Better Off In The Long Run

Rethink your long distance running

Running is bad for you. The conventional wisdom is that if you run, you lose weight and improve your cardiovascular capabilities. This may be true in some cases, but for the majority there are some alarming consequences and in fact, running can have the opposite training effect you are trying to achieve. Let me clarify that what I mean by running is long distance running and what I mean by long distance is anything over 3 miles. That may seem like an insignificant amount but there are a couple of reasons as to why 3 miles is the limit.

It takes most people 20-30 minutes to complete a 3 mile run, this is around the time that growth hormone production peaks. One of the benefits of raised growth hormone levels is a raised utilization of fat stores which is great for weight loss. Cortisol, a hormone that does have some benefits but in increased amounts suppresses the immune system and causes weight gain, rises during and after exercise. Timing your workout to where the ratio of growth hormone to cortisol is in your favor is key if you are using cardio as a way of managing your weight. A study in 20121 found elevated cortisol levels in endurance athletes so unless you’re training for an endurance event, keep your workout short and sweet, just like a good rock band or tv show, go out on top.

The second reason you don’t want to be going over 3 miles is the pounding your joints take from the repetitive motion of running. I’ve never met a runner that isn’t or hasn’t been injured, no exception. The impact forces our bodies endure, particularly at our knee joints, is pretty astounding. The following is an extract taken from a thesis2 on the subject and it makes for interesting reading.

During each foot strike the body is exposed to repeated impact forces estimated to be two to three times the body weight of the runner (2,13, 16,17,21,36). Applying this fact to a 150-pound runner, who has an average of 400 foot-strikes per foot per mile, during a one-mile run each foot would endure between 60 and 90 tons of force (14). Typical runners training from 40 to 80 miles per week could expect to expose their bodies to approximately 16,000 to 32,000 impacts per leg per week, equivalent to about 2400 to 7200 tons of force (10)

While 40 to 80 miles per week is on the high side for the average runner, what’s more alarming is that every mile each foot is e n d u r i n g between 60 and 90 tons of force. That’s a lot of force t o a b s o r b. An even bigger concern is that dealing with these forces exposes and exacerbates all the muscular imbalances we have. Our bodies aren’t symmetrical, for example our organs are placed around our body unevenly and we are one sided dominant (right hand and left leg, left hand and right leg-its how our nervous system is wired). These asymmetries compound with the compensations we make during our daily lives, such as carrying a bag on one shoulder, shifting our weight to one leg while we are standing and sitting at a desk all day to create imbalances. Think about a car, if the wheels aren’t aligned there is an uneven burden placed on certain wheels, causing more wear and tear on the tires, suspension and brakes. The same thing happens with the body and by continuously going through the mechanical cycle of running, each foot strike causes the imbalances to become even more damaging, causing a myriad of problems most commonly found at the knee, back, hip and shoulder joints.

So, what to do instead? It depends on your goals. If weight loss is what you’re trying to achieve, lift weights. More muscle mass means higher metabolism, you’ll be burning calories even when you’re not at the gym. If you are trying to improve your endurance look at high intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is a bit of a junk term now as it gets thrown around a lot and used incorrectly but the founding principles ring true. Two big studies, the Gibala Study4 and Tabata Study5 both highlight the benefits of interval training. The Gibala Study found that there was an equal increase in VO2 max (our ability to use oxygen) between participants that either performed a 20 minute session consisting of 30 second sprints followed by 4 minutes of rest or 90-120 minutes of steady state cardio where participants were in their ‘target heart rate zones’. The Tabata study, where participants again either did longer durations at lower heart rates or 4 minutes of Tabata protocol (20 seconds of intense work with 10 seconds of rest in between).

Those performing the Tabata protocol showed bigger increases in their VO2 max than the longer endurance participants. Bearing in mind all that we’ve looked at regarding the detrimental byproducts of steady state cardio/ running on both fat loss and the joints, it’s pretty incredible that by performing only 2-4 minutes of actual high intensity work (not factoring in warm ups and rest periods) we can see an equal to greater improvement in our cardiovascular capabilities and thus circumnavigate these negative effects of running. One word of caution, HIIT isn’t something you can just jump into and it’s not for everybody so don’t attempt it without consulting a health/fitness professional.

Unless you’re training for something there really is no need to run long distances, you’ll pay the price down the line, if you’re not already. Whatever your goals are, there are superior methods of training with more rewards and less risk. Don’t be afraid of moving away from conventional thinking, run short and you’ll be better off in the long run.

  1. Elevated hair cortisol concentrations in endurance athletes. Skoluda, Nadine et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology , Volume 37 , Issue 5 , 611 - 617
  2. Sol, C. (2001, May 1). Impact Forces at the Knee Joint. A Comparative Study on Running Styles - by Constanza Sol, MBA - Pose Tech’s Online Library. Retrieved August 23, 2015.
  3. Nelson, P. (2015, February 12). Postural Restoration Institute. Retrieved August 23, 2015.

  4. Gibala, M. J., Little, J. P., MacDonald, M. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2012). Physiological adaptations to low-volume, high-intensity interval training in health and disease. The Journal of Physiology, 590(Pt 5), 1077–1084. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2011.224725

  5. Tabata, I., Nishimura, K., Kouzaki, M., Hirai, Y., Ogita, F., Miyachi, M., & Yamamoto, K. (n.d.). Effects of moderate-intensity endurance and high-intensity intermittent training on anaerobic capacity and ??VO2max. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 1327-1330.
michael calandra