More people are running in marathons and half-marathons than ever before. So it’s always interesting to read in the press the latest medical study that found that running too many miles over one’s lifetime could be dangerous for the heart and lead to an early death. That’s bad news for those of us addicted to running. But should we hang up our running shoes based on a single study?

In a recent study conducted by Dr. James O’Keefe and Carl Lavie of St. Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Mo., and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., 52,600 people were followed for three decades. The runners  had a 19 percent lower death rate than nonrunners.  But among the runners who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.

“Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life,” states an editorial in the British journal Heart where the study was published.

Furthermore, the researchers wrote in their report, “Long-term excessive exercise may accelerate aging in the heart, as evidenced by increased coronary artery calcification, diastolic ventricular dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening.”

The Wall Street Journal “ran” with this story last week with this four-alarm headline: “One Running Shoe in the Grave”.  Sensationalism of this kind really serves no other purpose than to sell papers and digital subscriptions. So as to properly and more accurately shed light on the topic of running and the potential for heart disease, it’s critical to take a step back and consider the real health and fitness issues at stake. And to this important end, we turn to Dr. Steve Gangemi, aka Sock Doc, whose following essay, in part, originally appeared on his website. — NRC

Enough of the Aerobic and Endurance Bashing Fostered by “New Research” and Personal Agendas

by Dr. Steve Gangemi, aka Sock Doc

It’s back, and it’s getting old. Actually it never went away. I’m referring to the current round of news reports, websites, and “research” that have once again concluded that so-called aerobic and endurance training will, to some extent, harm your health if not outright kill you.

This past June, The New York Times cited a huge research study which found that running more than 20 miles per week may have more risks to your health than if you ran less. Running procrastinators and couch potatoes celebrated this victory. As I discussed at that time in my article, “Make up Your Mind: Will Running Kill You or Make Your Stronger?”, the study was poorly interpreted, to say the least. There’s no reason to revisit old material and say the exact same thing and call it new, but clearly the Wall Street Journal does not feel the same way. Just this past week the WSJ discussed the exact same research study in their article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave“. It’s a catchy title, but there is absolutely nothing new here that hasn’t been said before other than some cardiologists bantering about agendas. I can just about guarantee you that you’ll see another similar article or research study next month, and month after that, and month after that.

Runner, PhD physicist, and science writer over at Runner’s World, Alex Hutchinson, also notes the absurdity of this re-circulating study as the researchers “used statistical methods to effectively “equalize” everyone’s weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, and so on.” I, like Alex, am all for research, but research that is unbiased, statistically accurate and complete, and the findings are consistent within a reported population. In other words, don’t include non-runners or overweight alcoholic smokers in an endurance study.

Alex also makes reference of another study published in the Lancet in October 2011 which, via a questionnaire to over 416,000 participants, concluded that greater than one hour of endurance activity provides no further benefit than less than one hour.  Actually in truth, as Alex notes, the researchers were not able to identify an upper limit of exercise where the risks outweighed the benefits. But the researchers simply left this part out of the published report.

Nonetheless, Marathons will kill you. I also believe it was such overtraining that killed the real-life Born-to-Run legend Micah True. But that doesn’t mean we stop running any more than you should stop lifting a weight if a study comes out saying that those who lift weights are more susceptible to hip injuries and that causes more falls leading to death.

None of these endurance focused studies ever discuss heart rate, which is a key factor when it comes to training intensity. This leaves the study participants or analysts to determine intensity by using words such as easy, moderate, vigorous, etc. That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. A study participant who smokes, is overweight, and “runs” a few times a week, even if that mile takes him 20 minutes, will likely be in anaerobic excess, yet the run may be called “easy”.

Another participant who exercises ten hours a week and is healthy might be training at a very low easy intensity but the mileage is “vigorous”. Yet, this is how these questionnaire studies eventually lead to wild conclusions when they hit the wire. Many only read the headline, the writer’s point of view, or abstract at best and then draw even further conclusions on their own.

Now, to add fuel to this endurance-will-kill-you fire, enter the bloggers, coaches, trainers, gym owners, and people who just switched from soy milk back again to rice because of the soy article they just read in Men’s Health. Problem is, fitness programs are not working for most. There are as many people who should not be running long distance as there are those who should not be doing CrossFit. They’re equal-opportunity injury and illness programs for the general masses when you don’t balance health and fitness. And it’s the craze right now – not just CrossFit and marathons, but paleo workouts, half marathons, ultras, and numerous obstacle-mud races.

If you’re reading a site or blog by some strength-only guru who says you can get all your aerobic benefits from lifting weights a bit faster than when you lift them slowly then good luck with that.  Sadly, there is a tendency toward minimal fitness and looking buff but with little or no concern for overall health. (See my MovNat Endurance Workout video instead.) Last time I checked, running is a natural, and actually vital, human movement. You might not like to run, but you should be able to run.

Remember: Always health first, fitness second. So train smart and train hard when you can and you’re ready to do so. Training hard is good for you, but do not do such extreme training too often. I love training hard, but I am intentional about it and only when my health is optimal.