Studies, research, and expert opinions – sometimes they support our current training methods and lifestyle choices, and other times they may appear to completely debunk our methods and philosophies. This may lead to uncertainties and fear that we may be on the wrong path of health and fitness. You may read a new book or study or hear some health and fitness guru preach a new method of training and you feel as though you need to adjust your program or you’ll be left behind. It’s so hard to know when “new” research or ideas are actually valid and when they’re well – bogus and sensationalized. And how do you know if the recent evidence-based science, if it truly is evidence-based, even pertains to your situation? Questions. Confusion. Decisions. And then more questions.
Your Health – Your Fitness
The main reason I wrote the Sock Doc Training Principles was to help people understand the balance between training and lifestyle, and fitness and health. Sure, there’s a lot more explained in those five articles but essentially that’s the gist of it – figuring out what works for you and not someone else, and especially not the general masses. This is highly dependent on your current fitness level, your health, your life responsibilities, and your fitness goals. Your training should not suddenly be drastically changed by a study which singles out certain precautions/dangers, (or benefits for that matter), of exercise for the general population who, if they have an exercise goal, is often to track their steps walked and keep their pedometer from malfunctioning.
Research is necessary and beneficial, but you need to understand that research, especially human research. Studies on humans are highly variable and their conclusions often support the “perceived normal.” Subjects in studies of such like to please, so they often aren’t completely honest in what they are eating or doing for exercise. In some studies people are getting paid for their time and they don’t want to be kicked out so they may change their lifestyle habits only temporarily to get through a study period or so they fit into a selective research model. And, as we all know, life provides a huge variable of factors – humans don’t sit in a Petri dish to grow or in a small climate-controlled cage where they’re fed a certain number of calories at a certain time of day and then forced to exercise at a given intensity for a set time each day.
So why do I bring this up? Because it’s important to realize that most of the “new research” and current recommendations either aren’t really new, aren’t valid, or don’t even apply to you – the (hopefully) healthy and fit human being.
Another “Less is More” Study – Nothing New
Earlier this month (June 2012) the New York Times once again wrote about some “new” research that basically says running over 20 miles per week may be more disadvantageous to your health than running less than 20 miles. So don’t run more than 20! Seriously. Out of health records from 52,656 participants between 1971 and 2002 they also came to the conclusion that those who ran moderately (again less than 20 miles) had an average of 19% lower risk of dying than those who didn’t run. So less than 20 miles is good, more than 20 is bad. Oh – and the part I love – if you ran faster than a 8:30/mi pace then you were more likely to die than if you ran a 10:00-11:00/mi. It’s really comical, and not a word on intensity or heart rate. Don’t run too much and don’t run too fast no matter what your health or fitness level is. In other words – if you’re fit (and healthy) and running a six, seven, or even eight minute-mile pace for over 20 miles a week then you need to stop and slow down! What most don’t realize is that an unfit individual running anaerobically for even ten miles a week at a pace of eleven minutes per mile will often be causing more harm to their body than another person running aerobically forty miles a week at eight minute miles.
There are even more kickers from this “study.” First – only 27% of the participants ran as a form of exercise, the rest did other types of exercise. Yeah, it’s a running study but almost three times more of the participants didn’t even run. Wow. Second, the participants were free of cardiovascular disease, cancer, electrocardiographic abnormalities, and diabetes at baseline – at least as far as they could tell. So according to the medial researchers, they were “healthy.” I’ll stop there because if you really think that’s health then this is probably your first time reading any material on this site, or drgangemi.com. Simply put, there is more to health than the absence of disease. Further, fitness and health are not the same thing even though the average person, researchers, and medical expert still equate the two.
How Healthy Are You?
Optimal health is not merely the absence of disease. It’s a state where everything in your body is fully functioning in balance and harmony individually and with each other. Fitness is part of health, just like health is part of fitness, but being fit is an ability to do something athletic such as run fast or lift heavy weight based off some predetermined baseline. I’ve seen plenty of patients who come to me for a certain problem yet say they are healthy other than their presenting chief complaint. Yet once I take a thorough history and perform a thorough exam, I find, and they soon realize, that they weren’t as healthy as they previously thought. They may get indigestion after they eat, sleep only a few hours before suddenly awakening, need caffeine to have sufficient energy to get through the day, or have to stretch so they can run without tight hamstrings – all signs of less-than-optimum health.
In Part V of the SD Training Principles I more specifically address why running long distances may be more harmful than beneficial. Yeah, a marathon may kill you. Hell, a 5K may kill you if you’re not fit or healthy for it. I believe that Micah True’s death was related to “overtraining” – his training was out of balance with a healthy lifestyle and fitness program, which led to his heart disease. There will still be some who say that is crazy talk; that’s cool, think what you like or believe what the research says about “healthy” athlete’s hearts but it’s my goal to help you find a balance between fitness and health so your body is strong enough to support the fitness demands you give yourself.
