Functional Health Services for Your Well Being

Should we run?

by Alex Boersma

Are we runners or are we not runners?  An anthropological question hotly debated and recently popularized by the much publicized New York Times best seller “Born to Run”.   In this book, Christopher McDougall chronicles the history of a Mexican tribe of ultra-runners who are most noteworthy for a hunting technique which consists primarily of chasing their prey to death.  He also explicates an evolutionary rationale for running based on the work of two anthropologists, Dennis Bramble and Daniel Lieberman.  Bramble and Lieberman propose, among other things, that human sweating is a unique adaptation which allowed our forbearers to do exactly what the Mexican Tarahumara Indians do…chase their prey in the heat of day until they overheat and either die or allow themselves to be killed.

A compelling story, and one that is certain to put knots in the knickers of anti-runners everywhere.  In case you didn’t know, there are people out there who think we shouldn’t run…at least not very far!  This crowd has their own set of evolutionary and anthropological evidence and would be happy to stand toe to toe with Bramble or Lieberman in debating such fascinating topics as the efficiency of stride length or the tensile strength of an achilles tendon.

At the risk of revealing my inner anthro-geek, I must admit that I find such discussions intriguing.  Although many who know me would suspect that my toes are firmly planted on the “running is bad” side of such a debate, the truth is that I am equivocal.  Certainly, I believe that many people have serious issues with running…issues which will be discussed in more detail below.  But whether those issues are born of evolved genetic limitations or the biomechanics of industrial age running is a different question.  It is my humble opinion that some of us were, indeed  “born to run”.  Others, unfortunately, seem to have been ‘born to galumph”!  Regrettably, when I drive down Yonge St. at six in the morning, I see quite a few more galumphers than I do runners.

 Here’s the thing.  A natural runner is a wonder of nature, gliding effortlessly over the ground, practically demanding a re-calculation of the laws of gravity.  In my dreams I sometimes run like this, a surreal synthesis of power and grace.  Watch the lead runners in any distance race and you will know exactly what I am talking about.  But the mere fact that there exists such a thing as a “Clydesdale” class in many races belies the fact that not all runners are visions of power and grace.  Clydesdales, just so you know, are built to pull really heavy stuff.  They are not built to win the Kentucky Derby.   Some people, likewise, are not built to run the Boston Marathon.

Look out Boston, here I come!

The problem, then, lies in determining who should and who should not run.  Before we begin, let me provide one point of clarification.  When I speak of running here, I speak of distance running.  Long(ish) distance running.  Slow(ish) distance running.  Frequent(ish) distance running.  Sprinting and the occasional mile or 5km run (just to see if you can still do it!)  do not qualify.  What I am talking about here is people who run for more than about 20 or 30 minutes more than about twice a week.  People who regularly use running as a tool for achieving their fitness goals, their health goals, their body composition goals, their competition goals or even their “find my happy place” goals.

Just so we’re all on the same page, let’s begin by examining some of the positive and negative consequences of longish, slowish, frequentish distance running:

