Is Running Really All That Great?

Since I first started working out regularly, I’ve had a kind of love/hate relationship with running.  I’m not a natural at it by any means, I’m not fast, and I don’t have crazy-good endurance.  My sweet spot is plodding along for relatively short distances without too many hills.

man running beach sunset swim trunks

I will never look this good when I run.

And ever since I first started working out, I’ve been an off/on runner.  If I’m running – or trying to, at least – I’m doing it most days of the week.  If I’m not really running, I’m really not running.  (Even if there’s cake at the finish line, I’ll still just powerwalk.)  These phases have typically ebbed and flowed, often based on the condition of my feet/ankles/knees/hips.  These days, I’m trying to rehab my left posterior tibial tendon, so I’ve not been running at all for the past two months or so.  Just this past week, I decided to hop back in the game and see how this old bag of bones would hold up…my ankle has done passably well, although probably could use more rest and rehab.  Not surprisingly, I found that I’d lost quite a bit of my running fitness.  Very surprisingly, I found that I kind of missed running.  Not in the sense that I was craving a run or have any ambition of ever becoming a distance runner, but that I’d forgotten how truly satisfying it was to have a good (remember that “good” is an extremely relative term here) run.

To watch dawn dance its way into day and smell the freshness of the early-morning.

To find a rhythm and get lost in thought at the same time.

To be sweaty and tired and breathless and keep going anyway.

To finish and sit down and feel your legs start turning to lead but you don’t give a damn because you’re already done.

You know…to run.

sunrise run

Since I’ll spare you a photo of my attempts at running – you’re welcome, by the way – here’s a blurry photo from the 3.5 miles I did with my dad yesterday at sunrise.

 But in spite of my ever-tumultuous feelings about running over the past decade or so, one thing did not waver, and that the belief that running was good for you.  For as long as I could remember, running and health had been associated in my mind.  Runners were healthy people, and healthy people were runners…unless they were elderly folks power walking with ankle weights in their velour tracksuits.  But still, that was the geriatric version of running, was it not?  Eventually I started to do some research, and then the CrossFit trend exploded onto the scene, which meant there was a LOT more backlash against the whole “running = healthy” ideology.  So I kept researching, and started to wonder if I’d been chasing after the wrong thing.

Like any good nerd, though, I sought out both sides of the story.  And now, a few years/one bum ankle/two “crunchy” knees later, I’ve come to my conclusion, at least for now.  Running can be good for you.

Running can be good for you.

It’s not necessarily bad, nor is it necessarily good.  Like so many things in the world of health, the benefits seem to depend on the context rather than an across-the-board prescription. So for those of you who may nerds or non-runners like me, or anyone who just enjoys my blathering on, here are the basic (really, so basic.  Don’t be too disappointed, nerd-friends.) pros and cons of the age-old running game.   Of course, other folks have said it much better than I can, which is why I’ve linked to them rather than attempted to regurgitate the same information in my less-eloquent and/or more offensive words. You’re welcome?

So let’s get down to it…Is running really all that great?

PROS:

  • Cardiovascular health.  Your heart is a muscle, and it needs training, too.  Training your heart muscle means putting it to work with a greater stimulus than that to which it is accustomed.  In other words, you get your heart rate up.  There are plenty of ways to do this (both vertical and horizontal….), but running is pretty damn effective at it.
  • Increase your VO2 max (this is basically the highest threshold of aerobic work).  For athletes, this is crucial.  And again, you can improve your VO2 max in many ways, but running is particularly effective.
  • Endorphins.  Who doesn’t love a good legal high?  No, seriously.
  • Stress relief.  Again, endorphins are coming into play, but if you run outdoors, all the fresh air can be a serious stress-melter.
  • Sprints.  There are incredible benefits to interval training, which includes both sprints and speedwork.  Those benefits range from greater explosive power, greater overall strength, increased lean mass, increased VO2 max, and more.

