Can Distance Running Be Part of a Healthy Lifestyle

There are a lot of people who think running is damaging to your overall health. They say things like:

  • Running causes inflammation and chronic stress.
  • Running makes you weak.
  • Running makes you crave simple carbs, which inevitably make you fat.

Running, like any form of exercise, isn’t perfect and certainly has its drawbacks. It requires you to move in only one plane of motion, it’s virtually worthless for the upper body, and it doesn’t build muscle strength in the traditional sense.

But after nearly 15 years of competitive running and coaching hundreds of runners, it’s clear that these myths simply aren’t true. There are ways to structure it so you get maximum results with as little (or none) of the negative consequences.

Let’s debunk these myths and learn how to integrate distance running into your exercise program to better promote a healthier lifestyle.

Running Causes System-Wide Inflammation

This myth is my favorite because it’s a popular one these days. It goes like this: running causes oxidative damage and chronic stress, which results in system-wide inflammation and a suppressed immune system. Scary stuff, huh?

It rests on the (faulty) assumption that every run is anaerobic, or faster than your body can supply oxygen to your legs. Anaerobic running results in that heavy, “burning” feeling you get when you attempt a hard workout.

But in fact, the vast majority of your runs should be aerobic or relatively easy. If you remember the three C’s when doing your runs you’ll never need to worry about chronic stress or inflammation: comfortable, controlled, and conversational. Consistent running demands that most of your runs be relatively easy (this is true even of elite East African runners).

Even competitive marathon training is careful to balance high mileage with recovery, easy runs with long runs, and of course, not doing too much, too soon, too fast. The real culprit that leads to chronic stress and hyper-inflammation is over training. It could be running, CrossFit, rowing or swimming – doing too much, too soon of any form of exercise will surely erode your health.

Running Makes You Weak!

Well, if cruising through a 20 miler at an effortless 6:30 pace is weak, then so be it. But this myth usually focuses on the classic definition of strength: the ability to lift heavy things.

And I’ll admit: running doesn’t help your ability to dead lift or help your buddy move his living room couch. But that’s where supplemental training is critical: even elite marathoners spend hours every week completing runner-specific strength workouts. Just like gym rats have trouble running a few miles if they never run, runners will be weak if they never lift weights. Running doesn’t make you weak – not lifting makes you weak.

So if you’re training for a 5k or a marathon, focus on several strength workouts every week to maintain your strength. You’ll also improve your running performance and prevent overuse injuries.

Running Gives You a Sweet Tooth

I have no sympathy for running when it comes to this myth. The truth is that some runners have perpetuated this one because they use running as an excuse to eat as many gourmet cupcakes as they can stuff into their mouth after a long run.

But running 10 or even 15 miles doesn’t give you a dietary hall pass. Cupcakes still make you fat and are completely unnecessary for refueling after a tough workout.
There’s no way around the truth: running burns carbohydrates so you will need to refuel. But like any dietary choice, choose healthy forms of carbs, just like you’d choose healthy types of meat. My favorite sources of high-quality carbohydrates include quinoa, fruit and vegetables, wild rice, and sweet potatoes.

By eating most of your carbs before, during, and after your run, you’ll avoid significant weight gain that can happen if you’re eating a high-carb diet. Most importantly, focus on nutrient-rich “real” foods that provide complex carbohydrates to fuel your running. Every exercise can be taken to an extreme (do you really think Mr. Olympia is the picture of health?), running included.

You don’t have to be that guy who only runs hard all the time with no strength work and cupcake eating frenzies. Instead, focus on a well-rounded running program that puts overall health as priority #1.

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