Okay, so we always hear about the effects of long distance running on the body–about how its bad for your longevity, and that there is a correlation between our sport and heart attacks.

But how can all of this be true? After all, aren’t there a lot of health benefits to marathon running? And what about the weight loss without having to give up the foods we love?

Such a bunch of contradictory nonsense–who do we listen to?

Actually, the question is whether too much exercise is bad for you, as well as just how much running is healthy, and not, “are you losing your marbles?!”

Why do You Run?

First of all, lets take a look what gets us into our running shoes and out the door every day. Yes, we will try to answer the eternal question of, “Why do I run?”, though as any runner will tell you, there is no single reason.

That said, our most common motivations tend to be:

  • Simplicity.
  • Stress relief.
  • Maintaining our youth.
  • Sense of freedom.
  • Achievement of goals.
  • Getting to eat like a teenager without gaining a pound.
  • Endorphins.
  • Cardiovascular health.

And of course, there are many, many more reasons we could add to this list, were there enough space here.

However, what we won’t find on this list is anything to do with bad habits or unhealthy ways. In fact, a quick scan of the list gives us nothing but good, healthy reasons to hit the running trails.

So what is this about it not being a healthy sport?

Overdoing it

Like so many other things in life, running can be overdone. We find ourselves injured, tired, burnt-out and unmotivated at times, although many of us think of this as just something to push through.

However, there are good reasons we may want to listen to our “little” aches and pains, as well as other indicators that we may be overdoing it:

  • Loss of appetite.
  • Irritability.
  • Weight gain.
  • Brain fog.
  • Insomnia and waking in the night, despite being tired during the day.
  • Loss of fitness, strength and power.

What these symptoms are telling us is that you we over training, and that our bodies are having trouble keeping hormones balanced, amongst a host of other potential health problems.

The good news?

We can always back off, recover, and be just fine.

However, continuing to overdo it on a regular basis is not such a great idea, according to science.

The Unhealthy Part of Running (Or Any Endurance Sport)

Running in general is certainly good for us. In fact, as little as 50 minutes per week of  running can decrees our mortality risk by 30%, and increase our life expectancy by 3 years.

However, devout runners rarely run this little. Many, in fact, may run around twice that amount on a daily basis. Add to this that more and more, studies are showing us that athletes who continue to perform at high intensity and high volume for extended periods of time are likely damaging–as opposed to strengthening–their heart.

Cycling legend Eddy Merckx is a prime example of this. Known for having one of the strongest “engines” of any cyclist of any era, Merckx had the uncanny ability to simply ride the pack off his wheel, should he so desire.

However, Merckx now suffers from non-obstructive hypertophic cardiomyopathy–a genetic condition acerbated through years of hard racing and training. What this means is that he has an abnormal thickening of the heart muscle, which leaves him short of breath, and suffering from chest pains, heart palpitations and fainting spells.

True, this is only one example of the dangers of too much exercise, but there are plenty more. Jim Fixx and Micah True–AKA Caballo Blanco–come to mind. Both were devout runners who died prematurely due to heart failure.

Studies show us that when we run, we are subjecting our heart to “Cardiac Inflammatory Biomarkers” and heart structural changes when we perform at a high tempo, and for extended periods. This is something which proper recovery can help negate, although when an athlete continues to perform day-in-and day-out at this level, these changes and CIB’s add up to the point where permanent changes and damages occur.

This in turn can lead to:

  • Atrial fibrosis, or the thickening and hardening of the heart’s connective tissues.
  • Interventricular septum, or holes in the heart.
  • Atrial and ventricular arrhythmias, or abnormal heart beats.
  • Calcium buildup in the arteries.

In fact, it has been estimated that chronic endurance training and racing can lead to a five times greater risk of developing heart damage.  This is particularly true for those over the age of 45.

There is also oxidative stress–or the buildup of free radicals, which then causes plaque buildup in arterial walls. Think of this as being similar to an engine burning fuel, and exhaust carbon building up in cylinders over time. Without a visit to your mechanic to de-carbonize the cylinders, your engine runs poorly, gets worse mileage, pings and dies.

Likewise, the buildup of free radicals in you can lead to cellular damage, heart disease, high cholesterol and dementia, as well as other diseases.

So Should I Stop Running Altogether?

Keep in mind that the negative effects of exercise take place after years of high-intensity, high-mileage training and racing. Despite these dire warnings, other studies have shown us that those who participate in marathons, ultra-marathons, pro cycling and other endurance sports live an average of 7 years longer than those who do not.

The big difference? Those who live long, healthy lives don’t continue to train for peak fitness for extended numbers of years.

Pro cyclists, for instance, usually retire in their late 30’s or early 40’s. And, while they generally continue to enjoy their sport in retirement, they do so at a much lower intensity and volume than in their heyday.

Most amateur marathoners will train intensely for a targeted event, and then back off and recover afterward, until it is time to pick out another event to focus on and train for.

High-volume recreational runners (the smart ones, anyway) get adequate rest after long runs, and listen to their bodies on days when they are not up to the usual work load, and rest accordingly.

The bottom line? It is not running and exercise in itself which causes health damage, but rather, it is prolonged daily exercise at a high intensity without adequate rest which is dangerous, particularly as we get older.

The bottom line?

So continue hitting the trails and enjoying your daily run–no need to torture yourself by quitting cold turkey!

In fact, with proper rest and training, you can even continue racing into your senior years.

And, if you are young, train hard–you deserve to reap the benefits of youth and training for peak fitness. There is no reason not to enjoy it while you can!

However, as we approach our golden years, training for peak fitness on a continuous basis may not be in our best interest–at least not if we want to remain truly healthy.

So back off, rest on days when you just don’t feel up to it, and recover completely after any long, hard efforts. If something hurts, don’t push it, and above all, learn to listen to your body.

In short, lowering your daily volume and intensity while making recovery a part of training will improve your well-being and longevity.

Have any particularly good tips on recovery and staying healthy? Let us know in the comments!