The Running Argument

Running, more specifically Endurance Running. Every other day, someone seems the need to drop their two cents on running. It is one of our most popular and oldest sports. In fact, it is deeply rooted in our heritage. Now with the rise of mud runs, color runs, and zombie runs, running’s popularity is on the rise. On the more extreme side of running we have ultramarathons gaining popularity and Tough Mudders/Spartan Races hosting monstrous 24-48 hour events. We aren’t going to talk about running form specifics here, but rather approach the hugely debated topic scientifically.

The U in Running

As always, what matters most to me is the ‘you factor’. First off, do you enjoy running? If you do, then go out and run. Trainers and programs telling you to avoid running like the plague, are not factoring in your likes/goals. Instead giving you a cookie cutter set of rules; a generalization. The same goes if someone is telling you that you must run. You don’t NEED to run, there are plenty of other options to boost our Cardiorespiratory Endurance, and heart/lung health. Unless ofcourse, if your goals involve running(races). Personally, I enjoy running. I enjoy well-rounded fitness(adaptability), and endurance running fits very well into the programming. We are all unique, for some running works well, for others, it is to be avoided. Instead of falling for the everybody should/shouldn’t run argument, understand that there are many variables to whether a person becomes injured due to running. Shoe type, joint mechanics, surface type, weight, height, running volume/periodization, stride and landing mechanics, time of year and mobility are just a few factors determining running durability. In this case, some people are built for running more than others. That is not to say you can’t make suitable changes. I have worked with many clients to correct structural/muscular imbalances that improve running efficiency. Just painting a broad stroke of ‘running is evil and bad for you’ is more of a statement to support a persons perspective on running then it is to actual science.

Selling Running as BAD

Let me give you a tip from the Fitness industry. I’ve seen this strategy numerous times. I suppose it works, but it conflicts with my ethics. Trainers will sell you on the ‘Running is not as good as weight training’ campaign not because it is true, but because it sells more training sessions, more money in the trainers pocket. Trainers in a gym are attempting to build their own client base within the confines of that gym. There are a few options of who to sell to. Selling to advanced weight trainers, athletes, and the youth is a hard sell. In most cases, these groups of people feel they have little use for a trainer (and they are probably right, more based on that trainers abilities). The easier group to sell to are the people intimidated or confused by the weight room, or the people that strictly do cardio. To support that sell, they put white boards up and tell you little lies like ‘Weight training is better for weight loss than running’. Why is that you ask? Then being told that ‘muscle burns more calories by elevating your resting metabolism’. This part is true. But it is a slow process. A recent study [1]conducted by Duke University showed that aerobic exercise produced the greatest effects for fat-loss. This was compared to a just weightlifting group that had gained weight, and a combination (aerobics+weight training) group that lost some fat but had the greatest composition change (greatest loss is waist circumference). Leslie H. Willis, MS, an exercise physiologist at Duke Medicine states “No one type of exercise will be best for every health benefit. However, it might be time to reconsider the conventional wisdom that resistance training alone can induce changes in body mass or fat mass due to an increase in metabolism, as our study found no change.” This is not to say exercise program strategies like metabolic circuits that involve resistance are null and void. Actually, combining the two makes for a very effective workout.

The ‘running is bad’ phenomenon reaches into the Crossfit community for two main reasons. The first is the same selling strategy as the traditional gyms and trainers. These are targeted at already active people, it is an easier sell. The second reason is called Confirmation Bias [2]. Endurance running (for the most part) is outside of the realm of Crossfit, it doesn’t fit within the context of the belief. Therefore, cherrypicked studies, and articles describing the “dark days of my running past and how Crossfit cured me of it”, read similar to stories of “how my homosexuality was cured from prayer”. The point being, it is only propaganda designed to reinstate belief.

Injuries and Running

I recently read an article produced by a Crossfit gym that stated you are 95% likely to become injured over the course of a year when you run. If you read the last paragraph, you understand that this may be another propaganda piece developed for Confirmation Bias. Lets just figure how accurate this 95% is. In a review of studies [3] the estimated mean value of the injury rates for running per 1000 hours is 7.3%. In order for the 95% to work I’d have to run 13,013 hours (35.6 hours per day)in the year to ensure my 95% chance of injury. Seems like a lot of hours, seems to defy time actually. We could also extract this data into a figurative 1 hour a day run, everyday for one year. Our rate of injury then would be 2.6% injury rate per year (365 hours). Now lets backtrack to relative sports and injury rates [4]. We find running fits somewhere between basketball and football for injury rates. Of course, the 2.6% injury rate could be lower when a person takes all necessary measures to ensure his/her injury prevention. If you ignore the preventative stuff, and go all out, your odds for injury could rise greatly.

And of course what about Crossfit? How do the injury rates compare? Crossfitting injury rates are currently registered in at 16% in a 10 week study. Where as running estimated injures are 2.6% per year. Therefore, you are over 6 times more likely to get injured Crossfitting then you are running. So the next time you hear this anti-running campaign coming from a Crossfit source, understand the irony in it all.

It is not that any of these exercises (Running/Weight training/Olympic lifting) are inherently dangerous. The programming/volume is what creates the greatest risk. If you stack some of the technically hardest exercises to execute, that put the greatest load on the body, and force out maximum reps in the quickest time in a competitive environment. You greatly increase your risk for injury. The same goes for running.

