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No More Marathons… For Now.

Over the past three years I’ve trained for and completed four marathons. I was first drawn to the sport because of my love for running and my eagerness to push myself farther than I had ever been before. Running a marathon seemed like a great opportunity to push my endurance to the max and prove to myself that I can do anything I set my mind to do. However, well before my fourth marathon in October of 2013, I had been further evaluating my stance on marathon running. With weight loss as a specialty of mine, I spend a lot of time evaluating which type of exercise is healthiest for our bodies and most beneficial for our metabolisms. At one point in time I thought the healthiest exercise was the one that burned the most calories, which would put marathon running close to the top of the list. Now I have changed my stance on marathon running and decided it is not going to be my choice of exercise from here on out and I no longer believe it to be the healthiest exercise of all. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I am writing this post simply to explain my personal choice of taking an indefinite break from running marathons. We might not see eye to eye on this topic, but please still consider some of the points I bring up so that you’re training in a way that will keep your body in top condition so you can continue doing what you love. I’m not here to tell any of you to quit running marathons. Although I will no longer be running them myself, I will still be eager to help my clients reach their marathon and long distance training goals (and here are my top 10 nutrition for running tips). As many of you know, I am a believer in the individualization of health and nutrition because our bodies are all unique and different from one another. I just want you to know where I stand and why I’ve made the commitment to change this part of my life. If you have any doubts about my heart behind this post, please read this post on my commitment to being open minded and to having a healthy, balanced approach to all areas of life.

9 reasons why I am putting marathon running behind me:

1) I love running. I don’t love when it feels like a chore or when I “need” to clock in a certain amount of miles because some training plan says I need to. I want to run for the pure enjoyment of running, not because I have to but because I WANT to. Because I enjoy it and because of how I feel afterwards. I do not enjoy waking up at the crack of dawn to run 20 miles, knowing that I will be sore, exhausted and limping for the following 2-3 days.

2) I love feeling energized after running. I have MORE energy for the remainder of the day when I begin my day with a 2-5 mile run. The exact OPPOSITE is true when I start my day with an anything-greater-than-that run. Everyone’s threshold is different, but I’ve learned what mine is and I’d like to stay within it and keep my runs at a distance that keeps me energized, not exhausted. This does not mean I will never run another race. In fact, right now I think it would be a blast to run the 10-mile portion of the 20 mile race I’ve run the last few years!

3) I want to honor my body. Just like it’s downright mean to restrict our bodies of the nutrients we need, like fat or calories, it’s dishonoring to constantly put them in a state of inflammation. I’ve come to believe that is exactly what’s happening when participating in long durations of cardiovascular activity on a regular basis (see resources at the end of this post). I want to treat mine with respect on a daily basis so it rewards me by working to the best of its ability. I am passionate about teaching how to live a balanced lifestyle and form a good, honest healthy relationship with the body, which includes listening to it and not doing things to it that it doesn’t like. So if mine doesn’t like when I pound on pavement for 4 hours, am I really doing it any favors? I don’t think so.

4) I don’t want to inflict pain on my body. This goes hand in hand with honoring it. There is a big difference between good pain and bad pain. The pain I experience in my knees post-marathon is not good pain. It’s a “you pushed yourself too hard” type of pain. Over the years I’ve learned this lesson not only with running, but with food too: Listen to your body. If it doesn’t make your body feel good, don’t do it. Simple enough.

5) I want my knees to last as long as possible. I’ve had 2 knee surgeries. Crazy that up until a few months ago I was still running marathons, right!? I used to boast that the last words my orthopedic surgeon said before the operation were, “Just don’t become a runner.” When I was running daily, I’d laugh and say, “Look at me now!” Fast-forward a few more years and I can tell my knees have taken a toll after a long run. I don’t want to play games anymore with my body. I do take every proactive measure I can to preserve the health of my joints and cartilage. I eat balanced PFC (protein, healthy fat and carbohydrates) throughout the day and religiously take all my runner’s supplements. But, as I always say, most importantly it’s about listening to your body. How do my knees feel after my long runs? Not great. Not as bad as before I took supportive supplements and ate adequate amounts of fat, but it’s still not great. So, should I really still be pounding on pavement? Probably not.

6) I don’t want to mess up my metabolism and have to run marathons for the rest of my life to maintain my weight. Our bodies truly are great machines, and are incredibly adaptable to whatever season we are in. When you do long periods of endurance activity on a regular basis, you are telling your body that this is what it needs to accommodate for. But… what if you don’t always want to live that way? What will happen? I want my body to be able to maintain my weight and give me energy WITHOUT the 50-100-minute cardio sessions. If we still believed in the calorie model, then extreme endurance training would be über effective for weight loss/maintenance since you burn a lot of calories when you exercise for a long time. BUT because health and weight are NOT just about calories — inflammation, sleep, food quality, timing, stress and hormonal balance play significant roles too —it doesn’t make sense to put your body through chronic states of endurance activity.

