It’s back, and it’s getting old. Actually it never went away. I’m referring to the current round of news reports, websites, and “research” that have once again concluded that so-called aerobic and endurance training will, to some extent, harm your health if not outright kill you. I was going to let it go since these news reports state nothing new, but after many questions and concerns I’ve decided to address it again. Hopefully I can help you make sense of such reports, not just from a personal viewpoint in health care and as an athlete, but also looking at the scientific research, facts, and common sense.
Endurance and Mortality Research
This past June, The New York Times cited a huge research study which found that running more than 20 miles per week may have more risks to your health than if you ran less. Running procrastinators and couch potatoes celebrated this victory. As I discussed at that time in my article, “Make up Your Mind: Will Running Kill You or Make Your Stronger?”, the study was poorly interpreted, to say the least. There’s no reason to revisit old material and say the exact same thing and call it new, but clearly the Wall Street Journal does not feel the same way. Just this past week the WSJ discussed the exact same research study in their article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave“. It’s a catchy title, but there is absolutely nothing new here that hasn’t been said before other than some cardiologists bantering about agendas. I can just about guarantee you that you’ll see another similar article or research study next month, and month after that, and month after that.
Runner, PhD physicist, and science writer over at Runners World, Alex Hutchinson, also notes the absurdity of this re-circulating study as the researchers “used statistical methods to effectively “equalize” everyone’s weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and so on.” I, like Alex, am all for research, but research that is unbiased, statistically accurate and complete, and the findings are consistent within a reported population. In other words, don’t include non-runners or overweight alcoholic smokers in an endurance study.
Alex also makes reference of another study published in the Lancet in Oct 2011 which, via a questionnaire to over 416,000 participants, concluded that greater than one hour of endurance activity provides no further benefit than less than one hour. Actually in truth, as Alex notes, the researchers were not able to identify an upper limit of exercise where the risks outweighed the benefits. But the researchers simply left this part out of the published report.
Cardiologists Know the Heart, But They Don’t Know How to Train It
News and studies like this spread quickly across the media-driven world we live in, even to so-called “experts” like the research cardiologist on TEDx claiming that we humans are meant to walk, not run. O’Keefe’s video begins as if he’s the narrator of a play, and although his accent and accolades may impress you as much as the lantern and calming white couch backdrop, he too is citing “research” that is again misinterpreted and cherry-picked to make his point.
He begins by mentioning how even way back in 490 B.C. there was that guy we all know of as Pheidippides who collapsed and died after his marathon into Athens. The doctor doesn’t realize this story is just a myth, taken from various accounts including that of Herodotus, “the father of history”, who wrote that Pheidippides ran between 140 and 153 miles from Marathon to Sparta in just two days, and then back again, with no mention of him dying. Though some say that story is false too, either way the one fact here is that the doctor starts his anti-running campaign with a myth, and then continues from there on. He includes the same study which The Times and WSJ reference, (completely bogus and O’Keefe’s colleague was one of the researchers of the study), notes his cardiologist friend John who runs 12 miles a day now riddled with dangerous artery calcification, (classic chronic cardio – so of course nobody should run conclusion), and mentions a “physician in the mid-70s who became famous by claiming that if you can complete a marathon you were immune to a heart attack”, (he’s referring to Jim Fixx – his statement is accurate but it’s a scare tactic if you know about Fixx as I discuss here). Although there’s so much more wrong with his presentation I’ll stop here. Nothing personal, but I’ll pass on taking health and fitness advice from a cardiologist, just as I currently do with Dr. Oz. It’s the same reason I’d never take any health or rehabilitation advice from a orthopedist; I’ll hold off on their expertise unless I need surgery. We live in a society that when someone hurts themselves or is susceptible to such injury, we tell them not to do the given activity again rather than teach them proper technique. These doctors do not know how to recognize or achieve health, let alone teach it.
Running Is Harmful to Your Health (?)
Marathons will kill you. If that sounds familiar it’s because I’ve said it before – right here in Part V of the Sock Doc Training Principles. I also believe it was such overtraining that killed the real-life legend Micah True. But that doesn’t mean we stop running any more than you should stop lifting a weight if a study comes out saying that those who lift weights are more susceptible to hip injuries and that causes more falls leading to death.
None of these endurance focused studies ever discuss heart rate, which is a key factor when it comes to training intensity. This leaves the study participants or analysts to determine intensity by using words such as easy, moderate, vigorous, etc. That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. A study participant who smokes, is overweight, and “runs” a few times a week, even if that mile takes him 20 minutes, will likely be in anaerobic excess, yet the run may be called “easy”. Another participant who exercises ten hours a week and is healthy might be training at a very low easy intensity but the mileage is “vigorous”. Yet, this is how these questionnaire studies eventually lead to wild conclusions when they hit the wire. Many only read the headline, the writer’s point of view, or abstract at best and then draw even further conclusions on their own.
