The Positive and Negative Health Effects of Long-Distance Running

Before you hit the pavement, experts advise learning your body’s cues for the greatest benefits, least injuries. Plus training and eating plans and a guide to local races


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Just a week before competing in her first marathon in 2014, Amy Powell threw out her back. Despite initially feeling strong and healthy, the discomfort she started to feel in her lower back while training evolved into a debilitating, shooting pain. She was unable to sit or walk, much less run, and lying on the floor was the only comfortable position she could find. 

The now 40-year-old mother of two from Livonia remembers calling her chiropractor’s office at the time and through tears telling the receptionist, “I’m going to run a marathon in two days, and I can’t even walk.” Luckily, her physician was able to get her in, adjust her back, and tape her up. She ran the marathon that year, finishing with a smile on her face and a sense of accomplishment.  

“It hurt, but it felt good,” she says. “It was a good hurt.”

Looking back, Powell, who first started running in 2011 with a group of friends she knew from her church, says the experience for her felt new and different.  

“I wouldn’t have thought that would happen,” she says. “I felt so strong, and then I just fell apart.”

This year, she’ll embark on her second attempt at 26.2 miles when she runs the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October. Using the knowledge she’s gained along the way, which she often shares on her running blog, Ugly Finish, she’s already taking steps to prepare for race day. To improve her core stability and decrease her chance of back injury, this past winter she strategically worked stretching and strength exercises — plyometrics, yoga, and more — into her training schedule.

“At first I just did whatever I could do to get through [a run],” she says. “Now I want to pay closer attention to how I’m feeling.”

Experiencing both positive and negative health effects from running, like Powell, is typical for many runners. Some who participate in the sport cite increased endurance, stamina, and strength; improved attitude and mental health; better cholesterol; and weight maintenance as bonuses of the lifestyle. Meanwhile, it’s important to watch out for everything from minor discomforts, such as digestive issues and shin splits, to more serious, chronic injuries.

From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like either somebody is meant to run or they’re not — they’re an athlete or they’re injury prone. However, proponents of the sport say it isn’t always so black and white, and that knowing one’s body and training correctly can often lead to long-term success.

Running Rx

While modern medicine has improved and a number of runners today engage in even longer races than marathons, every year there are people who experience aches and pains, injury, and sometimes even death while running long distances.

Following the deaths of three runners who participated in the Detroit Free Press Marathon in 2009, the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak published a study, Acute Cardiac Effects of Marathon Running. It found that while increased cardiorespiratory fitness and regular exercise can reduce deaths by cardiovascular issues, prolonged exercise, such as marathon running, can have adverse effects.

“Cardiologists, like myself, deal with patients who want to push it, and they say, ‘So, is it safe?’ ” says Dr. Justin E. Trivax, a runner, interventional cardiologist, and co-medical director of Beaumont’s Cardiovascular Performance Clinic in Royal Oak who led the 2009 study. “What I tell everyone, just like water or just like losing weight, you can have too much of a good thing.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, people should aim for 150 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity per week to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, when runners go overboard, Trivax says the risk of arrhythmia, coronary artery calcification, and sudden cardiac death can increase.

He says while the left side of the heart can be trained to be stronger through running, the right side of the heart does not do well with quick changes in volume or pressure. During a marathon, the right side of a runner’s heart dilates and becomes weaker. For those who are vulnerable or have a predisposition, the dilation, which forms scar tissue, can eventually send an electrical impulse to the heart that causes cardiac arrest.

Trivax coined the term “Phidippides cardiomyopathy” to describe the phenomenon. The phrase is named after Phidippides, an ancient Greek figure who, according to legend, collapsed and died after running 26 miles to share the news that the Athenians had defeated the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. 

“Listening to the body is key, everybody has to have an EKG, they should all have [electrocardiograms],” Trivax says. “We need to make sure that we’ve eliminated the risks that we know about.”

For runners who aren’t looking to follow in Phidippides’ footsteps and want to see health benefits from their racing, Trivax recommends consulting with a doctor, listening to the body, knowing one’s cardiovascular history, implementing various strength and high-intensity interval exercises into training plans, and understanding one’s aerobic capacity.  

Matters of the heart aren’t the only issues race participants can run into. Dr. Jessica M. Deneweth Zendler, director of the Michigan Performance Research Laboratory at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says she often sees chronic issues in the Achilles tendons, knees, hips, back, ankles, and feet.

“Everyone’s going to have an injury at some point,” she says. 

“The question is: Does that become a nagging injury that plagues you for the rest of your life, or is it a couple days of rest and then you’re back at it?” 

Zendler, who competes in triathlons, says that the runners she works with are often looking for ways to perfect their stride as well as how to prevent or fix an injury. She says the complications, along with a history of stress fractures, hamstring tightness, and more, can often be attributed to poor running form. 

Good running form is not something that always comes naturally, Zendler says. Although everybody is different, runners should aim to land with their feet under their body rather than out in front, have a slight lean forward of their whole body (coming from the ankles not the waist), and have a quick turnover of steps. To accomplish this, it’s important for runners to not only be strong in their legs, but also in their upper body. 

“I think the biggest thing about running, as opposed to walking, is you’re using your body to propel yourself into the air and then control that landing and immediately push back up,” Zendler says. “That requires a lot more stability and a lot more functional coordination.”

Working strength exercises into a training routine, stretching with a foam roller, maintaining proper nutrition, and consulting with a physician or physical therapist can all help runners avoid sport-based injuries, especially those caused while training for longer distance races, as well as reach their full athletic potential, she says.  

