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Is Distance Running good for you?

Note: This article originally appeared in the April 2014 Issue of In Shape for Life, our e-newsletter

In the March 2014 issue of In Shape for Life, I wrote about the three pillars of the Superslow training philosophy: Safety, Efficiency, and Effectiveness. I compared Superslow to a host of other exercise methods, all of which failed to meet the standards of Superslow training in one or more of these three pillars.

Now that warmer weather is finally upon us in Virginia, the most popular of these "other" exercise methods seems to be running. Everywhere I go, I see men and women, young and old alike, running along roads and through neighborhoods. These runners may be running anywhere from one to ten or fifteen miles per outing and running anywhere from once per week to every day. Certainly there is a big difference between a casual jogger and a distance runner. I define distance running as any more than a few miles of easy jogging, and any more than a few times per week.

Presumably, most of these runners are trying to improve their fitness. Most people who do any exercise are either trying to lose weight, increase strength, improve cardiovascular efficiency, or enhance flexibility. Runners also may be attempting to improve their resting heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar, insulin sensitivity, etc. Finally, runners may be trying to relieve stress and improve their mental outlook. All of these goals are noteworthy. The question is: is running the smartest way to achieve these goals? Moreover, is running even good for you? Do the negative outcomes outweigh the potential benefits?

Let's look at a few of the major goals of runners:

-Losing weight - Runners hope to burn enough calories to lose excess fat from their bodies. However, a runner would have to run approximately 5 miles per day, 7 days per week, in order to burn the calories stored in 1 pound of body fat! To lose 1 pound per week via running, you will have to run 35 miles every single week. However, it is more complex and frustrating than that. All those miles run stimulate appetite and encourage runners to eat more than they did before starting their running program. While it can take an hour or more to run 5 miles, it only takes a few minutes of eating to completely negate the caloric burn achieved by the run.

Bottom line: running is not a great tool for losing weight

- Increase strength and improve muscle tone - Running can and does strengthen the lower body muscles to some degree at first (and does nothing for the upper body), but the moderate gains peak quickly and can even reverse with significant distance running. The muscles actually atrophy with overtraining (daily long distance running of over a few miles). You will notice that many marathon runners look emaciated - that is because they have lost most of their lean muscle mass due to their body's reaction to running.

Bottom line: running is not a good tool for improving strength and muscle mass.

- Cardiovascular fitness - This is supposedly the holy grail of distance running - the belief that running is the best thing you can do for cardiovascular health. However, the facts do not bear this out. Two primary aspects of cardiovascular fitness improvement are direct (stronger heart muscle, higher lung capacity, etc.) and indirect (ex. increased venous pathways leading to lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rate, etc.). Running does nothing for the lungs, and only moderately affects the heart muscle. As for the indirect aspects, distance running is not intense enough to stimulate an increase in the number of venous pathways in the body the way a high intensity exercise like Superslow does. Steady state activity like running primarily serves to strengthen the leg muscles, and only moderately at that.

Bottom line: running is a poor method for improving cardiovascular fitness.

So, running is an inefficient method of achieving most fitness goals. To make it even worse, distance running is rife with risk. A large percentage of distance runners get injured every year, with injuries running the gamut from ankles, to knees, to back issues and more. Additionally, distance running can weaken the runner's immune system, making them susceptible to all manner of viral and bacterial infections.

There is one benefit I think running can achieve - stress relief. Many people run, at least in part, for this benefit, and it is a worthy goal. However, stress relief can be achieved in a variety of safer ways, including walking, meditating, listening to music, etc. Even shorter distance and duration running can give the same stress relief benefit as can distance running with much less risk.

In conclusion, before you strap on your new Nike's and go for a run, consider the risks and rewards. Instead of running all those miles, it would be more beneficial to your health and wellbeing to take a walk with a loved one, lift weights intensely once or twice a week, eat well, and get plenty of rest.

Posted July 16, 2019 by Tim Rankin