Friday, November 30, 2012

Why Going Fast and Long Might Be Wrong

Many people (including Ken and my mom) sent me the article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week entitled, “One Running Shoe in the Grave: New Studies on Older Endurance Athletes Suggest the Fittest Reap Few Health Benefits.” Maybe everyone thinks I’m going to drop dead running. I doubt it. And if I do, I won’t be running in a cemetery.


This is an actual grave in Cleveland where someone left running
shoes as an offering. It is thought that “Young” was a runner.

If you didn’t read this controversial article, it is interesting food for thought.  But let’s just say, for every action, there has to be an opposite reaction. Like how coffee kills you but it also makes you grow hair on your chest and keeps dementia away. Or, eggs are evil and will clog your arteries – oh, wait never mind, there are actually some decent health benefits. Basically what I have decided is that you can make a case for any way that you live your life. You just have to find that one study that supports it.

If you read my blog, you know that I not only do I think running is amazing for you spiritually, mentally and physically (maybe not financially), but I also think it’s a wonderful antidote to growing older (read my post about aging and running HERE). My philosophy has always been that despite any nagging injuries, the risk of falling down on the trail or the very slight chance you will die during a marathon (a one in 100,000 risk), running is a gift and is far, far better than hanging out on the couch eating Doritos and Twinkies (oops, too soon?) and drinking Coors Light.

That said, here’s what this article contends (in a nutshell – go read it for details):

  • For older athletes (I’m not sure what “older” means), running can hurt your heart to the point that the benefits of running are erased
  • Running too fast and too far could make you die quicker
  • Running 25+ miles per week gives you no benefit in regards to lengthening your life
  • Running in excess of 8 mph (7:30 minute/mile pace)gives you no benefit in regards to lengthening your life
  • Most cardiologists agree that “endurance athletics significantly increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia that is estimated to be the cause of one third of all strokes. ‘Chronic extreme exercise appears to cause excessive 'wear-and-tear' on the heart’."


My first thought is that I’m okay because I can’t run 7:30 minute miles.

In all seriousness, I don’t care what this study says. It won’t change that I like to run far and sometimes for hours at a time. It won’t change that I want to get faster or run into my old age. What the study does not account for is that I don’t only run for health benefits. In fact, if there was absolutely no real health benefit to running, but it still made me feel on top the world, I would still do it.

I would bet all the Power Ball winnings that I didn’t win that few runners will let a study like this really change what they do. I think this because like anything in life, you take a risk. You find what you love to do be it jumping out airplanes, knitting blankets for babies or photographing elephants in Africa and you accept that you take chances (Yes, you could stab yourself in the eye with a knitting needle). How are we supposed to live and love life if we let ourselves be so consumed by every little thing that could happen to us? I can’t and won’t exist that way.

I do, however, think it’s important to be responsible.  Train with a heart rate monitor to be sure your heart rate is where it should be for certain types of runs. Get regular physicals. Eat and rest well. Don’t beat up your body – give it TLC in the form of decent recovery, cross training and bodywork like massage and chiropractic. Listen to your body and be in touch with the messages it is trying to give you. And, if you have a heart condition, for God’s sake pay attention and talk to your doctor.

Do you think an article like this will make you think twice about how you run in terms of miles per week and/or speed?

Do you think that running is inherently risky? Do the benefits outweigh the potential hazards?



  1. This is terrible science reporting.

    Correlation ≠ causation!

    Just off the top of my head I posit that people continuing in "endurance" sports at advanced ages /may just/ be a bit more type A than the average fun runner, and may have a generally higher stress lifestyle (which IS positively linked to deterioration in all body systems).

    These are the sorts of things one MUST address in these studies or credibility goes out the window.

  2. I read the article and the effect it had on me was instead of running 7 mi yesterday and pushing it, I ran 5 at a comfortable pace. Will I stop running? no. Will I never push myself again? nope. Everything we do is a risk. I'd rather risk this one thing.

  3. I listened to some radio people talking about this, and was shaking my head the whole time. Doing no exercise is very bad for you. Doing too much exercise is bad for you. The same could be said for everything else about our lives. Everything. Even sex and drinking water.

    Then there are the things that could happen to you WHILE running, just like things can happen to you doing any other activity. So all them cancel out.

