Last night I watched a Nova episode which depicted a project whose purpose was to have non-athletes train to run a marathon. The candidates were chosen from a large number of applicants, and were provided with coaching, medical staff, and dietary advice. I really enjoyed watching the process, and it was inspiring and moving, especially in the cases of people who had been quite sedentary before entering the program, and who had multiple difficulties to contend with over the many months of training.
Yet it was a cautionary tale. Despite starting with physical exams, very short runs, and professional advice, injuries began to occur almost immediately. One unfortunate lady got stress fractures in her shins. She was sidelined for several weeks for rest and physical therapy. When she returned, on her second run the stress fractures re-appeared, and she was out. Others got knee pain, hip pain, foot pain, etc. The show didn’t sugar-coat this, and they gave a figure for the amount of force endured by the body during long distance running, which I don’t recall exactly, but remember it being pretty massive. As the training runs got longer, the injuries piled up, and even the fittest of the runners had trouble.
Another interesting finding was that even after people had trained for a long time, and had considerably improved their fitness level and cardiovascular abilities, their weight loss was less than expected. I was not surprised by this, because running at a jogging pace does not burn all that many calories (surprise, surprise!). The dietician on the show said that running an entire marathon (26 miles) usually uses about twice the normal amount of calories needed in a day of normal daily activity. Only twice as much as normal for that HUGE run! I think that learning this would be a deal breaker for those for whom exercise is a way of losing weight, and nothing more.
But the trainees were accruing other benefits. Their hearts were becoming much stronger, and most likely the percentage of muscle vs. weight was going up despite shedding few or no pounds. I know from personal experience that the prospect of getting fitter while losing only a small amount of weight can make exercise a hard-sell to some. I think it’s important to shift the focus from just weight loss to actually getting healthier, with the possible added benefit of weight loss. Having energy, being strong, and being confident in yourself are often more important than weight loss per se.
I was a distance runner when I was in school. In junior high, I was the fastest distance runner in my school during the year I was doing a lot of running. I continued to run casually through high school and into college, but at that point I lost interest. Though previously I had enjoyed the light euphoria that runners feel after they’re into it for a few miles, I finally got bored, and the amount of free time needed to do it was dwindling. Another purely selfish reason was that the type of body I got from running was not really to my liking – good strong legs, but no upper body strength at all.
After becoming a trainer, I also found that by using interval training, I could expend a lot of calories in a very short time, as well as getting cardio benefits in minutes instead of hours. Interval training has to do with short, very intense bursts of energy followed by rest, and this cycle is repeated a number of times. And a really important thing is that you can have a very vigorous workout, but a whole lot less joint stress than you would get in long distance running.
So am I completely down on long distance running? No. The equipment is inexpensive, there are very few skills to master, you can make your heart stronger, it can be fun, and you might even lose a decent amount of weight. Besides, for some people, no other exercise will do. But know this – if you do long distance running for any length of time, even carefully, it’s not a matter of if you’ll be injured, but when. And hopefully it won’t be serious, and will heal. Some who become addicted to running will continue to run even when injured, and this can become very serious.
As spring approaches in my neighborhood, every good weather day brings the appearance of joggers. Though it’s possible that these people train elsewhere on crummy weather days, I tend to doubt it. And if you do a long run on day one of your training, prepare for some pain afterward. And it’s sad that this pain will stop many people from ever trying exercise again.
Some out there are saying, sure, but weight training can cause injuries, too. Very true. But when weight training is properly done, injury frequency tends to be lower than that of distance running. Yes, lower. Just remember that with weightlifting there’s a skill requirement needed to help prevent injuries, and this can be attained with good instruction. As we saw above, even with pro instruction, injuries are nearly omnipresent in distance running. Besides, if you’re very cautious, and run so slowly that you never get injured, you’re probably not getting much of a workout or much calorie expenditure.
There are things you can do to minimize distance running injuries. Running on pavement is awful for your joints, so you can try running on a softer surface like grass or a track. If you’re on grass, you’ll want to avoid holes and bumps, or you’ll get even worse injuries (duh). Pick up any running magazine – almost every issue will have a variety of articles with injury advice.
Completing a marathon is a huge accomplishment, and anyone who does it deserves a great deal of credit. Despite the injuries, it’s very understandable that a marathon was used as a goal for the Nova show. Let’s face it, completing a marathon is a much more symbolic and storied goal than, say, being able to run four 400-yard-dashes in a row with a short rest between runs, or being able to do ten 1-leg squats, or deadlifting 300 lbs., or improving your cardio fitness until it’s in the normal range, or just being strong enough to easily accomplish all your daily tasks. But if you decide to become a distance runner, get educated, train as sensibly as possible, and if you get injured, get treated and adjust your behavior.