To Run or Not to Run

When we think of exercise, many of us think about running.

Part of the reason for this is that it’s simple, doesn’t need any fancy equipment, we can do it almost anywhere, and we all know (or at least think we know) how to run.*

*Unfortunately, most of us are doing it wrong. This may help to partially explain the unusually high injury rate. It turns out that proper running technique is not as intuitive as you might think, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

Most of us are drawn into the running world at some point in our life. This is partly because competitions and charity runs can be found almost everywhere at every level from 5k, 10k, Half marathons, Marathons, Ultra marathons, etc.… From non-competitive fun runs to world-class events.

So what’s the problem?

While running can be an excellent way to get some exercise and build up your cardiovascular system, there are some potential downsides as well.

When it comes to running, it’s often not a matter of if but when you will get injured.

There seems to be a general perception out there that running is a “safer” sport/activity than something like lifting weights in a gym, which isn’t exactly true.

Running injuries

Surveys of runners have consistently found that about 40-60% of runners sustain an injury that prevents them from running at some point throughout the year.

I don’t know about you, but that number seems awfully high to me.

When we compare the injury rates of long-distance running to other sports, we begin to notice that perhaps running isn’t as safe as we would like to believe.

One study looking at all of the available evidence found that the injury rate of running is between 3-12 injuries per 1,000 hours of training. You can compare this with an activity like lifting weights in the gym, which is generally perceived as a more dangerous activity but only has an injury rate of 0.24-1 injuries per 1,000 hours of training.

It’s not just acute traumatic injuries such as twisting your ankle or spraining a ligament in your knee. Running can also take its toll on your body over time. Chronic injuries are very common when it comes to running and often involve the knees, ankles, lower back, and hip. The majority of these injuries are attributed to overuse injuries that are the result of the constant repetition of the same movement patterns.

Running can also lead to long-term muscle imbalances because running generally only works the muscles in the lower half of your body. Over time, this can lead to the development of your stereotypical marathoner’s body with low body fat, excellent muscle endurance, but with very little upper body muscle and strength.

From the couch, to the road, to the couch again.

One of the reasons for the unusually high injury rate, however, is not that experienced runners are logging too many miles. It’s the fact that too many of us decide to suddenly hop off our coach one day and take a run.

We end up doing too much too soon, which often leads to injury, exhaustion, and eventually back to the coach again.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against running.

I do think, however, that sometimes our never-ending quest for longer distances and faster times has its potential downsides as well.

It’s not just the repetitive stress that running can have on your body, it’s also the fact that when we are constantly running it means that we are not doing something else.

In other words, when we spend all of the time and energy that we have set aside for our workouts running, that means that we are not lifting, rowing, pulling, pushing, jumping, pedaling, swimming, punching, kicking, or anything else.

When we are younger, we can afford to specialize and compete in a particular sport. As we get older, however, finding more of a balance and variety of exercises becomes far more important. Unless you are a competitive or professional athlete, once you reach your thirties, you are probably better off trying new things and getting a variety of different athletic movements.

Not only is variety the spice of life and keeps you from getting bored, but it also creates a better muscular balance for your body as well.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve done everything from boxing, to indoor wall climbing, to Krav Maga, to CrossFit, to epee fencing as a way to learn a new skill, stay get in shape, and have some fun along the way.

I still run almost daily, but I don’t run distance anymore, and generally, I won’t run any more than 2-3 miles at a time. I am always looking for other ways to push myself physically and get in some daily cardio whether it’s running intervals, climbing hills, cycling, jump roping, rowing, climbing, boxing, or even playing a game of basketball with my teenage boys.

Walking, the forgotten exercise.

Surprisingly, walking may turn out to be a better option than running for most people, especially for those who are just getting started. Walking has a lower impact on the knees and hips but is still a weight-bearing exercise, which is vital for your bones and joints as you get older.

Our bones like our muscles need to be challenged regularly in order for them not to weaken over time.

Walking and running are known as weight-bearing exercises because we are supporting our body weight (or in running multiple times our bodyweight) with our bones and joints.

Other activities, like cycling, swimming, rowing may be great for the heart and lungs but do not challenge our bones and joints like weight-bearing exercises.

Of course, if you’re looking to get your heart rate up and get in some hardcore cardio, walking probably shouldn’t be your only option, but it can be a significant calorie and fat burner if done regularly.

Walking can also be a relaxing way to spend some time with your significant other and unwind after a long day. In the summer, some nights my wife and I will take the dog for a walk after dinner to the local ice cream shop. It’s a 3-mile round-trip, which almost justifies and balances out the calories in the ice cream (at least in my mind :P)

If nothing else, walking is an excellent gateway exercise that can help you to develop a regular exercising habit and perhaps motivate you to try something more strenuous down the road.

The bottom line…

Using short-distance running as a part of your overall cardio plan is an excellent way to increase our cardiovascular fitness. Where we often get ourselves into trouble, however, is when we take things too far or focus all of our time and energy on one type of physical activity.

As we get older, we should think about leaving behind our competitive single-sport focused workouts and instead look for a wide variety of activities to keep us moving and engaged physically.

References:

van Mechelen W. Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature. Sports Med. Nov 1992;14(5):320-35.

J Physiother. Previous injuries and some training characteristics predict running-related injuries in recreational runners: a prospective cohort study . Dec 2013;59(4):263-9.

Beardsley, Chris. Which strength sport is most likely to cause an injury? Strength and Conditioning Research, July 2014

Saragiotto BT, Yamato TP, Lopes AD. What do recreational runners think about risk factors for running injuries? A descriptive study of their beliefs and opinions. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. Oct 2014;44(10):733-8

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