“The runner’s high isn’t a joke,” says Zendler, who has found maintaining bone and muscle strength and healthy cartilage to be some of the benefits of distance running.

Gearing Up

From supportive footwear to proper nutrition, fitness tracking tools, and supplementary accessories — such as weather appropriate athletic apparel, water belts, reflective gear, and more — runners use many tools and resources to stay strong and follow medical recommendations. 

Justin Craig, co-owner of Run Detroit, a specialty running retailer in Midtown, says his store can often be an extension of physicians and physical therapists. A runner for about 12 years who has experienced IT band syndrome (one of the most common overuse injuries among runners, which occurs when the iliotibial band ligament becomes tight or inflamed), he says his staff aims to help people find the right equipment while also providing tips on strengthening and stretching.

“We spend a lot of time here … doing shoe fittings and doing a number of injury consults as well,” Craig says. “We start by asking a lot of questions like: ‘Are you dealing with any injuries?’ or ‘Have you dealt with any injuries in the past? What are your goals? Where are you at now?’ ”

Along with maintaining the store and his own personal training schedule, Craig also helps facilitate a Run Detroit running group, which meets weekly and is open to various skill levels. 

“I’ve met so many great people through [the group], and you can get different advice,” says Amanda Wolski, a Dearborn-based runner who is part of Run Detroit’s race team and often completes her weekly long runs with the specialty store’s group. “Sometimes you need that help, and those plans that you find online, they’re not tailor-made to you.”

A 37-year-old running coach and blogger at Vegan Road Runner who has had her fair share of injuries — some of her issues have included high hamstring tendinopathy, a sprained MCL, and stress fractures — Wolski says that working with other runners has taught her to train smarter and remember to have fun with the process. 

“You’ve got to work your way up to [long distance],” she says. “That’s where I think it’s really important to have the support of friends and other people.”

Lusire Boyd, a 47-year-old runner from Redford who also participates in local running groups, agrees with Wolski. 

Along with Run Detroit’s routes, he often links up with friends for daylong destination runs across the state.

Boyd, who has a goal of running a marathon in all 50 states, thinks his connection with other runners, approach to training, and positive attitude have helped him avoid major injuries while competing in more challenging races. 

This year, he’s preparing for the Toronto Marathon, Chicago Marathon, and a 30-mile ultra-marathon. 

“I decided one day, ‘hey, I’m going to run a marathon,’ and I’ve been running ever since,” he says. “I’m getting closer to 50 years old, but I’m getting younger every few months.” 


TRAINING PROGRAMS:

5K PLAN: RYAN YEPSEN, BEGINNERS COACH AT DETROIT BODY GARAGE

 

1/2 PLAN: GEO WOODMAN, COACH AND OWNER OF BE BOLD CREW WITH TERRA CASTRO, FOUNDER OF DETROIT BODY GARAGE

 

BE BOLD CREW MARATHON PROGRAM: COACH TERRA CASTRO

PART 1: WEEK 1 - WEEK 8

 

PART 2: WEEK 9 - WEEK 15

 



Fueling Up

Nutrition needs vary depending on level of runner

Whether you are preparing for your first race or your 26th marathon, it’s important to make sure you feed your body the proper nutrients it will need to make sure you reach the finish line.

Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian and health coach who is a spokeswoman for Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan, created the following sample meal plan for runners at all levels to achieve optimal nutrition. Portions will be based on the runner’s goals, weight, height, age, gender, and health, but for a 150-pound woman or a 180-pound man, for example, a cup to a cup and a half would be a good portion for breakfast and lunch, with 3-4 ounces of protein for dinner. In general she says everyone should incorporate protein, heart-healthy fats such as salmon and nuts, and complex carbohydrates at every meal. Another essential is to consume at least 64 ounces of water daily or half your weight in ounces of water a day.

For recipes, go to ahealthiermichigan.org. — Dorothy Hernandez



Off to the Races

Channel your inner Olympian with local competitions

Detroit Free Press Marathon: The 40th anniversary of the international marathon will weave in and out of neighborhoods throughout Detroit while also featuring scenic routes over the Ambassador Bridge, downtown Windsor riverfront, and through the underwater tunnel that connects the city to Canada. A fun run, 5K, half marathon, and an international half marathon are also available. Oct. 15.

Detroit Turkey Trot: Often called the “parade before the parade,” the Detroit Turkey Trot celebrates 35 years in November. Starting in downtown Detroit, there’s a variety of race options to choose from, including a 10K, 5K, and “Mashed Potato Mile.” Each finisher receives a Thanksgiving-themed medal. Nov. 23.

Martian Invasion of the Races: The annual Dearborn-based race may feature a lighthearted alien theme, but it’s also a USA Track and Field certified course and Boston Marathon qualifier event. Along with the 26.2-mile marathon, a 10K, 5K, half marathon, and kids marathon are also available. April 22.

Stony Creek “Back to the Beach”: Offering a half marathon, 10K, and 5K option, the race is held at Stony Creek Metropark in Shelby Township and features a variety of running surfaces, such as asphalt, runner-friendly trail segments, dirt roads, boardwalks, and city streets. Seventy-five percent of the race is within the park. May 21.

Wicked Halloween Run: The annual Halloween event takes to the streets of downtown Plymouth for a 10K, 5K, a “Monster Mile,” and “Wicked Double.” Geared toward the whole family, runners are encouraged to wear costumes, and a prize is awarded to the “best dressed.” Oct. 29.

 
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