Is Running Healthy for You?
For decades, running has been pretty safely enthroned as the “king” of exercise. Want to lose weight/get fit/look good? Run!, has been the mantra.
But contemporary research questions whether running is so great for us after all. We see examples of this in real life as well: running relating injuries, doctors’ advice to switch over to low-impact activities only, and distance runners passing away in their 50s from “athlete’s heart” or similar .
With these competing voices (“Running is good for you!” / “Running will hurt you.”), it’s hard to know what to think: Is running a natural human activity we were born to do? Or is it a damaging physical strain we’ve misinterpreted?
Here to help walk us through this question is Gabe Heck, a former Division I athlete who currently coaches others in their own health and fitness transformations. An avid runner throughout high school and much of college, it was normal for Gabe to log 80 miles of running per week. He’s had great running success, capturing a state title in track, finishing runner-up in cross country and being recruited to race for Cornell University. However, injuries plagued his collegiate career and he underwent what turned out to be a career-ending foot surgery.
Now, Gabe coaches and writes about a different style of fitness (check him out at Stay Fit Abroad) and we’ve asked him to talk us through what we need to know to decide if running is for us…or maybe not.
What are the primary health benefits of running?
Running has numerous health benefits. Some of the major ones include: improved aerobic capacity and a higher VO2 max, stronger bones and joints, a stronger core, increased stamina, improved insulin sensitivity, reduced risk of heart disease, enhanced mood, and—best of all—there are studies linking running to a longer lifespan!
What are the primary health concerns of running?
I do not know of a runner who has not suffered an injury at some point in their running career. Whether a hobby-jogger or Olympic marathoner, essentially all runners will become injured at some point in their training. This is due to the fact that running is incredibly hard on your muscles, bones, joints, tendons and ligaments. Because it’s a prolonged, repetitive motion, most people will eventually succumb to the pressure of pounding the pavement—or even grass.
Is it healthy to run long distances?
This is a tough question to answer. I used to subscribe to the mantra “more is better” when it came to running. But after digging into the literature for studies conducted on endurance running and human health, I can now definitively say that running long distances is far from ideal. Without delving too deeply into the specifics, research has revealed that endurance runners tend to be far more susceptible to low-grade systemic inflammation, high cortisol, disturbed sleep patterns, oxidative stress and, over time, potential coronary artery calcification.
What do we know about our early ancestors and running?
It’s safe to say that our early ancestors were far, far, far more active than we are today. This does not necessarily mean that they ran more—rather, they engaged in more low-level movement frequently throughout the day, via hunting and gathering.
While it has been documented that some tribes did run long distances (e.g. the Tarahumara featured in Born to Run), the vast majority of historical evidence points to engagement in short, intense durations of running, or “sprinting,” from predators or when hunting. Food and resources necessary for survival were obviously far more limited, so for our ancestors to burn precious energy engaging in running for running’s sake does not make a whole lot of sense.
What’s a “natural” amount of running for a human to engage in?
If someone loves to run as their primary form of exercise, I encourage them to go for it! However, as noted earlier, it may lead to injury if they over-do it, and it may not be as healthy as we are led to believe—especially if this is the only exercise they choose to do. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which can involve sprinting, is proven to be the most beneficial form of exercise, both from a health and time standpoint. This is part of any successful fitness program I create for my clients.
What is proper running footwear?
Having seen numerous foot/ankle specialists and undergoing foot reconstruction surgery and a recent ankle operation, I would have to say that the natural anatomy, strength and flexibility of one’s feet greatly impact their running. Highly cushioned shoes, along with customized inserts can help in certain circumstances but do not address the underlying problem for virtually every runner—our feet have been grossly underdeveloped from an early age.
Unless you grew up in an environment where shoes were not necessary, everyone has been wearing something on their feet since they began to walk. This has allowed unnatural movement patterns to chronically develop as the feet end up doing less “work” to push off the ground, while the heel bears far more impact through footwear use.
I suggest that a runner first buy shoes that are more on the minimalist side (less support/cushion, lower heel), in addition to performing foot strengthening exercises (there are numerous routines available online, such as this one). When possible, walk barefoot to help further strengthen your feet and ward off injury down the road. If all of this fails, try buying shoes with more support.
So, in sum—to run or not to run?
Long-term endurance running as your only form of exercise is likely to cause injury over the years. Assuming your goal is health and longevity, moderate amounts of running, particularly interval training or HIIT has many health benefits. If you would like to try distance running, just be sure to build up gradually in order to avoid strain and injury. A reasonable rule of thumb is to start with a comfortable pace for 15-20 minutes and increase slowly to 45-60 minutes of running if desired.
Note from Gabe: You will find opinions about running on totally opposite ends of the spectrum—these are simply my beliefs based on experience and research.
Gabe Heck is an online health and fitness coach living in Bangkok, Thailand. He is a graduate of Cornell University and has worked with health-tech startups in New York City and Singapore. Visit him at Stay Fit Abroad.
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