7) I don’t want anything to take over my life. I’m all for making sacrifices and devoting oneself to something, but I’m also a fan of quality of life. I’m not saying my life is lower quality when I’m marathon training, but I am saying marathon training has a way of taking over your time and if you’ve run one, I bet you’re nodding your head. If not, imagine planning your eating, sleeping and social schedules around your runs. Running a marathon requires months of training. What you eat, how you sleep, when and how you socialize are all dependent on the training schedule. I believe that it can be very fulfilling for some to make sacrifices to devote themselves completely to marathons or other ventures, but I find that I value a more balanced lifestyle (surprised?!). Training for a marathon is nearly all-consuming, and when I’ve got clients to care for, friends to keep up with, family to visit and blogs to write, I can’t afford to let training take over my life.

8) I don’t want heart disease. This is counterintuitive, I know. But hear me out. The more you run, the healthier your heart should be, right? I no longer believe this to be true due to new insights about chronic endurance activity. At the root of heart disease is INFLAMMATION, which can be caused by many things: excess consumption of carbohydrates, sugar, trans fats, and even “chronic cardio” because of the stress it puts on your heart. If you are putting in long hours of endurance activity every day and don’t give yourself a break, how do you expect your body to recover? Your body is good at healing itself, but do you really want it to spend its life focusing on healing instead of giving you energy and quality of life? Any time your body is inflamed it focuses on healing that inflammation. Not weight loss. Not energy. Not happiness. Healing.

9) I love exercising, but not when I’m overdoing it. Lastly, for the record, I’m not an exercise Grinch! I still love exercise! I spent my college years not only studying nutrition, but exercise as well and for a reason: I love it! I believe there are significant benefits to an active lifestyle. I feel awesome when I’m active, but not when I overdo it. It’s the chronic, repetitive, daily endurance activity that I believe is counterproductive.

So what do I recommend doing for exercise? I feel great after getting back into HIIT (high intensity interval training) – the stuff that really boosts your metabolism and doesn’t require great lengths of time. I look ridiculous when I do it but I feel awesome. I set my stopwatch and do 45 second interval sets of intense squat jumps, stair stepping, push ups, jumping jacks, lunges, etc with 45 seconds on and a 10 second break in-between sets. I do this for 15 minutes or so, then I stretch and shower. I switch it up by attending my favorite weight lifting class at the gym once a week along with a cardio kickboxing and pilates class mixed in. I still run but my runs are shorter and I follow the same interval training approach (I usually sprint for 45 seconds, rest for 30, repeat.) Occasionally I might do a longer run (maybe 6-9 miles) but no longer as part of my regular exercise regimen. I LIVE for my active lifestyle of paddle boarding, outdoor rock-climbing, hiking, skiing, rollerblading and biking. I don’t need to pound the pavement to be healthy and I think I’m healthier without it.

Why I say “…for now”:

The reason I ended the title of this blog post with “…For Now” is because I pretty much never say never. I don’t drink soy milk. I don’t eat bread. I don’t order white chocolate mochas. But maybe on some occasion in the future I will choose to. I’m always looking for the latest research and I’m not so naive as to think I know everything about health that there is to know now. I like having the power to make healthy choices, and in all honesty, I might not always make the healthiest choice and that’s okay. I want to be real, transparent and do this journey of life with you. So, while I think running marathons is unhealthy, I’m not going to say I’ll never run one again. But right now, as I write this, I am making the choice that last October’s marathon (my fourth) is my last for now.

Now, I know many of you runners struggle with sugar cravings like I used to, so grab the guide below for my BEST tips to BUST (and prevent!) sugar cravings!

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Additional Resources on this topic:

Watch this segment from the Ancenstral Health Symposium by cardiologist, Dr. James O’Keefe, who used to be an exercise enthusiast and has researched this topic extensively.

Marathoners May Have More Artery Plaque

This Exercise Can Cause a 7-Fold Surge of Heart Problems.

Excessive Endurance Training Can Be Too Much of a Good Thing, Research Suggests.

Mark Sisson’s Chronic Cardio Posts: Chronic CardioMore Chronic Cardio Talk and The Evidence Continues to Mount Against Chronic Cardio and Episode #1 of The Primal Blueprint Podcast: Chronic Cardio with Mark Sisson.

Leave a Comment
  • Steve George

    Great article and reasoning. Glad you figured this out while you are still “young”. I switched from swimming 1-2 hours/day or biking 1-2 hours/day to a Turbulence Training/HIIT style about 20 minutes per day. I am still in great shape, feel much better and have a lot more time to spend with my family.

  • Some interesting opinions. Having run 40+ marathons/ultramarathons (I’ve been running for 20+ years too) my knees have never felt better! But I’m really, really careful what I put in my body and consume anti inflammatory super spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon (all organic) daily.

    I love to run. It’s a part of who I am and my story. I also love all fitness and just moving my body!

    Also, side point. In working with runners over the years though I’ve found that they are a very unhealthy group in terms of nutrition. Running 6 miles does not entitle you to a package of Oreos (I know you know this) but had to bring this up.