  • Fitness – Endurance training induces specific adaptations in cardiovascular capacity.  In other words, running long distances makes you better at running long distances.  The muscles you use for running become more efficient at converting oxygen, glycogen and fat into energy when you run.  These specific adaptations do not transfer to other activities  More general adaptations (stronger heart, improved blood vessel elasticity, increased blood volume) will, however, carry over to other activities.  Although these general adaptations do provide significant health benefits, they are not usually limiting factors from a fitness perspective.  In other words, how fast you can run is not usually determined by how much blood can be delivered to your running muscles (general adaptations).  Instead it is determined mostly by how efficiently your running muscles can use the nutrients in your blood and clear the waste products of producing energy (specific adaptations).
  • So if your fitness goals are limited to improved running, then by all means, run.  Run slow , run fast, run far, run often.  But if your fitness goals are a little more general (get stronger, get faster, get more mobile) then spending a considerable amount of your training time running is certainly less than optimal.
  • Health – The health benefits of running are well acclaimed.  Decreased weight, increased HDL, decreased blood pressure, increased insulin sensitivity…the list goes on and on.  It should be noted, however, that none of these benefits are specific to running.  Few of them are even specific to endurance training.  Most can be achieved by just moving more.
  • Something that is specific to running, though, is injury.  At an injury rate of 1.1 injuries per 100 hours of training, running ranks well ahead of other training modalities such as weight training (.4/1oo hours) indoor rowing (.6/100 hours) or indoor cycling (.2/100 hours).  So, from a risk/benefit perspective, frequent running is, again, less than optimal.
  • Body Composition – As mentioned above, running can be an effective way of losing weight.  It is a well known fact that cardiovascular activity of any kind will help put you on the negative side of the calories in/calories out equation.
  • There are, however, two downsides to using running as a weight loss tool.  First, the heavier you are, the more likely you are to get injured.  Running is an impact sport…a typical runner doing even 20 miles per week would have about 8,000 impacts per leg for a total of about 1000 to 2000 tons of impact force.  That’s a lot of impact force!  That impact force is a product of your weight….depending on your running style and speed, anywhere from about 1.5 to 5 times your body weight.  So if you are seriously overweight, you are also seriously increasing your impact force and, consequently, seriously increasing your chance of getting injured.
  • The other issue here is more general to any kind of cardiovascular exercise.  Cardiovascular exercise, used exclusively, does decrease your weight.  However, a good percentage of that weight loss comes from lost muscle mass.  I’ve seen this time after time with my clients.  They go on a cardio kick and lose a bunch of weight, but when I test them with the calipers I find a significant percentage of the weight loss is due to decreased lean body mass.  The older they are and the longer they have struggled with their weight, the more this seems to be true.  They end up being what I call “skinny fat”.
  • Competition Goals – There is no doubt about it.  If you want to improve your time in a race, you will have to run more than 20 minutes twice a week.  You will have to do some long slow distance to improve your running efficiency.  You will have to do some hill running to improve your leg strength.  You will have to do some interval work to improve your speed and anaerobic capacity.
  • Which is fine.  As long as you realize that your competition goals may be interfering with your health, fitness and body composition goals.  It is up to you to decide whether that 3;30 marathon time is worth losing muscle mass, strength and power
  • “Find My Happy Place” Goals – Many runners run for the “runner’s high”, a feeling of euphoria which accompanies the stress of prolonged physical activity.  Scientists have measured the levels of endorphines in the brains of runners after long runs and found them to be significantly elevated.  Endorphines are the brain’s natural way of fighting off prolonged pain…they are natural opiates which have the added benefit of making you feel unusually happy.
  • Another word for seeking out prolonged pain in order to stimulate brain opiates which give you the sensation of pleasure is “masochism”!  Just something to think about.

 

NOW YOU SEE WHY SOME PEOPLE THINK I AM AN ANTI-RUNNER!

Obviously, I believe that, for most people, running is a less than optimal method of achieving general fitness goals.  And yet, I love to run!  I understand the feeling of euphoria as the ground passes swiftly below my feet (well, maybe not that swiftly anymore), the wind blows briskly in my face, and the endorphines course strongly through my veins.  I get it!

Running euphoria…I get it!

I get it.  I just don’t do it very often.  Because I know better.  I’ve had the running injuries.  I’ve experienced the loss of lean body mass.  And I’ve gone through the withdrawal.

Still, I like to sneak off for a run now and then.  And many of my clients, despite their deep respect for my qualified advice, generally ignore anything I have to say about not running.  So in an effort to keep myself and my clients safe and happy, I have developed a few rules.  I call them:

