Eight Heart Health Benefits of Marathon Training
They are everywhere! As I commute almost an hour in each direction to my day job, I see many (many) cars displaying their awesome accomplishments with a 13.1 or a 26.2 bumper sticker. And yes, it has motivated me to begin training for my first “big” race myself. Unfortunately, there are many naysayers as well as encouragers. “Why would you want to run so far?” or “I only run when being chased.” There are many benefits to training for a marathon (or a half-marathon) for both mind and body – but especially for the heart.
Most recently, a small study focused on men and heart disease risk. Forty-five male runners between the ages of 35 and 65 training for the 2013 Boston Marathon participated in an 18-week program.
About half of them were marathon veterans – running in three or more marathons previously. For the remainder, this was one of their first races. But none were considered “elite athletes.” The researchers wanted to focus on the “Average Joe.”
Additionally, about half had at least one cardiovascular risk factor, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Each was subjected to a complete medical evaluation at the beginning. The participants ran 12 to 36 miles each week (depending upon where they were in their training) and kept running logs. Each had access to cross-training facilities, nutrition tips and regular coaching.
At the end of the program, the participants experienced “significant overall changes” in terms of cardiovascular risk, says lead study investigator Jodi L. Zilinski MD of the Massachusetts General Hospital. This included a 5% reduction in LDL cholesterol, a 4% reduction in total cholesterol and a 15% reduction in triglycerides. The runners also experienced a 1% decrease in body mass index and a 4% increase in peak oxygen consumption (a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness).
Dr. Zilinski also noted that the participants experienced “cardiac remodeling” – or improvements in the size, shape, structure, and function of the heart.
Not included in the study, but other reasons your heart will be healthier for marathon training include:
• Reduced stress, relief from depression or anxiety symptoms. Individuals who exercise reported fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression and lower levels of stress and anger. Exercise affects certain neurotransmitters systems in the brain and can re-establish positive behaviors which may have been put aside. It can also reduce the fear and physical symptoms of anxiety.
• Running can provide you with some alone time (if you desire) or bonding time with other runners. Either way, you are spending time focusing on yourself and not on the daily grind.
• You may want to run for a cause (the runners above were training with the Dana Farber Marathon Fundraising Team). Running for something that's bigger than you is a great way to stay motivated to keep training, meet other runners to train with, and can make your races even more meaningful.
For the naysayers who will tell you that marathon training is not healthy, offer up these recent statistics:
• Many will cite incidents of someone dying during a marathon. Johns Hopkins Medicine says the risk is about 0.75 per 100,000 with men at greater risk. However, compare this to the risk of dying in a car accident (1 in 6700) or dying of poor health from a chronic condition such as diabetes (23 per 100,000). Obviously, everyone should consult with a doctor before training for such a huge physical accomplishment, but overall, running is a positive healthful activity for most.
• “You only have to do 30 minutes a day.” Obviously, running 26 miles will take longer than 30 minutes. The 30 minute daily exercise recommendation is a minimum – not a maximum. Yes, there is a risk of over-training, however, listening to your body, incorporating rest days into the program, and ensuring you give yourself plenty of time to train before the actual event can prevent that.
• “You’ll do so much damage to your body.” Running strengthens the lower body – not weakens it - if you do it correctly. But yes, running more than 40 miles a week does put stress on the body, including a risk of knee injuries, illiotibial band syndrome, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and Achilles tendonitis. Again, remember to receive care for these injuries and do not try to “run through them.”
• “My friend gained weight when training for a marathon.” For most people the training of a marathon not only burns calories for exercising, but also when you are in training mode, most runners find they tend to eat more healthfully as well, thus reducing calorie intake. For many, that can result in the loss of a few excess pounds. But some do not lose weight. But remember that the scale isn’t the only factor in health. Weight gain may be a sign of added muscle or fluid retention (the higher carbohydrate content needed to fuel energy during longer runs can cause the body to hold onto water).
CARDIO-METABOLIC ADAPTATIONS TO MARATHON TRAINING
Jodi L. Zilinski; Miranda E. Contursi; Stephanie K. Isaacs; et al.
J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(12_S):. doi:10.1016/S0735-1097(14)61662-4.
Presented at American College of Cardiology's 63rd Annual Scientific Session