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Surprising Science

Is Running Long Distances Healthy?

A recent report covered in Runner’s World says the sweet spot might just be forty miles a week.
Participants cross the dunes of Merzouga during the last stage of the 28th Marathon des Sables on April 13, 2013, some 300 kms south of Ourzazate. (Pierre Verdy/AFP/Getty Images)

When I posted that I was training for a half-marathon trail run in November, most comments were enthusiastic. Being that there can never be a thread void of negativity, however, a few mentioned joint issues are certain to ensue, including one person that told me to have fun with double hip replacement surgery.

Throughout my life I’ve had a hate-hate relationship with running. Reading a number of books on the topic recently, I realized I was training wrong. Since humans don’t think about walking much—we just start doing it, then keep doing it throughout life—many people don’t work on the mechanics of running. They just run, often poorly, as was my case, and my joints did take the brunt of it.

Another notion I’ve often encountered is that humans are not designed to run, a ridiculous claim ignorant of evolutionary biomechanics. Daniel Lieberman, a paleoanthropologist at Harvard, reminds us that an important aspect of survival was an ability to collectively outrun animals over long distances. Social cohesion and cardiovascular fitness evolved together.

The adaptations underlying these abilities helped transform the human body in crucial ways and explain why humans, even amateur athletes, are among the best long-distance runners in the mammalian world.

Again, we just have to know how to run, not debate whether or not we should be running.

Debates inside of the running world are old and contentious. One of the biggest is how many miles to log every week. A recent feature in Runner’s World tackled just this question, spurred by a 2012 presentation by epidemiologist Duck-chul Lee in which he claimed most benefits associated with running drop off after twenty miles each week. In fact, Lee stated, people running over twenty show no significant difference with non-runners.

You can imagine the consternation expressed by those clocking in a hundred or two. In a culture transfixed by four-minute workouts and four-hour workweeks, news that you don’t need to put in a lot of time to get maximal results is always welcome. But as the writer, Alex Hutchinson, reports, one critical piece of information was left out of Lee’s assessment.

Hutchinson uses death rates among smokers versus non-smokers as an analogy. Smokers obviously have higher rates of lung cancer; smoking causes cancer. You wouldn’t statistically adjust lung cancer rates between groups, because the whole point of the study is that smoking causes cancer, which leads to more deaths. Yet this is exactly what Lee had done with his study on runners.

Until he published his study in a peer-reviewed journal two years later, that is. Lee still believed running long distances didn’t do much for you, though in the 2014 report he claimed that just five to ten minutes a day has significant health benefits. The reality is that yes, running in short, intense bursts is healthier for your cardiovascular system than not running at all. That does not imply that benefits do not accrue with distance, however.

Biostatistician Paul T. Williams came to a much different conclusion regarding distance. With access to 156,000 runners, his sample size was over triple Lee’s. Among Williams’s findings, men putting forty miles a week behind them were 26 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease than runners logging thirteen; runners in the same group exhibited the least likelihood of cardiac arrhythmias. Point being: distance matters.

Hutchinson notes the impossibility of conducting long-term studies on large groups over decades. You also have to factor in diet, something not discussed in his article though critically important when discussing cardiovascular issues. As he concludes, there is no definitive answer for how long or how far one should run each week.

What it important, however, is running. There are other less impactful ways of getting your heart rate up: cycling, rowing, swimming. Personally, I’ve transformed my hate-hate relationship with running. It is something I look forward to each time I hit the trail.

And when dealing with health, enjoyment is essential. If you’re dreading a workout, it’s not worth it—you won’t stick with the program and will be depressed at the results (or lack thereof). As I often tell my students and clients, feeling comfortable in your skin is a critical marker of fitness. Taking care of your body and mind takes work, but it shouldn’t feel like work.

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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