. For example, I love to race but not compete. Many of my races are more like training (eg I stop to take photos). But I know people who race twice a year but train ridiculously hard for those races. And I mean ridiculously hard to the extent I won’t run with them anymore bc they make every session about pain.

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      That’s why I hate running 5K’s, because I feel the distance is so short I have to run flat out at top speed, which is simply not enjoyable to me at all. I love placing in my age group as much as the next person, and I do “compete” at times, but less so now than a few years ago. My focus has shifted to endurance, longer distances, and enjoying the experience more.

      • AndrewGills

        LOL. I hate 5kms too … unless it’s dressed as a zombie (yes, there is an event here where we get to dress up as zombies and chase humans to take their lives – well, life tags).

        PS: Did I read that you are over 50? Man, if I am as fit as you when I pass 50 I’ll be seriously cheering!

      • Mind Margins/Run Nature

        Yes, you read correctly. The older I get the more I realize age truly is just a number. And I love running with my friends who are in the 30’s and 40’s and being able to keep up with them!

  8. mlchaplin

    In reading the first excerpt you shared from the article, it seems like it’s saying that people who regularly run more that 20 miles a week on average live as long as people who don’t run at all, while people who run less than 20 mi/week live about 19% longer. So ultra distance running, according to this study, doesn’t make you life longer. I’m okay with that, because it makes life BETTER, and no study can change my conviction about that!

  9. Liz H

    I like to remember that there are worse things I could be doing to my body. My doctor always tries to remind me that I don’t have to run such long distances to stay healthy. What he does not understand, is that at this point in my life I do. I need to challenge myself while I am able. I need the socialization aside from work and motherhood. At some point I am sure I will cut back and not attempt marathons but for now…. Dallas, I will see you at the start line in one week!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      You are going to do so fantastic in your marathon next Sunday, Liz! I wish I could be there to run you in. 😦
      I think you’re a true long distance runner. It’s in your blood. You’re not going to cut back. You’ll eventually head in a new direction, like trail running, perhaps?

  10. Dallan

    Interesting post! I think people can some how figure out how anything or everything is some how unhealthy for us. I do agree that when we go running there is wear and tear we put on our bodies, but over all I think the benefits of running out weigh the wear and tear. There may be exceptions to that in the case of chronic health problems that could become magnified when trying to run. In those case then a different form of exercise should be used. Those are my two cents! 🙂 Good luck with your 50 mile training. Which race are planning on running?

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      I’m running Rocky Raccoon down in Huntsville, TX on February 2. I’m like you, I think the data can be manipulated any way you want to come up with a result that proves your point. In the meantime, I’ll keep running and having my doctor tell me how healthy I am.

  11. figgystardust

    This is pretty crazy stuff. My husband is a hard core road bike racer and is concerned as there have been new studies linking high intensity and endurance sports to atrial fibrillation. Yikes!! I guess its all about moderation, I’m going to keep eating cake, sometimes, running hard, sometimes, etc…!

    • Mind Margins/Run Nature

      Be sure and check out the link at the bottom of the post that pretty much debunks everything that was said in the original study. I’m going to keep running long distances at my own speed, just have fun, and not worry about it. And cake? Of course!

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