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Legend has it that around about 490 BC, a Greek messenger ran the twenty-six-and-change-mile route from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks’ victory at the Battle of Marathon.
Now, a couple of millennia later, about half a million people annually pay hefty entrance fees and spend months preparing to run 26.2 miles in marathons the world over.
I don’t necessarily fault them; I’ve run marathons myself, along with a few other ultra-long-distance running events.
But here’s the part of the marathon-origin story that most long-distance runners forget: after he delivered his message, the messenger died.
If only he’d had Skype.
And this fleet-footed Greek was a professional messenger. He routinely did runs of this distance. On the day he did his Marathon run, he had fought in the Battle of Marathon. Talk about an overachiever.
The same unfortunate fate befell Micah True, the long-distance runner who is one of the heroes of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. After decades of running distances of up to one hundred miles at a stretch, he died at age fifty-eight while on a routine training run.
It’s unlikely you’ll suffer the Greek messenger’s fate if you decide to run a single marathon and you prepare well for it. But, whatever your buddy at the office, your Facebook friend Pat, or your son tells you…
By no means should you consider long-distance running a viable way to improve your health and longevity, nor should you consider it something to do on a regular basis.
‘More’ is not always better — it’s often dangerous
If you are a 120-pound, 8 percent body fat, Nike-sponsored waif of a thing who is obviously genetically suited for such madness (and making good money off it), knock yourself out; it’s your livelihood, and you do what you have to do. Failing that, though, running marathons — or even running long distances frequently — is not an effective way to get fit. It may even be bad for your health.
Here’s why: As guys, we’re highly susceptible to the “more is better” myth. If running two miles three times a week is good for you, we assume that ten miles seven times a week must be great for you. It’s just not so.
For one thing, the nutritional requirements of training for and completing a marathon — bars, gels, sports drinks, and the like, all of which are variations on straight sugar — are antithetical to good eating habits. A few long-distance athletes, such as Ironman Dave Scott and ultra-marathoner Scott Jurek, eat plant-based diets, so it can be done without eating all the processed, sugary crap. But junk is so ubiquitous at these events, and so much a part of the culture of training, that it can be hard to avoid.
But the ill effects of long-distance running go well beyond its sugar-saturated training culture. According to the cardiologist James O’Keefe, after sixty minutes of strenuous exercise, your heart becomes inflamed. Many marathoners exhibit elevated levels of troponin following a race — an indication that smooth muscle tissue in the heart is literally dying off. Studies have indicated that regular marathoners have 62 percent more plaque in their arteries than men of comparable age and risk factors who aren’t long-distance runners. They also exhibit scarring in the left ventricle — the chamber of the heart responsible for sending oxygenated blood into the body.
These are scary findings, and they confirm what non-runners have long been thinking: all that running can’t be good for you.
Are you obsessed?
To be clear, all running isn’t bad for you. Obsessive running is. When you train for a marathon, you’re basically revving your cardiovascular engine into the red zone. The health benefits of running peak when you run a relatively modest ten to fifteen miles a week, for one to two-and-a-half hours, two or three times a week, at a moderate pace. Too much, too fast, too often? You might as well stay on the couch.
Training for a marathon takes a lot of dedication, grit, and determination, and also a willingness to endure physical pain. Those are all commendable attributes on the exercise front, and I applaud your hard work. If you’re looking for a way to improve your health and fitness, however, your time and energy is better spent on other activities.
Want to run a marathon so you can cross it off your bucket list, as I did? Go for it. Once. You’ll peak for that one single day when you’re capable of making that run.
A few years ago I was signed up for the New York City Marathon, which was then cancelled after Hurricane Sandy. Two weeks later there was another marathon in Santa Barbara that I could have run — but I chose not to, because I’d engineered my training to peak for the exact day of the New York City Marathon, not a day before or after. I didn’t feel ready for the Santa Barbara race. Even when you do it right, marathon training is a highly specialized — and artificial — endeavor. It’s no way to run your life.
Whatever you do, don’t train for a marathon to get in shape. Get in shape, and then train for one single marathon. And once you’ve done it. . . put it behind you.
You can read more about my training secrets in my book: Your NewPrime: 30 Days to Better Sex,Eternal Strength, and a Kick-Ass Life After 40.