    Nearly everybody in North America (with the exception of the people reading this blog) is on the too little exercise side of that equation. "Chronic extreme exercise" is way further out there than most people would believe. I'd suspect that most pro triathletes would not qualify.

    My private suspicion is that a lot of these "injuries" are in fact overdoing it injuries. The guy that is sort of trained for doing 5 to 10 K races, and decides to blitz half marathon training.

  4. There are studies to show each side of every point. Paraphrasing Keith, it's about a balanced approach. And JoggingJawa has a good point.

  5. Here's what I know running has done for me. 18 months ago, I was trim and active in a rather easy way (occasional spin class, aerobic class, lap swimming). But raking my yard would make me sore and stiff. Too much skiing in one day would keep me quiet.

    For the past 15 months I've been running 18-25 miles per week. After Superstorm Sandy, my building lost power. I had to lug boxes and boxes of ruined archives and paper documents and program materials (that weighed tons!) from the basement to the third floor of our building. 5 hours a day, for 4 days of up and down 3 flights of stairs. Non-stop. At no time was I sore or achey. At no time was I out of breath. I'm 46, and I kept pace (even did better) than my colleagues 20 years my junior.

    I'll take the risk of running and being able to perform hard physical labor any day over a more sedentary lifestyle.

  6. This article is such interesting timing for what has been happening in my running life. It really does confirm what my body has been trying to tell me--I need to take a hard look at what all this running is doing to me. Since I ran Chicago last year, I have struggled to regain my momentum. The training and the race really took a toll on me. I have been plagued with injuries and illnesses this year--me who never gets sick. I've been doing a lot of reflecting on this, and short of giving up running (which I refuse to do), I think I may finally have come to the realization that at age 50, I may need to start to change things up a bit. I won't give up running and am going to train with a heart rate monitor, but probably won't do any more marathons. Right now I struggle to run 24 miles/ week. I think I need to let go a little bit. I bought a road bike last year and have been increasing the days I do yoga. If only I loved to swim...

  7. So weird my step dad just BARELY sent me an email with a link to this article :D I literally closed the article and came to your blog. CREEPY! I agree with everything you said and guess what if I do DIE running then I died happy and doing something that I love! Thanks for the great post!!

  8. For the most part, any sort of heart disease is caused by endothelial injury. Shear stress (caused by exercise) releases nitrous oxide, which is beneficial and protects the endothelium (through lots of processes) inflammation does the opposite. Inflammation can be caused by many things (hello those of us with bad knees!); allergies, poor diet, chronic stress, the list is very long. So this information, I think, would be very subjective. I know very few athletes that are vegetarian (which is a cardio protective diet) and very many that eat high protein diet on a regular basis (which is not good for you despite what Dr. Atkins thought). All of those things contribute to atherosclerosis & plaque formation. Does it mean stop running? No. But take care of yourself & just because you're thin doesn't mean you should eat whatever you want. And there is emerging studies and on-going research demonstrating that most sudden deaths for young athletes are due to channelopathies, something you have no control over anyway.

  9. My motto is, "Everything in moderation". I usually do 2 13+ mile races a year. So I don't think I can be considered an extreme athlete. The article won't affect me at all.

    The article does a slick job of including all distance runners:

    First, the article specifies extreme athletes: " articles finding cardiac abnormalities in extreme athletes".

    The next paragraph then specifies endurance athletes: "endurance athletics significantly increases the risk of atrial fibrillation".

    So what's an "extreme athlete", and what's an "endurance athlete"?

    To some, "extreme" could be a 10K, Half, Full, or Ultra.

    The article was rife with absence of enough facts to support the conclusion espoused by the article. Of the group of people followed, what did the other 81% die from? At what age does "older" start?

  10. Ha! Tonight at dinner mom informed me that too much exercise will kill me. Then I read this. Decided to blog about it.

  11. My dad read this article and was telling me about it. I started running with him when I was 15 and now I'm 29. He's my favorite running buddy and he is almost 60. He said he wasn't too worried because he really isn't running fast or far these days.

  12. I just read this article yesterday too. I wondered some of the same things as you about what counts as "older", and what is "extreme". I also agree that sometimes runners who put in a lot of miles think they can eat whatever they want--and that could affect heart health. But listening to your body and taking rest when necessary seem most important.