CONS:

  • High impact.  Running is inherently high impact, and that’s problematic for people with joint problems.  Proper running form, compensatory exercises, modified volume (total miles run/week), and intensive recovery techniques can help with this to a degree, but nothing will change running to a low-impact sport (unless you’re pool-running, in which case, carry on…).
  • Increased cortisol levels.  To be fair, all exercise can increase cortisol levels (heyyyy, CrossFit)…it’s just that running can do so more sneakily.  It is much easier to tax your body but not notice it with running  than it is with most other sports.  Particularly for those who do “chronic cardio,” meaning they are running for close to an hour or more 5 or more days per week, cortisol level can be increased to deal with the chronic stress on the body.  Higher cortisol levels mean more inflammation in the body means more risk for CVD (which is ironic, because many people choose to run at least in part because they want their cardiovascular system to be healthier).
  • Difficulty maintaining/building lean mass.  High-volume running is counterproductive to hypertrophy, which means that if you are looking to put on a substantial amount of lean mass, then frequent running (in the conventional sense, not including sprints) is going to interfere with that goal.  If you want to be successful, you’ll need to modify your goals/expectations or modify your training.  Kind of like that saying, “You can have it all, you just can’t have it all at once.”

BOTTOM LINE:

Running can be great for you, but you have to choose a style and training schedule that suits your goals and your body.

If your goal is hypertrophy and you’re lifting regularly, sprints and some speedwork could be a great addition a couple times per week.

If you are an endurance athlete, then you probably want a mix of longer runs, tempos/speedowork, and some sprints, along with cross-training and strength training for injury prevention.

….And here’s where I turn it over to the experts.   These are all really fantastic articles, and if you don’t have time right now, I’d suggest bookmarking them for later.

“Running Doesn’t Suck” from T-Nation  –> great advice for constructing a sprint/speedwork plan, and a must-read for anyone who’s ever avoided running for fear of losing “all the gains”)

“The Evidence Continues to Mount Against Chronic Cardio”  from Mark’s Daily Apple –> really interesting take from a former endurance athlete turned sprinter/poster-boy for primal eating  (see also: “The Case Against Cardio”)

 “Sorry, But Science Says Running is Good for You, Not Bad” from a guest post on GoKaleo –> excellent reminder that movement is good, and movement you enjoy is even better…and that includes running.

“You Don’t Have to Run a Marathon” from Daily Garnish –> truly fantastic post that I have gone back to and reread more than once (and while I reread books all the time, I rarely reread a blog post)

Run Less, Run Faster by Bill Pierce –>  great book that I picked up recently so that I can get back into running this time by “training smarter, not harder”…also sharing it with my Dad, who’s been using it to train for his Army PFT later this year (he wants to beat his previous PFT 2 mile time of 14:07).

 

Now enough of me, let’s hear from yall…

Discuss:

Do you love running or hate it?

Do you ever do sprints or speedwork? What about long runs?

What’s your favorite form of cardio/conditioning?

horizontal running fat amy pitch perfect

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6 thoughts on “Is Running Really All That Great?

  1. I so feel you with the going back and forth on running! I go through phases of running all the time and then not for a month. But I do miss it after awhile and I’m actually planning on getting back into it now!

    I love all the research you did! Running definitely can be hard on the joints but there are benefits too! I’m a big advocate of taking walking breaks during runs which definitely helps prevent some of those issues! 🙂

    1. Oh yeah, walking breaks or any other training modification is so worth it if it means it will keep your joints healthy and allow you to continue training (running or otherwise)! Neat that you’re getting back into running, as well…keep me posted on how it goes. 🙂

  2. I love AND hate running. Totally bittersweet sport for me. Most days I love it, and despite those days that I hate it I will continue to run. I love the feeling I get AFTER a run too much to stop. When I feel burned out, I honor those feelings and take a break! It doesn’t usually take long for me to miss it!

    1. Yes, the after-run high is amazing! Giving yourself breaks (walking, rest days, and running by feel rather than pace) as needed is so important…I know I wouldn’t be able to stick with it if I didn’t.

    1. It is definitely hard! I much prefer strength training in terms of enjoyment…so when I run, you know I’m doing it for the high that comes after.

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