Rules for Runners Who Should Know Better

  • Find a trail – Despite all the scintillating debate regarding running and evolution, there is one thing I know for sure.  We did not, ever, evolve to run on treadmills or roads.  If we evolved to run, we evolved to run over rough and varied terrain.  Up and down hills, over rocks and roots, under tree limbs, scrambling, slipping and sliding.  Every footfall a new and proprioceptively rich experience!  Industrial age running (on treadmills and roads) makes every step a virtual replication of the previous one.  What do we get when we repeat the exact same movement with impact thousands of times?  Repetitive overuse injuries.  Want to avoid running injuries?  Run on a trail.  The rougher the better!  Please note…if you are not used to running on trails, take some time adapting to the new stimulus…your ankles will thank you.  And, oh yeah, when you run on trails you have to pay attention to the ground…no reading the newspaper like some of you do on the treadmill!
  • Minimize your footwear – Sorry to beleaguer the evolutionary principles here, but I find it hard to envision one of our paleolithic ancestors running down their dinner in a pair of high tech shock absorbing running shoes, with Vessi vegan you can get a great brand in an affordable price.  Probably wouldn’t make it past the shoe fitter in the Nike Store with their dirty, hairy feet!  Again, if we evolved to run, we evolved to run in bare feet or, at best, with nothing more than a thin skiff of leather protecting our soles from the hazards of the environment.  Shock absorbing running shoes are just a big, industrial age band-aid for people who never learned to run properly (or perhaps were never meant to run at all).  Even the big shoe companies have come to recognize that there is a movement back to simplistic running shoes.  Witness the growing popularity of the Nike “Free” and Vibram “Five Fingers” lines.  Running with minimal footwear forces you to land on the front and middle of your feet instead of the heels.   This is essentially the difference between running gracefully and gallumphing.  Check out www.posetech.com for more information about proper evolutionary running technique.  Please note…if you have been gallumphing in shock absorbing shoes for thirty or forty years, it will take you quite some time to change techniques.  Simply switching to a minimalist shoe and maintaining your current mileage gets you nothing more than a lifetime membership in the achilles tendinitis club! 
  • Do some intervals – Almost all the benefits of running long slow distances can be attained – and sometimes even surpassed – by doing interval training.  What is interval training?  Short bursts (1 to 3 or 4 minutes) of all out effort followed by periods of respite (1 to 3 minutes).   For more on the details of interval running, see here: http://www.time-to-run.com/training/methods/intervals/index.htm   Less of your valuable workout time devoted to running.  Fewer impacts.  More strength/power.  Negligible loss/possible gains in lean body mass.  Sign me up!
  • Re-define your goals – Why is it that everybody wants to run a marathon?  Just because some Greek fool did it two and a half thousand years ago does not necessarily make it an appropriate goal for your average weekend warrior.  In case you’ve forgotten the whole story, our fool, Pheidippides, dropped dead the moment he completed his silly run.  (silly because he did all that just to bring news of a victory…couldn’t they have waited for somebody to walk that news in!)  I wonder how many people include that dying part in their “I want to run a marathon” health and fitness goals?  The truth is, training for a marathon requires mileage….lots of mileage.  And that mileage is simply not good for your health, your body composition or your overall fitness.  You want a running goal?  What’s wrong with a 10k race?  A trail race?  5peaks  http://5peaks.com/ has some great short and intermediate length trail races.  Or how about trying a triathlon (try-a-tri)?  I’ll even support a half marathon, if you really feel you need to run.  But a marathon?  Too much!
  • Use running for the last 10 pounds, not the first – If you have thirty or forty pounds of weight to lose, don’t take up running to lose the first 10.  This is especially true the older you are.  When you were 20 you could get away with this.  When you were 20 you could get away with a lot!  But if you aren’t 20 anymore, your joints will let you know that running is not for old and fat people!  Not only will all that additional weight amount to literally tons of extra impact, but if you’re old(ish) and fat(ish) you will almost certainly also be systemically inflammatory(ish).  Systemic inflammation and repetitive impact do not good bedfellows make.  So clean up your diet first.  Add some weight training and mobility work to strengthen and stabilize your joints.  If you feel you need extra cardio, find something with lower impact like rowing or indoor cycling.  And when you’re down to those last 10 or 15 stubborn pounds, that will be the time to take up trail running.
  • Take an honest look in the mirror – If you are lean and light with narrow hips and straight legs, then by all means, run…you will probably be very good at it.  But if you look like a Clydesdale, perhaps it would be better to work out like a Clydesdale.

If you look like these women, then by all means, run.

 

But if you look like these women, running shouldn’t be your first choice!

Obviously, there is a great deal of middle ground  between the women in the top  picture and the women in the bottom pictures.  And although I chose pictures of women for the sake of comparison, I could just as easily have found a similar pictorial dichotomy with men.  I have no doubt that women – or men – at these extremes of physique and athletic ability are already clear on whether or not to include running as part of their training…they don’t need my advice!   It is for those who reside in the middle ground that I have written this article.  These people, the tall and the gangly, the short and the stocky, the pears and the apples, the knock kneed and the bow legged…these are the people who must be judicious with their use of running as tool for achieving health and fitness.

So are we runners?  Some of us definately are.  Some of us definately are not.  McDougall’s Tarahumara know their place in this evolutionary dilemna.  The rest of us can only find out through trial, error and observation.  And as much as I love running, my recommendation for most is to proceed with caution.  As simple as it may seem, running is just not for everyone.

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