  13. I'd have to read the actual study to have any comment of substance, but I'm sure there is some truth to the thought that too much extreme exercise is not healthy. Even before reading the study, though, I question the 7:30 cut-off. How can one speed apply to all athletes?

  14. Can't run a 7:30 mile and too busy to log over 25mi/wk - SAFE! Ha, ha... I agree, what next? Maybe oxygen causes wrinkled...damn.

  15. Runners World has a nice counterpoint to the cited research (Alex Hutchinson's "Sweat Science" blog).

  16. Truthfully, doing any sport on a more serious, competitive level (which I guess in this case, is a 7:30 pace or faster?) has inherent risks. Football players risk severe brain damage from concussions. Soccer players tear the crap out of the ligaments in their legs. Tennis players mess up their rotator cuffs and baseball players sometimes get nailed with a ball flying at 90mph.

    I think once you're doing an activity more for the athletic aspect, regardless of which level you compete at, there will be some risks. But it's all part of living life and growing as a person!

  17. "In fact, if there was absolutely no real health benefit to running, but it still made me feel on top the world, I would still do it." YES!

  18. First line of the article lists a guy running a 5K at age 56 (so I guess a 5K is an "endurance" race and 56 is "older"). And it says the older athletes in the study had the same calcification as typically seen in the utterly sedentary - but at what age? If I'm 70 and a runner and I have the same heart as a 25 yo couch potato...

    AND it's an "editorial" article that's being cited (read: opinion). I wouldn't worry...

  19. I haven't yet read the article, not sure if I will even bother. My reasoning is simple. I'm fifty six years old, and have been running a little over three years. Other than the occaisional ache, I feel better than ever! I just ran my ninth half marathon last week and my goal is to run a half in all fifty states. I'm very slow (2:31 half) but, thats okay with me. Running keeps me feeling young and alive!

  20. I think I am more likely to be in a car accident than to destroy my heart running. Some of the healthiest 60+ year olds I know run great distances and bicycle across the state for fun. There may be some things to think about with endurance sports, but hell. 30 years ago 60 was OLD, and now look at them! They're in better shape than I am.

    I, for one, am willing to take the risk.

    1. Totally agree about being in a car accident, especially since I live and drive in Los Angeles. All I know is I ran 5 miles in the rain this morning and felt great!

  21. I'm sure that article was written by a jealous non-runner (OK, maybe not jealous). I think it's completely ridiculous. Runners (and athletes in general) are usually very in-tune with their bodies. Just because we might occasionally push through pain/injuries because we love running doesn't put us at risk of dying younger.
    It would be interesting to see how many runners plan to change their running habits/speed based on the article.

  22. NOPE! Wouldn't change my mind and basically for the reasons you said. There are studies out all the time that say one thing and then another that comes out saying the opposite.

    And like you said everything is a risk, hell driving is a risk. Can't huddle up on the couch and wait for life to move along!

  23. For about 20 years, I ran 45 to 55 miles a week, occasionally more and rarely less. My typical training pace was 7:00-7:30 per mile, sometimes faster but rarely slower than 8:00 per mile. The wheels started to fall off when I was about 44, with one surprising nagging injury after another. At age 65, recent x-rays and MRIs show significant degenerative problems, particularly in my hips, including bilateral trochanteric bursitis, tendinitis, osteoarthritis, and tendinosis, which is damage to my tendons at a cellular level. Next month, I will have a total hip replacement. Hopefully I wlll then be able to walk again without the pain I have been dealing with for the last three years. I'm not saying that I regret my training and racing during all those years, but I am saying that the inexorable march of time does take a toll that is not easily imagined when you are young, fit, and feeling great.

  24. Bleh. This article sensationalizes findings from a study of a very small percentage of the population. Running makes you healthier and feel better, let's just leave it at that!! :-)

  25. As a 60 something runner, I don't see any reason to stop. I love running like so many others do, but not necessarily to have a longer life. I feel truly blessed that I have been running for a number of years now and have had really no serious injuries, except for a few aches and pains. I am not a fast runner, but I am consistent. I have been a long distance runner for almost ten years and love my time with friends and my time alone. The feeling of well-being cannot be understated and if it doesn't make your heart feel good, than I don't know what will. Hurrah for endorphins!

  26. I had not seen this article- thanks for sharing. I love the way you addressed it and agree, most of us run because we love it, not for the health benefits. Sure, there may be risks involved with running, but not as risky as living a sedentary life. Why is everyone always picking on runners?!

