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!
Additional Resources on this topic:
Mark Sisson’s Chronic Cardio Posts: Chronic Cardio, More 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.