13 Serious Health Risks from Running a Marathon| Updated: May 20, 2019
Have you ever wondered why marathons are considered “healthy” in our society yet the first man that ever ran one collapsed and died immediately after?
Yeah, and Pheidippides was fit too, likely selected for his job as a herald due to his speed and distance running ability. He was not some ancient Greek version of the modern couch potato.
While life may be a marathon your training program should not be. Running a half or whole marathon or competing in a triathlon are all admirable goals. But there are many dangers associated with excessive endurance training.
Dating as far back as the 1970s, the misconception of mainstream training philosophies that 45 minutes to an hour or more a day of intense aerobic activity has led to an overtrained, unfit, immune-compromised exercising population.
Humans were not designed for movement at a chronically sustained high-intensity aerobic pace.
We’ve all seen it in the local gym–day in and day out, week after week Jane and John plod away on the treadmills and ellipticals or pedal themselves into exhaustion in spin classes. It has done nothing to shed the extra fat on their butts and guts let alone tone them. I have never been impressed by any of these results.
13 Health Risks from Marathon Running
What exactly are the problems caused by training for long periods of time at high intensities such as what occurs during a marathon? MANY things in fact . . .
- Debilitating osteoarthritis . . . at a young age
- Permanent scarring of the heart muscle
- A weakening of the thyroid and adrenal glands
- Tendonitis and other repetitive strain injuries
- Recurrent upper respiratory infections
- Permanently damaged feet (my chiropractor says long-distance runners have some of the worst feet he’s ever seen)
- Increased oxidative damage (free radical production)
- Decreased fat metabolism
- Susceptibility to injury
- Loss of bone density
- Depletion of lean muscle tissue
- Hormonal imbalance that is difficult to rectify (women)
- Coupled with the common high refined carbohydrate intake promotes a dangerous level of continuous systemic inflammation.
If you doubt the health risks from marathon running, consider how frequently one or more people die running them during competition. Even the very young are not immune. In 2019, a 22-year-old woman died near the finish line of the Cleveland marathon.
Excessive Cardio and Chronic Inflammation
Sounds like a workout gone very bad to me. The sad part is the intentions of this exercising population are good. They are doing this all in the name of “health”. They are certainly not out to destroy it.
Aside from the disastrous results mentioned above, why is high-intensity aerobic pursuit such a dead end? One reason is the high level of carbohydrates consumed needed to sustain this activity leads to chronic inflammation. You’ve all seen it. Sally and Johnny are running a 5K so they load up on a big bowl of pasta the night before the big race. Then, they chow down on bagels and juice immediately after their 36 min run. Type 2 diabetes here we come.
Even worse are folks in cancer remission logging mile after mile thinking it is going to keep cancer from returning. More often than not, it returns with a vengeance with a more dire prognosis than before. Why? All the free radicals flooding their already weakened system from overexercising on a usually low-fat diet. Folks with cancer courageously yet misguidedly doing half marathons and marathons are literally running themselves right into the grave.
Simply put, humans are not designed to exercise like this! We have 2 primary energy systems to power our muscles. The first relies on the slow burning of fats keeping us fueled while at rest yet allowing for a continuous low-level aerobic activity such as walking, gardening and day to day physical tasks. Fat is a very efficient fuel, stored and burned easily and cleanly when lots of oxygen is present.
Our second primary energy system that evolved is an ATP fueled system that allows us to do intense loads of work in shorts bursts. It is our high octane fuel. Think of the woman that lifts a car off her child trapped beneath it. Or the person that sprints after a mugger to get their wallet back. In other words all-out effort for fewer than 20 seconds; flight or fight and life or death tasks and situations.
Our energy systems are far more complex than that but it boils to the fact that we were evolved to either move slowly and steadily or briefly and fast. We become both healthier and stronger by exercising and living in this manner.
Are Half-Marathons or Triathlons Dangerous?
All being said there are still people out there that want to run a half or whole marathon or triathlon and there is a better and smarter way to train for it while avoiding the negative risks mentioned above. The days of logging mileage in excess of 20+ a week are rapidly becoming archaic. And so is the weak and skinny appearance of the stereotypical endurance athlete.
Many are finding that by incorporating strength and conditioning workouts into their training routine along with with shorter more interval-based training they are improving speed, power, and overall performance. This approach also reduces injury potential. Not to mention having a lot more free time, less pain and, quicker recovery, and no long term scarring/damage to the heart.
This has been hotly debated but well documented in the past several years. Leading the pack in the defense is CF Endurance’s Brian MacKenzie . His training has many top-level endurance athletes setting personal records far beyond past efforts with a dramatic reduction in training time and mileage.
Fitness can and should be achieved without the need for pounding the pavement for miles on end, a huge daily time commitment, and a long list of extreme risks to health both short and long term.
Paula Jager CSCS and Level 1 CrossFit and CF Nutrition Certified is the owner of CrossFit Jaguar. Her exercise and nutrition programs yield life changing results.