Would You Still Run If It Were Bad For You?

Young runner

“Wow. Have you read this?! Scary stuff! Please be care­ful,” read an email I received from a friend last week link­ing to an arti­cle titled, “Study Is Cau­tion­ary News on Exces­sive Exer­cise For Run­ners.” Ever since I start­ed run­ning ultra marathons a few years ago, I’ve occa­sion­al­ly been giv­en grief about how bad it is for my knees, hips, feet, etc. in addi­tion to con­sis­tent looks of pity from non-run­ners, as if they just found out I’m a leper.

I rolled my eyes, let out a “humph” through my smirk, and clicked on the link, assum­ing it was a lame joke. It wasn’t. This was a real study with sur­pris­ing results. By the end of the week­end, many more friends had sent the arti­cle my way, and the dif­fer­ent run­ning com­mu­ni­ties I’m a part of were buzzing with reac­tions to it.

The study, con­duct­ed by Robert Schwartz and col­leagues at the Min­neapo­lis Heart Insti­tute Foun­da­tion, focused on ‘exces­sive run­ners’, which was defined as some­one who runs at least one marathon a year for 25 years. The aver­age age of the test’s sub­jects was 50–59, and the run­ners in the tests all had a low­er rest­ing heart rate and body mass index than the non-run­ners. The men in the study were found to have 62% more plaque (includ­ing cal­ci­fied plaque and soft, fat­ty plaque) buildup in their coro­nary arter­ies than non-runners.

As I read on, my eye­brows knit­ted togeth­er and my shoul­ders dropped. I felt like I was being told my hus­band cheat­ed on me. It was that sur­pris­ing and awful. What the hell? Running—the longest love of my life—can be bad for me?

Yup. Looks like it.Running feet

Well, to be fair, it’s appar­ent­ly only bad for you if you do it a lot. The study sug­gests cap­ping your week­ly mileage off around 15–20 miles. This is less than usu­al­ly required to ade­quate­ly train for a marathon and would be con­sid­ered tak­ing a week off to most peo­ple in the ultra run­ning com­mu­ni­ty. Read­ing the sug­gest­ed mileage felt like a slap in the face, and I couldn’t help but think, “Why even run then?”

In no way do I mean to be deroga­to­ry against those who are quite hap­py run­ning 15–20 miles a week. That is some­thing to be proud of and, appar­ent­ly, that is a much smarter and health­i­er way to go about being a run­ner than the path I’ve chosen.

But I don’t run for the mileage, to be bet­ter than any­one else, or even for my heart health if I’m real­ly being hon­est. I run because it gives me a soul. Run­ning is the only rea­son I even believe I may have a soul. I don’t con­sid­er myself a reli­gious per­son at all, but run­ning has brought me clos­est to under­stand­ing the idea of being in the hands of some­thing larg­er. To say I love it is an under­state­ment. I love what run­ning allows me to learn about myself and—sorry science—I can’t learn it all in 15–20 miles a week.

So yeah, I’ve read the study. Yeah, I under­stand and believe the out­come. Yeah, it’s a bit disappointing—and scary. But no, I’m not going to run less. (Sor­ry Mom.) Per­haps I am an addict and this is my drug, and it will even­tu­al­ly kill me some day, but I will be hap­pi­er per­son while liv­ing and have some damn good sto­ries from trails and races that pushed and pulled me through amaz­ing experiences.

I replied to my con­cerned friend’s email with, “Thanks for the head’s up. I’ve also read that one study showed that indi­vid­u­als who ate mul­ti­ple times a day, slept at night, and bathed reg­u­lar­ly for 80+ years died—no mat­ter how much exer­cise they did. Scary, eh? …Seri­ous­ly though, I love you too.”

By: Audra Run­dle