Weekly Wellness: Running – the good, the bad and the ugly

Marathon runners. | Getty Images
Marathon runners. | Getty Images

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses why you should be careful when incorporating long-distance running into your daily workout routine.

Running and other forms of cardiovascular exercise have been popular since the aerobics boom of the 1970s. Marathon running in the Olympics and several doctors who focused on the positives of aerobic work really helped accelerate interest in running in this country. Overall, I would say this was a step in the right direction for improving fitness. At the same time, with the vast scientific knowledge we now have in many facets of human physiology and fitness, I believe it is time to question and reevaluate the idea of running being the bulk of an individual’s fitness program.

As the title suggests, there are positive and negative aspects of running. This is not just a black and white issue, and moderation in fitness is crucial for long-term motivation and application. Some of the positives of running (note: I am referring to distance running/jogging in this article, not sprinting, as there are vast differences in the effects of these two methods) include burning a lot of calories to create a caloric deficit and general fat loss, improving blood-oxygen and Vo2 levels, and a temporary raising of endorphin levels. While this list is not comprehensive, these are generally the reasons a person would choose to keep distance running as a mainstay in their fitness program. As you will see, however, the benefits of running do not hold up against the ever-increasing list of reasons to avoid an excessive amount of distance running.

Distance running has the tendency to make a person weak, meaning that each of the individual physical efforts that make up the run, which are low-intensity and highly repetitive, is easy — none of these efforts are physically difficult from a strength perspective. All you have to do is take a look at the best marathon runners. As dominant as they are in their chosen sport, it does not take a professional eye to see the emaciated physique and lack of muscular stature on these athletes. Excessive running makes and keeps you weak.

As we age, we lose muscle. This is a problem, because with muscle loss we become brittle and at risk for deteriorating bones and joints. Running exacerbates this muscle loss phenomenon through catabolic processes – basically, distance running is a muscle-wasting process. A reduction in muscle mass over time also slows the metabolism, as was mentioned in the previous three articles about metabolic damage.

Endurance training, distance running in particular, is not the best or only way to keep the heart healthy. Despite the vast amount of data demonstrating that the heart is sufficiently stimulated by correctly designed strength training programs, and that diet is a far more important factor in the prevention of heart disease than exercise, the belief that long-distance cardio is the key to heart-health is still stuck in the psyche of most Americans. This must change, as science is continuing to demonstrate that heart health is improved in higher-intensity, muscle-building forms of fitness beyond what distance-cardio provides. 

Perhaps the single-greatest reason to avoid comprising the majority of your fitness program with distance running (in my humble opinion anyway) is that eventually your body will break down. It’s really not that difficult to follow the logic – if excessive running decreases muscular strength, and this leads to muscle loss, then the blunt force of those 1,500 hops per leg per mile that the average runner takes is primarily absorbed by the joints. The ankles, knees, hips and spine all eventually take a beating from distance running. It is one thing to have been running for years and have a built-up tolerance to this joint-pounding, but it is quite another to pursue an aggressive running program in your 40’s, 50’s, or beyond and to expect your body to hold up in the process. I can assure you, after enough mileage, you will be hurting.

As a strength coach, personal trainer and fitness professional, I firmly believe that distance running should be reserved for, you guessed it, competitive distance runners, including: cross-country athletes, long distance track athletes and marathon runners. Even so, these competitive individuals should be doing plenty of cross-training activities that help to build their muscular strength, off-setting the joint-pounding that happens during long runs. 

If you are a person who honestly enjoys distance running – great, keep at it. But let me encourage you to have those runs make up no more than 25-35 percent of your total fitness time over a weekly period so that you avoid the common pitfalls previously mentioned. Always stretch and work your joint mobility and perform an effective, multi-joint strength training program two or three times per week to gain strength and grow muscle.

If you are an older person and are considering jogging for fitness after months or years of not doing this activity, please keep the jogging to an absolute minimum, if at all. By this time in your life, the issues of healthy joints and maintaining muscle mass and bone density are far more important than the slight caloric burn you get from jogging. Most likely you have joint restrictions and aches and pains already, so why amplify them with jogging?

And lastly, if you are a child athlete in any sport other than cross-country, you do not have any business running more than a mile at a time. Many kids in this country are weak, lack muscle, and have tight bodies. These issues have been discussed in previous wellness articles. But the last thing a kid or child athlete needs is running 2, 3, or 4 or more miles on a regular basis when they are in this condition.  Children need to be strong to excel in sports. Excessive running makes kids weak and tight. 

THE TAKEAWAY: Running has some benefits, but these benefits are found in more scientifically-sound methods of training, including: strength training and high-intensity interval training. Our population, more specifically children and athletes across the board, needs less running and more stretching/mobility, strength training and sprinting.

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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