Is Running Actually Healthy? And why do we care?

Last week, when the Chronicle published a controversial article (“Extreme distance running: Too much of a good thing?”), it challenged many long-held assumptions of runners and non-runners alike.  Using information from two small studies, the author contended that long distance running might present some health risks along with its benefits.

Chronicle Article RunningI was photographed and quoted as an example of a runner who could be at risk.  Running about 80 miles per week on average, sometimes getting as high as 100 miles per week, I was their example of an athlete taking this ultrarunning lifestyle to the extreme.

Yet, study after study has shown the myriad health benefits of running and exercise.  I’m not a medical professional in any sense of the term, so my response to the article was not “you’re wrong,” but rather “why do I care?”  More importantly, why should you?

As outsiders, the non-running community assumes that we lace up our shoes to get fit, lose weight, and ultimately strive for optimal health.  To them, running is something we do to stay in shape, not a source of enjoyment or sport.  Until the last decade or two, marathon and ultramarathon participants were few and far between. Now, they’re all over our Twitter feeds, the evening news, and standing in line with us at the grocery store.

I’m not old or wise enough to tell you why this endurance running has blown up overnight, but I would argue that it has a lot less to do with health and a lot more to do with love of the sport and the mental and psychological value.

We run to be free, we run to feel our lungs expand and contract, to feel the trails and pavement beneath our feet, to hear the wind whistle, and to see and explore places we wouldn’t otherwise see.  We run to discover more about the world we inhabit, to connect with ourselves and others, to find out who we are and what we’re capable of, to seek solace in sorrow and to celebrate life’s blessings.  We run from our primal instinct to move and transform.  Sometimes we’re driven to run by forces unknown.

Just like any other sport, running with poor form or inadequate nutrition can lead to injury and medical implications.  But by and large, I’m not convinced that running is any more dangerous than tackling each other to the ground to get a ball, swinging a bat or club, or zooming across ice chasing down a puck.  No physical activity is injury-proof and sitting on the couch dooms us to an even scarier line-up of diseases. In sport, we accept that there are risks associated with chasing down our dreams.

Chronicle Article RunningSome readers commented on the article by noting that runners like me must be “delusional” and have “psychological issues.”  I would argue that running is the glue that binds my life.  I come from a family of runners, I’m connected with great friends in my running community, and I’ve met inspiring and incredible athletes along my journey who create philanthropic initiatives like Worth the Hurt. Runners are a supportive breed; we help one another succeed.  We’re fiercely committed to our collective success and keeping the sport alive.

Working at The SF Marathon, I’ve seen the power of running to transform bodies, give up their unhealthy vices, and form healthy relationships.  Running may be my vice or my virtue, but in any case, it brings me joy. Am I crazy? To some people I am.  But to me, I’m just crazy about the trails, pavement, and running community that I call home.

I hope to see you all out on the course in just 12 days, I’ll be the girl in a hot pink shirt tweeting and snapping pictures along the way. 🙂

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