Road runner Fitness

What’s the correct ‘dose’ of running?

Visakhapatnam (Andhra Pradesh)25-08-2012: Fitness freaks: Athletes joggin on the Beach early in the morning .---photo:C_V_SUBRAHMANYAM   | Photo Credit: C_V_SUBRAHMANYAM

With road running becoming increasingly popular in Chennai and the rest of the country, individuals in all walks of life have been smitten by the desire to add the completion of at least one marathon to their bucket-list of things to achieve. But, recreational runners, especially the late beginners, are often restrained by the fear that “overdoing” their running may be detrimental to their health.

Sensationalised reports in the press of the deaths of marathoners and re-circulated old stories on the social media seem to make us believe that such tragic episodes are commonplace. So it is not unusual for a novice to ask, “How much should I run, doc? Would, for instance, training for and running a full-marathon hurt me?”

As a runner, and a reasonably fanatical one at that, I am often tempted to dismiss such concerns with, “If you love to run, do so! Wouldn’t it be better to die doing something you love than to live an entire life regretting that you didn’t?” But, as a responsible medical professional, I have tried to wade through considerable amounts of confusing medical literature, weighed the pros and cons, and feel quite comfortable about giving an informed answer.

So what is the correct dose, doc?

Now, let’s see. Most of us run for fun, but would also like to reap health benefits from such activity. A sedentary lifestyle significantly shortens our life span and makes us a prime target for chronic illness. The introduction of any level of exercise will increase our longevity, reduce our risk for heart attacks, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes and even some forms of cancer. An extensive recent compilation of studies in this area suggests that in order to avoid a heart attack, moderate to severe exercise (walking, jogging and running would qualify) for as little as an hour a week would be effective in previously sedentary individuals. This implies that the greatest benefits of exercise are derived from the transition from an inactive lifestyle to one including just a minimal amount exercise.

But the benefits of physical activity also increase with the quantum of exercise performed. Consequently, most experts suggest that the equivalent of 30 minutes of such exercise, four or five days a week could maximise the health benefits.

To train for or to participate in a marathon (the full, 42.2 kilometres, I mean) you obviously need to run much more than this. So what? Why not run more and gain more in health benefits? This is where the problem arises. Some experts have raised concerns about the death of the occasional marathoner and point out that there is short-term harm to heart function from prolonged exercise. Studies show evidence of damage to the heart muscle which may lead to scarring, especially in runners who focus on the longer distances. However, the consequences of such “injury” and its effects on longevity and heart health are still debateable.

Recently, a lot of attention has been paid to the Copenhagen City Heart Study that followed about 1000 joggers and 4000 non-joggers from 2001. This study clearly suggests the existence of a “plateau” (two-and-a- half hours a week) beyond which the benefits of exercise on the heart taper off. However, the popular (though gloomy) interpretation that this study also implies that there is danger in running longer distances is not, in my opinion, true. So, though, we may not be enhancing our health by running a marathon any more than when we run shorter distances, it does not appear to be an act that will hurt our heart or affect our longevity either.

So, now that I’ve given a clean chit to marathoning, I need to qualify my statements a bit. Running, like any health-enhancing activity, is not a panacea! While we recognise the benefits of running in moderation, we need to keep our minds open to the perils of overdoing it as well. As runners, we often marvel at the superlative aptitudes and skills of elite runners. While they may push the limits of running to very high degrees, it is important for us to acknowledge that most of us (recreational runners) may not attain the same targets without physiological damage or injury to ourselves. If we bear this in mind and set reasonable targets, we could enjoy an unabbreviated lifetime of injury-free running, maybe with a marathon or two under our belts.

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 1:45:58 AM |

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