Everyone has a very personal definition of what it means to be ‘fit’. For many, running a marathon is that ultimate litmus test that would tell them that they have achieved their peak physical fitness. But here is the truth of what running a marathon does to you:
Running a marathon takes a huge toll on your body (read ‘your health’). It is a strenuous, exhausting activity through which your cardiorespiratory, neuromuscular and endocrine systems are stretched to their limits. These systems work to produce energy that is 15-fold your normal for over two hours (Ref1).
For those who say that you cannot run a marathon without training for it, listen to them. These words of advise might very well be Words of Warning. Marathon is run to honour the first man who had run the 46 mile distance from the Battle of Marathon to Athens carrying the news of great victory. You know how his marathon ended? As soon as he delivered the message he fell to the floor. Dead. :/
I know its a bit melodramatic. I can hear you argue that with training and the right knowledge of how to run a marathon, it can be quite safe. No? Not to scare you but throughout 80’s and 90’s there were a lot of studies done to identify the causes of deaths during marathons. Based on these a lot of guidelines and training techniques have been formed now over the last decade.
Hydration, nutrition, managing body temperatures, etc are now all critical elements that you need to know about before your training even begins. If you have not trained properly for the event then you will most likely pull out of the race dehydrated or injuring yourself (ankle twists, muscle cramps, etc are common) or worse losing conscious from heat stroke. Ambulances and emergency vans are on high alert and available at the venue and throughout the route.
There have been conflicting studies back and forth about if your cardiorespiratory system is benefitted or is critically stressed by running a marathon.
Dr Tom Bassler was an avid supporter of the benefits and insisted that running strengthened immunity against fatty deposits collecting in your coronary arteries (Ref2). This was back in 1977.
Noakes was his contemporary and a few years after presented documented cases of marathon runners where 22 of 36 deaths were due to heart failure either during, immediately after, or within 24 hours of running a marathon or a long training run (Ref3).
The hardest blow to Bassler came from one particular case study. Jim Fixx was 35 years when he started running. He was 110kgs (~240 pounds) and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. In 1977, ten years later, he authored a book ‘The Complete Book of Running’ and appeared in many television talk shows extolling the benefits of running and how it completely transformed his life. He was then 30kgs (~65 pounds) lighter and had stopped smoking. The book went on to become a best seller and millions of copies were sold.
Fixx inspired many to start running and went on to release more books over the next few years. He continued his running regimen until he was 52 years of age. In 1984, while on his daily 10 mile run he had a stroke and died on the spot. His autopsy revealed that atherosclerosis had blocked 95% of one coronary artery, 85% of the second and 70% of his third. His family history of heart problems, where his father had a heart attack at 35 years and died eight years later, were cited as one of the reasons for his fatal heart attack (Ref4).
The story of Jim Fixx is a cautionary tale. As on date the primary known risk factors that predisposes to cardiovascular diseases include old age, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, history of smoking or diabetes and family history of heart attacks. It is highly recommended that in old age or persons with multiple risk factors should get full medical tests done before starting a new fitness regime.
The effects of your genetics, lifestyle and age related deterioration are not something you can or should ignore when it comes to your health.
Other studies on endurance athletes have noted common occurrences of musculoskeletal injuries of the lower limb along with depressed immune function which leads to increased risk of infections, illness, suppressed tissue repair and wound healing functions (Ref5). Supplementary nutrition and hydration alleviates this to an extent but not fully.
So here is the thing, a body that is exhausted, depleted of nutrients and so close to the point of snapping is surely neither fit nor healthy.
Lets be clear on one point though, exercising by itself lowers many risk factors of heart diseases. There is no single mechanism that by itself can explain all the benefits of exercise – the lowered cholesterol, lowered blood pressure, decreased risk of developing diabetes and many others. In this article we are exploring how an intense activity such as running a marathon is falsely looked up by many as a ‘fitness’ goal.
Instead to maintain fitness a consistent exercise schedule is the way to go. You should avoid a routine which over time would take its toll over your body making it susceptible to injury, fatigue and illness. Read more about how we define fitness in ‘What it means to be fit’.
In conclusion, it is undeniable that some exercise is better than no exercise. The intensity of exercise, however, is still circumspect. Running for miles everyday and squeezing the last bit of breathe is probably not making you as immune to disease as it might seem.
The most important thing in exercising is consistency and taking adequate rest between sessions to recover fully. Listen to your body. If you are tired and exhausted all the time even after you exercise, then make sure you are not over-exerting.
Be safe. Be Fit. 😉
Ref1: Emmett J. The physiology of running – Just what does Running a Marathon Do To Your Body. Marathon and Beyond, 2007; (11) – 20-36
Ref2: Bassler, T.J. 1977. Marathon running and immunity to atherosclerosis. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 301:579-592
Ref3: Noakes, T.D. 1987. Heart disease in marathon runners: A review. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 19(3):187-194
Ref4: Plymire, D.C. 2002. Running, heart disease, and the ironic death of Jim Fixx. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 73(1):38-46
Ref5: Walsh NP, Gleeson M, et al. Position statement: Immune function and exercise. Exercise Immunology Review, 2011; 17:6-63
PS: just realised this is my longest article ever :/ Sorry about that. Will keep it short next time 🙂