It never fails. Whenever I am in a discussion with non-runners and the topic comes up, someone in the room always says, “Running 26.2 miles can’t be good for you.” Here’s another common one: “I can’t run because I have bad knees.” Others like to point to specific cases where marathon runners have suffered (sometimes fatal) heart attacks. Let’s analyze each of these situations individually and then perhaps we can draw a conclusion.
“Running 26.2 miles can’t be good for you.”
This is perhaps the easiest myth to discredit. Training for, and completing, a marathon can absolutely be good for you and the benefits are too lengthy to list in this post. Improved cardiovascular health, stronger immune system, greater resistance to disorders of many organs, weight loss, lower blood pressure, improved metabolism, etc. There are, without a debt, inherent risks with subjecting your body to such rigors. Some of these risks are much more serious than being too sore to walk to the commode the next morning. Nutritional imbalances can overtax many of your normal bodily functions. Improper training, overtraining, or undertraining can be detriments as well. This is why most experts recommend training or running regularly for at least a year before even attempting a marathon training program. This gives you an opportunity to build up your base. Perhaps more importantly, it gives you an opportunity to learn the in’s and out’s of nutrition and proper training. You wouldn’t take a Bar Exam if you haven’t been to Law School.
“I can’t run because I have bad knees.”
Running is not inherently bad for your knees. In fact, running accelerates the maintenance and rebuilding of healthy cartilage. The breakdown of cartilage is what causes osteoarthritis. A generally healthy person should not be deterred from running based on fear of damaging his knees. Knee issues can certainly surface, particularly if you have chronic issues. But these can be neutralized through proper training. Get professionally fitted for shoes. I cringe when I hear people say they are in the same department store shoes they have had for five years. Invest in a quality pair. Stay away from old, junkie treadmills. Treadmills are NOT all the same and bad ones can trigger a whole host of injury concerns. Look into nutritional supplements like Chondroitin Glucosamine. Bad knees and running don’t have to be mutually exclusive. A runner with bad knees just has to be diligent in protecting himself. A blind person can still get a value meal even if he can’t go through the drive thru.
“Runners have heart attacks.”
Three-time New York City Marathon champion Alberto Salazar had a heart attack a few years ago. He was only 48 and still running 25-30 miles a week. Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, was one of the pioneers of running for fitness purposes. He died after a heart attack during his daily run at the age of 52. Yes, there are more stories like this. But both Salazar and Fixx were predisposed to heart conditions. Salazar had been on a host of blood pressure and cholesterol medications for over a decade. Fixx was a 2-pack per day smoker until his mid-30’s, had a congenitally enlarged heart, and his father died of a heart attack at age 43. Like any form of strenuous exercise, we all have to know our limitations to remain safe. There is a difference between racing a marathon and casual running for the sake of general fitness. Know your body and, if necessary, consult a professional before determining the path that’s right for you and your long-term health goals. It is still widely accepted, however, that running (even marathon running) leads to a stronger, healthier heart.
Marathon running is a personal lifestyle choice. Take proper precautions, learn how to train properly, and I’ll see you at the finish line. if you are unsure whether marathon running is safe, given your personal circumstances, talk to your doctor. But if it’s something you really want to do, don’t automatically rule it out based on vague and often misrepresented assumptions.