Sprinter Vs. Jogger
Now, to add fuel to this endurance-will-kill-you fire, enter the bloggers, coaches, trainers, gym owners, and people who just switched from soy milk back again to rice because of the soy article they just read in Cosmo. And before some of you who are in that category get all steamed up, I’m probably not talking about you. Well, probably not. I’ll get right to my point and say it as directly as possible: Please stop posting this fucking stupid photo of the sprinter vs. marathoner with a caption such as, “Who would you rather look like?”. Enough – it’s like you’re a pear saying all apples suck and you found a rotten apple to be your poster fruit. You might as well say, “Vanity is all that matters. Your health, fitness, and overall well-being come second to your ripped abs and pecs.”
Sure, probably not too many people want to have significant muscle loss at the expense of increased fitness, and the photo clearly depicts a somewhat emaciated distance runner. Of course all distance runners look like this guy in the eyes of the one-mile challenged. But guess what? A lot of people also don’t want to look like the sprinter, who for all we know, may be on performance enhancing drugs. I’m not making an uncalled accusation here, (I tried to find out who the sprinter is, but was unsuccessful), but history tells us that many elite sprinters are on drugs. Even if he is clean, and I hope he is, the majority of people will never look like him, even if they wanted to and spent countless hours training. *Edit* See comments: UK sprinter is Dwain Chambers – busted for performance enhancing drugs. The marathoner is Finnish 2002 European champion Janne Holmen.
Genetics and Body Type
Our genetics make up our muscle fibers, though these fibers can be changed and of course developed through training, to some degree. Most people have about half of Type I (aerobic) fibers and half of Type II (various degrees of anaerobic) fibers. An elite sprinter may have well over 75% of his muscle fibers as Type II (white, fast-twitch) whereas an elite marathoner is going to have 75% as Type I (red, slow-twitch, aerobic). Though you can change these somewhat and become more efficient with what you’ve got, you’re never going to get an elite distance athlete to look like an elite sprinter or vice-versa.
However, this doesn’t mean that the majority of us, the non-elite ninety-nine percent, have to suffer the consequences of poor health, poor fitness, or even perhaps the wasted-away physique of some endurance athlete as the numerous proponents of this photo want you to believe. There are plenty of sprinters who are lacking strength – I know because I see them in my office. Some are still great sprinters but their health is compromised due to a variety of reasons though they don’t “do that crazy chronic cardio” because it will make them skinny and slow. They’re brainwashed. There are also long distance athletes who are relatively muscular for their sport, despite their heavy endurance training load, just look at some great 1500m and 3000m endurance athletes who have phenomenal physiques. Oh yeah, those distances aren’t really endurance – or are they?
Strength or Endurance, or Both?
So who do you want to be – the skinny guy or the buff one? Be whoever you want to be as long as you remain healthy and you’re achieving (or making progress on) your athletic goal. You can become a great long distance runner and definitely not look like the anti-aerobic poster boy. But if you want to be a great long distance runner then some sacrifices will be made. You will lose some strength. You will lose some power. There is a price to being competitive. Nobody cares how many burpees or pull-ups you can do at the end of your race. (Well, the guy who you beat cares.) If you don’t want to be competitive and are exercising because you enjoy it and want to reap the health and fitness benefits, then find the balance between strength, power, and endurance that you are comfortable with. You shouldn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks as long as it’s working for you.
Pick Your Poison: CrossFit or Marathons
Problem is, fitness programs are not working for most. There are as many people who should not be running long distance as there are those who should not be doing CrossFit. They’re equal-opportunity injury and illness programs for the general masses when you don’t balance health and fitness. And it’s the craze right now – not just CrossFit and marathons, but paleo workouts, half marathons, ultras, and numerous obstacle-mud races. If you’re reading a site by some strength-only guru who says you can get all your aerobic benefits from lifting weights a bit faster than when you lift them slowly then good luck with that. If you believe it fully then you shouldn’t be on Sock Doc because here we care more about just getting by with minimal fitness and looking buff with no concern for overall health. Last I checked running is a natural, and actually vital, human movement. You might not like to run, but you should be able to run.
Yeah, excessive high intensity “aerobic” (I put that in quotes because it really isn’t aerobic when it’s called high intensity in such a way), increases insulin, free radical damage, stress hormones particularly cortisol, and of course increases your chance of injury along with a slew of other health problems. You risk dying from it too if you’re not careful; plenty of people have proven this to be true. But proper aerobic activity can not only reverse all this but also take your health and fitness to the next level. Where is the ceiling for endurance training? Nobody knows – because YOU were not in the study. It’s one hundred percent individualized.
Train Smart. Train Hard. Stay Healthy.
Remember: Always health first, fitness second. So train smart and train hard when you can and you’re ready to do so. Training hard is good for you, but do not do such extreme training too often. I love training hard, but I am intentional about it and only when my health is optimal and my movement is efficient, (or of course when I’m training with someone who is whining). If you haven’t realized yet – Sock Doc isn’t some ‘train this way’ or ‘always train slow and easy’ site. It’s a ‘figure out how you should be training’ site based upon your health, fitness, life, and goals – not the most recent news report, research study, or commercial.
Now go run, walk, or lift. Or incorporate them together in a strength and conditioning workout as I describe and show is this MovNat Endurance Workout. Or don’t do anything if that’s what you’re up for.
Follow up article here: Heart Damage: Five Ways to Prevent a Heart Injury and Reduce Your Chances of Dropping Dead