It is estimated that 42 million Americans are recreational runners, and if you had to ask them why they run, their answers would be along the lines of: “Because I enjoy it”, “because it frees my mind” or “because it’s good for me.” The truth is, there is no one answer and I personally can come up with hundreds of reasons as to why I run. But in a world that is driven by information and knowledge, there is no doubt that the reasons have become clearer in the past four decades.
In the 70’s, Jim Fixx wrote a book called The Complete Book of Running which highlighted the health benefits associated running. This was the breakthrough in the “Exercise is Medicine” debate and since then, we have never looked back. All of a sudden, a magnitude of studies were being published stating health benefits associated with running. Some of these benefits include weight loss, increased cardiovascular fitness, improved blood sugar control, improved brain function and a decreased risk of heart disease. And the best part lies in its simplicity: lace up some running shoes and go. The American College of Sports Medicine states that in order to benefit from an exercise such as running, you must exercise at a moderate to vigorous intensity for at least 150 minutes per week, or 30 minutes a day for five days a week. Research suggests that those who do not exercise have triple the risk of suffering a heart attack compared to individuals who do meet these criteria.
So there is an overwhelming number of people running for health reasons, coupled with an overwhelming amount of reasons to run. It appears that running is the proverbial ‘silver bullet’ and that everyone should try to reap the rewards that the activity has to offer. In fact, it is quite difficult to name a disease where running does not help to manage it. But there is another side to that argument. A darker side.
It is estimated that up to 79% of all runners experience a running-related injury within any given year. To conceptualize, imagine you and nine of your friends decide that it would be fun to run a half marathon in a years’ time, but by the time you toe the start line, eight of you would have suffered an injury severe enough to prevent you from training. This doesn’t sound too beneficial to your health now, does it? To add insult to injury, recall that people who exercise have a lower risk of heart attack, well the risk of suffering a heart attack during exercise is double that of people who don’t exercise at all! The height of irony is that Jim Fixx, the man who introduced the world the health benefits of running actually died of a heart attack while running in 1984.
Although it does have many benefits, running is inherently a dangerous activity. Research that I conducted in 2013 found that runners experience approximately two and a half times their body weight of force with every step. Now imagine a 75kg runner who takes 25 000 steps over the course of a half marathon. That equates to a grand total of over four and a half tons going through their joints. It’s no wonder why knee and lower leg injuries are most common amongst runners. Veritably, many people who have been running for decades show symptoms of lower back pain and arthritis in their knees.
To compound the issue, running these days is not as simple as we first thought. We no longer simply ‘lace up and go’, but are now bombarded with contradicting facts about weekly mileage, heart rate levels, nutrition, recovery and technique, which just scratches the surface. In fact the very concept of ‘lace up and go’ has been challenged. In 2007, the craze about barefoot running made its way into mainstream media. The concept was that running barefoot was better for you and would reduce your risk of injury. It was said to be the ‘silver bullet’ without the nasty side effects. As with any radical change in thinking, this idea was not without dispute. Many of these so called ‘barefoot’ runners quickly developed calf strains and stress fractures in their feet, while others flourished, ran personal bests and advocated the minimalist movement to anyone who was willing to listen. Scientifically, there is compelling evidence to suggest that running barefoot is beneficial for some, yet harmful for others.
So we are now faced with a dilemma; is running really a medical miracle or is it the catalyst to our health’s demise? The answer depends on if you are a ‘glass half full’ of ‘half empty’ kind of person. If you consider yourself the former, then running is the focus and like any medicine, it has its side effects. Running should be seen as the ultimate goal, a way to express yourself. It should be seen as a way to maintain good health and an active lifestyle. The side-effects are merely things to consider and deal with, because without the running you would be worse off.
In order to avoid the hazardous side of running, you need to respect the dangers and educate yourself on the correct ways to go about it. It is common belief that the number one cause of running related injury is doing too much too soon. By balancing running and resting, monitoring and managing your weekly mileage and taking part in a running specific resistance programme, you will be able to enjoy all the benefits that running has to offer while minimizing the risk of injury. With all things considered, the benefits of running far outweigh the risks.
By: Devon Coetzee