  27. I feel much the same as you. I did an Ironman on Sunday and by Friday I was itching to run, even though I was supposed to rest for a week. I could have justified any length of time as rest but my head was itching for a run. I really don't care what opinion pieces say (the WSJ article) and will keep running as long as my body allows (and the run is my weakest sport!)

  28. They should have ran an article next to it on the benefits of being older and not getting any exercise were. I know A LOT of people on that wagon.

  29. That article means nothing to me. I am a true believer that you do what works for you and give your body what it needs to be healthy. It doesn't mean you don't go to a doctor, or take medicine if you need it, it just means that if you live your life according to studies that have been done you won't know which way is up. I asked my cardiologist if all this running and eating paleo/primal could hurt my heart (I have a bad valve) and he said no. There is my study. (Good thing too, I'd hate to have to find another cardiologist...hehe)

  30. I wasted 14 years of my life sitting on the couch eating Doritos and Twinkies and Ho Ho's and gained the weight to show for it. I had heart palpitations and had to shop in the Women's section for less than satisfactory clothing and styles. At 45, I could care less what this report says. One year later, 55 pounds lighter and 5 minutes per mile faster, there's no study that could tell me that what I do now is worse for me than what I did for 14 years before. I've never felt better and stronger, I no longer have heart palpitations and I can shop any darn place I want to. I still have a lot of work to do with my body and I will continue to push myself, but if I die in the process, at least I'll die doing what I love!

  31. A colleague dropped that issue of the WSJ on my desk and suggested I read it. I did. Meh. I don't put a lot of weight in the study (great analysis of the research on Runner's World ( Regardless of what studies show, I run to add life to my years, not years to my life. And I'd guess that most who run more than 20 miles a week on a regular basis (not just while training for a bucket-list marathon) feel the same.

  32. With my low speed and low mileage, I don't have any doubt that the benifits outweigh the risks to running in my life. If and when I do get to higher mileage living longer isn't really the goal. I choose to live better today. Running makes me live better.

  33. I say fuck 'em! I cannot tell you how many times some dumb health "professional" has given mw bad advice. I actually had a chiropractor tell me that i should stop running becauae there are other ways to stay healthy. Sure there are, however, i LOVE running and no one is going to make me stop because they aren't a runner and don't think its worth it. Ive been injured for close to six weeks now and i have finally decided im not letting it get in my way anymore. I ran a little this morning and did ok so i told my body (yes, i tell it what to do when ive had enough) it was going to have to suck it up cuz im running, damnit! No one and nothing is going to tell me not to be a runner!

  34. Any exercise has risks - MMA athletes run risks, boxers, weightlifters, tennis and football players, they all have risks, as does running. If we listen to why we're doing it, and if competition to beat someone else or our own personal best is what's driving you, you're bound to not listen to your body and then run the risk of injury, even death. If we do our "leisure activities" for the sheer joy of it, listen to our bodies and relax, realizing that not every time you're doing something do you need to do it to extremes, then one could, barring any genetic problems, probably live a long and happy running life.
    I plan on running until I have to buy a sports bra that covers me to my knees, but I will continue to let my body do the leading. I love playing tennis, but it kills my shoulder and elbow, so I slowed it down and don't play 4 times a week now.
    Everything in moderation, including moderation.
    Amy P. Philly Runner.

  35. Moderation that is key here. Of course, excessive running can be harmful, excessive anything has potential to be harmful. It has been documented that temporary cardiac damage can happen with running marathons, ultra runners losing vision during a race, extremely whacked out labs results after ultra runs. I read some running blogs where people are fairly new to endurance sports and go hog wild the first couple years ,run several ultras in a year and then, wham! wonder why they can't seem to get out of bed, feel ill does all of this affect one over the long haul? not sure. What is excessive for one person will not be to another. And it changes thru out our lives.
    As a side note, as a woman in my late 40's having a lot of perimenopausal BS i learned that perimenopause also increases cortisol so talk about a double whammy ! Cortisol affects the ability to recover!!
    So, should we all stop running? of course not, find the balance and be open to changing the balance when you need to. Be the runner you are today.

  36. I like your blog very much. I'm from Brazil and I'm gonna try to write a comment here for the first time. I agree with your post. I like to run and didn't even read this article at all. I prefer continue running without worries.

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