For us marathoners, the news was about as encouraging as a stress fracture. “Running farther, faster can kill you,” read the NBC News headline. The Wall Street Journal offered an even starker take: “One Running Shoe in the Grave.”
These and many other media outlets were reporting about a new study on the dangers of long-distance running. So what's the deal? I sure as heck don't want to swap the cozy confines of my home for bone-chilling long runs if all it's going to buy me is an early finish line in life.
Dr. Prescott prescribes
Don't be too quick to hang up your running shoes (or your hat and gloves, which you'll definitely need for winter runs).
A study published in the December issue of the British medical journal Heart looked at 52,600 people over three decades, and it found that those who ran more than 20 to 25 miles per week lived no longer than those who didn't exercise at all. Another recent study also found that people who ran faster than 7 minutes and 30 seconds per mile when they exercised enjoyed no mortality advantage over couch potatoes. But in both studies, people who ran regularly, but at shorter distances and slower paces, lived longest.
The idea that pushing too hard and too long could damage the body makes a certain amount of empirical sense, and research has shown that prolonged, intense exercise can cause short-term scarring in the heart. Still, the current data are far from determinative. They simply point to an association between long-distance and high-intensity running and shorter life spans in certain populations.
On the flip side, similar studies from Stanford University — co-authored by Eliza Chakravarty, M.D., who has since joined our faculty at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation — have found that long-distance runners enjoy longer lives and less disability than their non-running counterparts. And new research published in the British medical journal BMJ found that Olympic medalists in the most taxing endurance sports (running, cycling and rowing) had longer lives than the rest of us.
Understandably, such competing data might leave you scratching your head. But as you ponder and await the inevitable next study on this topic, remember that endurance exercise has a host of benefits that far outweigh its dangers. If your current routine is serving you well, I see no reason to alter it.
Nevertheless, the new studies present one more reminder to remain vigilant. Keep up with annual physicals. If you experience any problems that could be related to your heart — erratic heart rhythms, chest pain or tightness — visit a doctor.
But barring such issues, don't let alarmist headlines stop you from hitting the road. Meanwhile, I'll be curled up inside with a good book. Definitely not Christopher McDougall's “Born to Run,” though. I'll leave that one to you.
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. Cohen is a marathoner and OMRF's senior vice president and general counsel.