 

Heart Health

Internal health should always prioritize our reasoning mechanisms. Health is greatly important. While heart health can be associated with both aerobic and resistance training. Aerobic conditioning seems to be the front runner in cardiac health. Aerobic and Resistance training produce different blood flow responses [5]. While resistance training creates small increases in central arterial stiffness(not good) aerobic training produces the opposite effect(better for you). Resistance training also produced longer lasting drops in blood pressure. Studies of resistance training and Central Arterial Compliance show unfavorable results for the heart [6]. Improvements in aerobic capacity and VO2Max show a direct correlation with central arterial stiffness [7], greater aerobic conditioning promotes greater heart function and health. Not to overlook the huge benefits of walking as I personally have seen walking improve body composition. It is a well known fact that walking reduces fat content circulating in the bloodstream, and this recent study shows walking has greater heart health benefits than running [8].

Evolution

In recent years our fascination with paleolithic man has led us to make wild claims about how we’ve evolved to eat, sleep, have sex, workout, socialize, and everything else we look to simplify. I’d recommend reading ‘Paleofantasy’ as I enjoy the conversation, and I really enjoy these critical thinking studies. In terms of running, the ‘We didn’t evolve to run’ and ‘We were built for short bursts’ is bogus. This is another strategy gurus in Crossfit and some of the fitness industry use to keep you in the gym and fed misleading information only supporting the sub-culture. Here is a very good article [9] on the mechanisms behind evolution and running. And a great interview from Daniel Lieberman on that same topic[10]. The truth being we have evolved, survived, and are built for running more than what some people would have you believe.

Developing Overall Fitness

Within our skills that define fitness (strength, power, etc) lies Cardio-Respiratory Endurance. If we are looking to become truly well-rounded. Then paying close attention to each skill is a requirement. It is versatility; adaptability. At some point, you may need to run. Specificity is key here. You train Speed and Power with Speed and Power. Cardio-Respirtatory Endurance is no different. That is what Mark Twight learned with his career with Crossfit.

“Finally, this year marks the return of my endurance. After having built a 20-year base I fell into the trap of thinking there might be a free lunch. I went against everything I had learned over those 20 years because the argument and its presenter was quite convincing, and I was susceptible to the easier way, the cure-in-a-bottle way, and I wanted the experts to be wrong. I went into it headlong, and received enough positive feedback to swallow the hook rather than letting it set in my lip. Emphasis on short-duration, high-intensity work didn’t strip endurance from me right away, rather the opposite occurred in the beginning. However, 18 months of nothing but short, hard efforts did “cure” my endurance. Despite an ability to go hard for durations up to three hours in length, “hard” is a relative term that didn’t equate to fast in my case. I couldn’t recover quickly from such efforts nor did I improve even after I balanced short, high-intensity work with longer, low-intensity training sessions. I realized that if I didn’t spit up the hook I’d be stuck on the low plateau I’d chosen for the rest of my life. While some are content with mediocre performance – especially if someone keeps telling them its “elite” – I expect better of myself and I’m willing to suffer trying to achieve it. “-Mark Twight owner of Gym Jones.

That means, despite the hype, endurance training is done the hard way, through endurance training. Marathon runners, Triathletes, Ultra-Marathoners, even shorter distance racers improve best through specificity. Short circuits of high intensity (lasting up to 20 minutes) only truly give you 20 minutes (usually less) of work. After that, if you haven’t trained beyond that zone, you are in over your head. This has been proven time and time again.

Conclusion

If you like to run, do so. If you don’t, then don’t. Walk. Do implement some long endurance to enhance your Cardio-Respiratory Endurance and heart health. You are designed by evolution to move and be active, your heart thrives with these activities. Strictly weight training has negative side effects to your heart, counter act it with longer bouts of elevated heart rate. Be specific to you and your goals. If you are looking for weight loss, combining both weights and cardio is your best best for the long-term. There is no magic form of exercise/methodology, there is no cure in a bottle, no free lunch, improving these heart health factors takes endurance training, it is the most effective form of training specific for your heart. If you play sports that involve quick bursts of speed and change of direction, train that way. If your sport involves longer distances, train accordingly. Intervals, sprints and Tabatas are great, but they are not magical gifts handed down from the gods. Be safe, change out your shoes regularly, don’t fall for every new running method or shoe, implement proper recovery, and work up your intensity/speed/duration slowly. Listen to your body, rest, and take time off. Stretch! Don’t forget resistance training, functional training, and corrective exercise all have their own benefits.

 

References

[1] Aerobic exercise trumps Resistance http://www.dukehealth.org/health_library/news/aerobic-exercise-trumps-resistance-training-for-weight-and-fat-loss

[2] Confirmation Bias http://youarenotsosmart.com/2010/06/23/confirmation-bias/

[3]Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1439399

[4] Why We Dont WOD http://lenoxspartanfitness.com/category/why-we-dont-wod-part-1-case-study/

[5] Weight Training Has Unique Heart Benefits http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/207417.php

[6] Unfavorable Effects of Resistance Training on Central Arterial Compliance http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/110/18/2858.short

[7] Effects of age and aerobic capacity on arterial stiffness in healthy adults. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/88/4/1456.short

[8] Walking, running offer similar heart health benefits http://prowellness.vmhost.psu.edu/walking-running-offer-similar-heart-health-benefits

[9]  Why nearly every sport except long-distance running is fundamentally absurd. http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2012/06/long_distance_running_and_evolution_why_humans_can_outrun_horses_but_can_t_jump_higher_than_cats_.single.html

[10]  Human evolution made us long-distance runners, but it didn’t make us like it. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/new_scientist/2013/06/daniel_lieberman_long_distance_running_we_evolved_endurance_and_dislike.html