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Is the endurance craze good for our bodies?

Information provided on the blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose or offer treatment plans.

It’s that time of year again, summer has ended, kids are back in school, and the fall marathon season is upon us. Now, maybe the fall marathon season is not upon you, but keep reading anyway because my hope is that you will decide to set a goal for yourself to be more active.

For those who have considered taking on the 26.2 mile challenge, the biggest challenge can be just getting into a race. Popular marathons like Chicago, Boston, and New York are selling out in record times. Completing one or multiple marathons has become a common goal for competitive runners and weekend warriors alike. According to runningUSA.com, there were over 540,000 marathon finishers in 2013 across the United States. Half marathon finishers also reached a record high 1.96 million people in 2013.

Two questions that come up are:

  1. Why have long distance running and other endurance events (triathlons, mud runs, color runs) become so popular?
  2. Is this good for our health?

We were made to move

To tackle the first question, in the electronic age our society has become more sedentary. We can drive our car to work, take an elevator, sit in front of computer, drive home, watch TV, check the social media scene, go to bed, and then start the process all over day after day, but our bodies were created to move!

Regular physical activity is crucial for physical and mental health. In pre-modern society, physical activity was built into everyday life. We now require a reason to move. Endurance events have become a popular way to motivate us to stay active.

Physical challenge

Most of us face regular mental challenges via work, community service, or just living out our daily lives. Many crave a physical challenge, though, as a way to see how far we can push the limits. Setting a goal and conquering a new event, whether a 5K run or a marathon can be a most rewarding experience.

This can build confidence that carries over to other aspects of life as well.

Social movement

There are many social reasons to participate now as well, with team events, charity fundraisers, and running clubs. Some marathons draw millions of spectators, include live course entertainment, and allow the average runner to line up on the same course as world-class athletes.

What other sport allows you to do this? Could you imagine being on the same football field as Peyton Manning? Besides, marathon, mud run, and color run finishing pictures make for great social media posts.

Risk versus reward

Now that we see why the endurance craze seems to be at an all-time high, is this a good thing for our bodies? We can trace the origin of the marathon back to a Greek courier named Pheidippides. In 490 BC, he ran 26 miles from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. Upon delivering the news he promptly collapsed and died.

What an interesting start to such a popular event now!

No doubt, there are risks with any physical activity, especially when approaching the extremes. There is a reason why many professional athletes retire by the age of 30. Our bodies begin to lose muscle mass, flexibility, and resiliency starting around thirty. So going from the couch to 5K or even up to a marathon sounds good, but in reality there is a significant injury risk.

First and foremost, before considering any endurance event, a general physical should be considered if you have been sedentary, have other medical conditions, or a family history of heart disease. Although sudden cardiac deaths have occurred in marathons and get significant media attention, the incidence is very low, 0.75 per 100,000 runners, according to a recent study from Johns Hopkins.

The less serious, but more common problems that derail many endurance event goals are the muscle, tendon, and bone overuse type injuries. These injuries can occur in anywhere between 50-90% of marathon runners in any given year.

Can these injuries be prevented?

There are many ways to reduce your injury risk. Proper footwear, strength and flexibility screen, and appropriate training program are paramount to staying healthy. However, the greatest enemy we face is ourselves in the form of overtraining. There is a fine line between pushing yourself to the limits and breaking your body down. The competitive side of us can often lead us astray with thoughts of “I can train through the pain” or “I need to stay on schedule and cannot miss a long run.”

Fortunately, aging runners gain the wisdom of moderation, even though their–our–bodies may weaken. This is different for all of us. For some, it means doing only one marathon per year. For others, it means sticking with half marathon distance or taking on the challenge of cross training and other endurance sports.

So is the endurance craze a good thing?

Yes! Anything that gets people off the couch, disconnected from electronics, and moving is a good thing!

The cost of inactivity to our society is overwhelming in the form of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Exercise is the greatest medicine of all with widespread health benefits that if used correctly far outweighs the potential risks of injury.

Prevention of chronic disease, improved mood, improved sleep, weight control, and increased energy level are among the documented benefits of exercise. This would be a pharmaceutical company‘s marketing dream if put into a pill.

So go ahead, challenge yourself to a new goal. Just be smart, keep moderation in mind, and do not be discouraged if you have a setback. It is a risk worth taking, in my opinion.

(image via)

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Ryan Enke, M.D.

Dr. Enke is a muscoloskeletal specialist, focused on providing non-operative treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries and pain. He has a particular interest in the treatment and rehabilitation of runners and endurance athletes, Electrodiagnostic medicine (11EMGs), and comprehensive spine care and rehabilitation. Oh, and he''s a crazy fast runner.


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