Running full marathon is seen as the ultimate goal in terms of fitness. While it may be enjoyable for some, distance running is not the healthiest or easiest sport for the average person to engage in, despite the sense of satisfaction that 42km race may bring. There are negative short term and long term consequences which arise as a direct result of distance running, many of which could be avoided by stopping the long, slow training and going for some shorter, high intensity bursts of activity instead. Here are the reasons why distance running is bad.
1) Bad for joint health
We have all felt the literal impact of running. As your foot collides with the ground, a shock wave rides up through your leg, past your ankle, knee and even hip joints. As well as the tears this impact creates in your muscles, the joints of your leg are also affected. With the muscles surrounding these joints weakened or even catabolised, the joints themselves are vulnerable and open to problems arising. This has short term effects or joint pain – sometimes to a crippling degree – but also long term effects. Studies have shown that the pressure distance runners put on their joints has many future implications. The cartilage around these joints is diminished, which is immediately painful, but it can also have devastating long term effects for an active person. Mobility and joint movement are both potentially affected by arthritis as a result of the stress placed on these leg joints during distance runs. It may take many years to arise, but arthritis is an unfortunate consequence of distance running that can take its toll in old age.
2) Muscle Catabolism (Your Body Breaks Down Muscle)
If you’re looking to build muscle, distance running is not the place to start. Instead of helping build up long muscles or even short muscles the way a sport such as swimming or cycling would, running, especially over long distances, causes your body to break down these muscles. Running over long distances takes a lot of energy and prevents the body from remaining in an anabolic state, or a state where muscles are being produced and repaired. Essentially, when in a state of catabolism the body doesn’t have enough fuel, so it takes the muscles and breaks them down to supply energy. Catabolism, or the process of the body breaking down muscle, can have disastrous consequences whether or not you are an athlete. It slows down recovery from any injury and stops the rebuilding of muscles damaged from the impact of running. Triggering this state of catabolism can have disastrous consequences for recovery and therefore sustainability of distance running as a long term sport.
With distance running being so intense, it is easy to over train. This leads to a lack of adequate nutrition and muscle fatigue, both of which can cause insomnia. With nutrients being burned up so quickly and muscles being used so intensely, your body becomes overworked without enough fuel, making it hard to comfortably sleep. Any medications or caffeine consumed can amplify the effect of sleeplessness when combined with long distance running. As you lose weight and your metabolism speeds up, the impact of distance running takes its toll on all aspects of your life. Training late in the day is another no-go, and the fact that this is a convenient time to train for many makes it one of the main culprits. Trying to sleep after work and a long run leaves you over-stimulated and restless. Insomnia is a cycle, so it only takes a few runs late in the day to disrupt sleep patterns for months.
4) Muscle inflammation
As you run, the impact from hitting the ground is actually creating tiny tears in your muscle fibre. With a lot of time, proper nutrition and carefully monitored training, these tears repair themselves and you end up with stronger legs that can withstand more impact and longer runs. However, with the burning of nutrients and difficulty of long distance training, it can be difficult to get this balance right. It is difficult to look after your body properly when you are spending large amounts of time strenuously exercising, so often these muscle tears remain. This can cause a lot of pain and discomfort, and has long term effects. If the tears are never given the chance to heal, they can lead to joint problems or strained tendons. Delayed onset muscle soreness is also a common effect of distance running, where the muscles can ache for many days after a run as they have not recovered properly.
5) Unnecessary and infeasible
Distance running is a surprisingly popular method of exercise considering its inconvenience. To put it simply, there are easier and more effective ways to train for the same result. Whether your goal is weight loss or increased fitness, interval training is healthier and easier to do than running long distances. Of course, if you are actually planning to run a marathon it is advisable to run long distances, but even in that case a bit of shorter distance training is beneficial to break up the strain of constant long distance, and can help you with fitness. When you can spend half an hour exercising instead of three, distance running begins to sound rather silly. For the average person, distance running is not an easy type of exercise to fit into a busy schedule, nor does it yield the same satisfaction and sense of achievement as shorter bursts of exercise – most importantly, it doesn’t reap the same benefits.
6) Decreased anaerobic capacity
Long distance running involves a lot of lengthy, slow paced training. It takes up a lot of time, but is completely different from a high intensity, short workout like weights or sprints. The difference lies in the aerobic system and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system is the burning of energy when we have sufficient oxygen, so over long distances where there is time to breathe due to the slow pace. The anaerobic system works when we are puffing and have a lack of oxygen due to hard, high intensity training that quite literally takes our breath away. Paradoxically, although distance training uses mainly the aerobic capacity and not the anaerobic, the anaerobic system is useful in becoming a better runner and continuing under tough conditions. Distance running decreases the anaerobic capacity due to a focus swung towards aerobic training and can therefore have negative effects on overall fitness.
7) Weight changes
To train long distance, it’s important to have a good calorie intake to keep up the energy, and this is a positive while you are still training as you can essentially eat a lot. Problems arise when you stop the distance running. Obviously while you are doing this training which requires a lot of fuel, it is beneficial to have a calorific diet which allows you to run distances. When you stop, however, it can be difficult to kick the habit. This means that those who run long distances often have a lot of weight fluctuation depending on whether or not they are training. Major diet alterations have to be put in place to prevent these diet fluctuations, and even then it can be difficult to gauge due to the changes in metabolism as a result of this endurance training. You have to be careful with your weight when distance training, both in terms of not losing too much when you are training and not gaining too much when you stop.
8) Immune system weakens
Tough runs over long distances produce the hormone cortisol, which is usually produced in times of stress. The more intense and long distance the run is, the higher the amount of cortisol produced is. Cortisol is a natural response of the body, but it has negative consequences. It supresses the immune system, meaning that anything that gets into your system will stay there – your body’s defenses are down. This wouldn’t be a good thing even for an hour, but cortisol supresses the immune system for up to three days following a long run. Combined with the weakness of your body after you run a long distance and the fatigue, this can have seriously negative implications for your health. To top it off, running steals the same sugars needed to fuel your immune system, meaning that your body may not even have enough energy to fight off bugs and viruses.
9) Cardiac strain
Scar tissue builds up around the heart as a result of long distance training, especially running. Over the distance a considerable amount of strain is put on the heart, which builds up the scar tissue to protect itself. The scar tissue accumulates, with longer distances and periods of time causing a larger build up. Although this tissue is a protective response from the body, it generally harms more than it helps. Arrhythmia is one of the potentially fatal results of this scar tissue build-up. The irregular beating of the heart can spur an early cardiac arrest, and is a problem for many famous distance runners such as Micah True. Other side effects are convulsive muscle contractions around the heart, stiffening of these muscles and aging of the heart prematurely. Overall, the pressures distance running puts on the heart have long term consequences and are one of the main negatives of this sport.