    I do think point 6 is a very valid point. That’s why always varying workouts and types of runs is crucial.

    Point 5 is one everyone loves to throw around and it irks- when was the last time we told obese people that the couch is killing their whole body?! If all runners do is run and eat crappy junk of course their knees will become weak. But when runners eat real food AND strength train AND take care of their body, their knees will be just fine. 🙂

    For the love of the run and real food,
    Sarah 🙂

    • davidmadow

      Sarah – I absolutely LOVE this post! I am a marathon runner (very slow) but I cannot say that I disagree with anything you said here! Keep up the inspiration! Dave

  • Sarah Lauren

    When I first read that you ran marathons, I was quite surprised considering that the primal/paleo groups are not fans of too much cardio/long distance running. Although I plan to do a half marathon this year, I would never do a marathon. I read stories every year how super fit/healthy people collapse and die of a heart attack during their runs. My friend who regularly runs them tells me her toenails comes off. I love all your points, especially number 1. You don’t want to turn an activity or hobby that you love into a chore.

  • Laura Thomas

    Nice article Cassie. I have thought about marathons but I actually enjoy 30mins of interval training and yoga just as much as a 3-5 mile run that I like the variety too much to sacrifice it all for a 100% running plan. Like you say it’s what you enjoy and I’ve enjoyed your honesty in this article x

  • Jasmine

    Great blog! I’m all for the High intensity Interval type training. I also love how you say “never say never”. My husband makes fun of me for having changed my eating habits based on what I now think is healthy and that a few years ago I was telling him the opposite was healthy and I always say, this is what I know now and if in a few years time the research points elsewhere and we find out something else is healthier, then I’ll switch to that.

  • Kelli @ Healthierbytheweek

    I enjoyed your post. I find so many patients with the belief that running as far as you can is the best exercise. In fact, there is so much benefit form interval training and muscle strengthening exercise. I think though one of the most important points is to listen to your body and do what is best for you, not what is best for your next door neighbor.

  • Suzy Oakley

    Bravo! I love your 1) balanced approach and 2) philosophy of “never say never.” I’m a runner who has had knee surgery once, in danger of needing it again, and the runner of (so far) exactly one half-marathon – only because it was a fundraiser for my husband’s disease (Crohn’s). I’m definitely going to link to this post from my blog because it summarizes much of what I’ve wanted to say for so long but just haven’t taken the time to do. Thank you!

  • Andrew Sapinski

    Hey Cassie,

    Sorry to hear about your knee. You should try to train with one of these awesome knee braces from Bauerfeind, they’re great for rehab and training your knee. Or drop running and become one of those crazy road bikers.

  • Guest

    I always feel like HIIT is “cheating” after so many years of 45-75 minute workouts. 🙂

    I wish there were a way to “see” systemic inflammation level. Sometimes I’ll randomly get acne, and think that’s my body’s way of saying something’s off. Maybe too much working out, or I’m about to get sick, or I’m starting to get dehydrated. I sometimes think random-onset headaches are saying something similar.

    Are there any other signs of inflammation so we know when something’s too much? It seems like so many doctors now are tying inflammation back to everything.

  • Wow that’s an honest eye opener post about running marathon which some runners make it like holy kind of thing!

  • Jumana rimawi

    I like it ! I had my fourth marathon three months ago, and yes I got the bad pain in my knees although I love to run,I might set it aside …

  • Amy

    So nice to read someone on the same level of thinking as myself. I used to compete in college and in RRCA afterward. When I had my 2nd baby and had to take a non-negotiable break from competing, I finally was able to come up for air. I decided to not return to competing even though that prideful voice in the back of my head tempted me quite a few times. I now can enjoy running and I also am 10 lbs lighter than my marathon weight pre-pregnancy. Running an easy 3-5 miles whatever days I choose coupled with the HIIT training I get to do with my clients during my personal training sessions has kept me lean, injury-free and energized for my kiddos, clients and my husband and allows me to take on other passions like art, reading and serving at my church. I no longer feel like I have the appetite of a 16 year old boy. I’m hopping in a 1/2 marathon in a couple weeks our city is putting on to pace a friend who is doing their first and it’s such a relief to not have the pre-race anxiety and actually join in with the fun I used to secretly covet that the slow runners would always have. 🙂 I couldn’t be happier! Great blog!

  • Kristine

    I’m not actually sure how I hadn’t found your blog yet because we have exactly the same mind. I’ve run a marathon every other year (and lots of halves in-between) for the last few years and this year I wanted to focus on shorter, harder and faster runs/workouts (HIIT/Barry’s Bootcamp/etc). I’ve also transitioned to a paleo diet and have seen enormous gains in both my fitness (faster paces, leaner/stronger muscles) and my diet (more energy, no sugar crashes, etc). I love the marathon but I don’t love it for all the reasons you pointed out in your post (especially it taking over my life, messing with my metabolism, being exhausted all the time and feeling like I “have” to run vs “wanting” to run). Couldn’t have put it better myself!