Most people think of exercise as a healthy thing. We often hear about how most Americans don’t get enough exercise, so there is a lot in the media about trying to increase our activity levels. Of course there are multiple health benefits to exercise. It’s something that might even lengthen our lifespan if we do it right. But I’ve read a couple of articles about running lately that kind of freaked me out. Basically, the articles reported that researchers have found that there is an optimal amount of running for health benefits, and that running above that may actually start doing more damage than good to your body, including increasing artery plaque buildup (from exercise induced oxidative stress) and shortening your lifespan. That message in of itself didn’t concern me too much. I’ve always figured that ultra endurance running, although intriguing, can’t actually be good for the human body. However, the limits the researchers did recommend surprised me. Apparently, the health benefits diminish if you are running more than 20 miles a week, more than six days a week, or faster than eight miles an hour. That’s not very extreme. Most runners I know meet at least one of those criteria. According to the researchers, the greatest health benefits come if you are running only 5-19 miles per week at a pace of 6-7 miles per hour and spread over 3 or 4 sessions per week, no more than an hour at a time.
So what’s a runner to do? Well first of all don’t freak out. Logging a lot of miles isn’t guaranteed to shorten your life, the studies just found a correlation. That’s not proof. And there are things you can do to help combat plaque buildup in your arteries, namely following a healthy diet full of antioxidants. I would, however, recommend thinking about your priorities and evaluating the cost versus benefit of logging lots of miles based on your personal situation. For instance, if you are a casual runner who runs mostly for enjoyment or the health benefits it’s probably best to stick within the above recommendations. However, if you are a competitive runner (on any level) who consistently trains for events you generally need to log more than 20 miles per week. So if you want to keep competing you might not have much of a choice. But if you love running and the competition and challenge of it, I’m guessing you find it worth the risk to go above those limits anyway. Just make sure to cut back a bit when not in training mode. Also be sure to incorporate easy days, easy weeks, and off seasons into your training schedule, as well as cross training. I’ve said it a million times, but life is about balance. So find yours and run with it!