So should you run more than 20 miles a week? If you’re healthy and fit enough to do so and you like to run then yes – Run Forrest Run! I’m sure there were as many athletes in the Western States 100mi this past weekend that were fit AND healthy enough to run as there were those who shouldn’t have been running it – or any distance close to it. Aerobic conditioning, which is a major aspect of health and fitness (and vice-versa) is severely lacking in most human beings. Yes – runners too.
You definitely don’t need a significant amount of training – volume or intensity – to make substantial gains in your health, or substantial gains in your fitness. More is not necessarily better, but if you’re fit and healthy, (yes, I will keep on saying it), and you want to participate in a long endurance-type event, then yes – more is better.
Eat well, sleep well, live well, and please proceed with caution when reading all the bullshit (studies, programs, fitness gurus) out there saying that you need to train harder, or train longer, or run less, or run slower – or else you’re hurting yourself or increasing your risk of dying. Listen to your body. Many points are valid to a certain degree, but you need to look at the whole picture – YOU – your life emotionally and physically, and your health and your fitness. You may need to train harder or you may need to slow down and train less; it all depends on your situation. For me, I’m gonna run more than 20 miles a week and it’s gonna be faster than ten minute miles.
You state, “I believe that Micah True’s death was related to “overtraining” – his training was out of balance with a healthy lifestyle and fitness program, which led to his heart disease.”
I have read your article regarding his death a few times. A couple of my observations about him and the sport… Most ultra-distance running is aerobic in nature. His lifestyle and diet mirrorer the Tarahumara indians which seems to work for them.
Can you clarify what you believe was out of balance with his diet relative to fitness. As you point out, many people are adopting this sport into our lives and certainly struggle to balance our diets better than the typical western diets of most Americans.
Some people, including me, want to be competitive rather than simply improve fitness. I balance 1-2 short, intense anaerobic workouts with medium to long aerobic workouts each week. Diet is above average paleo/low carb but not perfect.
Sock Doc says
Yes you’d like to think it is mostly aerobic – but that doesn’t mean it is. And after several hours your body is creating stress hormones and inflammation to various degrees even if your HR is not anaerobic for even one second. Most long-distance runners train very anaerobically all too often, and continuous long distance (too much, too often) even aerobically can be a problem – especially if diet and lifestyle stresses are high. Sure genetics may have played a roll; one can only speculate (including me). But clearly something was not right because that is not “normal” to die from heart disease. Maybe his diet was wrong for him. Maybe he had some huge emotional stress toll on his body that was constantly a burden to him. We will never know.
I, like you, want to be competitive also – so you find the right balance, knowing that when you race an ultra (as I have in Ironman races – 20 times) you’re going to create a significant amount of stress on your body. The more prepared you are, the healthier you are, and the better you recover, will all have a huge impact on your health.
Other than healthy diet, anything you recommend to diminish and control the impact of the stress and inflammation during/after long (aerobic) running does other than “don’t run that long”. As you can appreciate, the stress is what causes us to adapt and get better but too much is, as you note, not healthy.
Sock Doc says
Well nutrition and training is the most important to look at – going into the long run refueled, hydrated, rested and refueling, rehydrating, and recovering well after. I don’t want you to think that I think it’s not “healthy” as in many cases it is, but there is a point at which it isn’t – and the worse your nutrition is, the more stress you’re under, and the worse your aerobic system is, then the more dangerous/less healthy it becomes, and much sooner.
martin van lear says
Hey Soc Doc,
Thanks so much for another great post! All of this applies to me as I am training for ultras these days…going out for 3-5 hour runs, and am getting ready to do an 8 hour race in august. Ive listened to your other podcast on trail runner nation re aerobic vs anaerobic conditioning, and I am still trying to understand some things. Im 41 years old, and have been using the old formula 220 – 41 = 179 to estimate my max heart rate (just an estimate i know, have not run a time trial yet to determine this bc im still trying to build my aerobic base! ) I am basically using the the Karvonen Method (http://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-Your-Target-Heart-Rate)..sooo, anyway, without getting into the math, it seems like the heart rate to train at is somewhere between 117 and 145, to stay in the aerobic zone, with anything over 157 to definitely getting into the anaerobic zone. soo, my question to you is, does this math/reasoning look roughly correct to you? and i guess the larger question is, when do i know that i have an appropriate aerobic base to start doing anaerobic training (intervals, hill repeats, etc.)? or, when training for ultras (50k and higher trail runs), should i just hold off on the anaerobic stuff altogether and focus more on the aerobic zone (considering risks of injury if i get into anaerobic training)…anyway, so sorry to get into all this technical stuff…it might help anyone out there who is really training for tris and ultras…thanks so much soc doc, you’re the best!
Sock Doc says
If you go by your 180-age then your aerobic training zone is going to be in the 140s; though ideally you should find your LT and then plug it in here:
Zone 1 – Less than 85% of LTHR – these are recovery workouts
Zone 2 – 85% to 89% of LTHR – long workouts – very aerobic
Zone 3 – 90% to 94% of LTHR – high aerobic
You can definitely stick in some anaerobic if and when you’re ready to do so – as I discuss in the SD Training Principles. I’d definitely be doing some anaerobic (some, not a lot) to train for an ultra. But obviously you have to have a more than stellar aerobic base.