Running – The Reality

Note: This post is dedicated to my bud KK – a great entrepreneur, a role model for thousands of students in India, a social worker and an awesome dude in general – who is insane about running but, for whatever reason, never ever listens to me when I talk about training smart! In the interest of keeping my ass from getting ripped, I’ll not go into his history of running injuries!

Let me start off by saying running is awesome! And I’ll be honest with you – I love running! It is one of the most natural human movements, needs literally no equipment/gear, can be done anytime, can be done anywhere and lends itself to progressive improvement! Whats not to love?

Granted I haven’t run much lately but that’s only because it does line up with my goals. But if you’ve read my story, you know I used run a lot – a lot more than is required for my own good! I called it the best activity ever. I encouraged people to run more and invited people on runs and caught up with friends while running and ran many many races. If I have to explain how I feel about running in one word it would be “Home”! Every time I run I felt at home! So familiar, so comfortable, so liberating and always so very my own!

But since my running days, as I have reduced my mileage, I have increased my knowledge about health and fitness and I’ll share that with you today.

The Good

A simple Google search of  ‘Benefits of Running’ will take you to websites that say running does everything from building muscles to preventing cancer to increasing sex drive to slowing down the aging process! While such claims exist from pretty much any physical activity from yoga to olympic lifting, we’ll just stick to the legit potential benefits of running as an exercise.

  • Weight loss
  • Cardiovascular benefits
  • Improved lower body strength
  • Improved fitness

The Bad

Another simple Google search of ‘Drawbacks of Running’, will take you to websites that call running the Satan! In this case too, we’ll stick to the legit potential drawbacks of running for the regular running/fitness enthusiast.

  • Chronic joint pain due to overuse/abuse
  • Muscle wastage
  • Enlargement of the heart resulting in arrhythmia (potentially causing heart attacks)
  • Over-hydration resulting in hyponatremia (potentially resulting in death)
  • Fat storage due to increased cortisol release
  • Increased oxidative stress and systemic inflammation
  • Weakness

Hmmm! Like every other thing in the nutrition and fitness field, this one too has completely opposing views and evidence supporting each view. How can something that makes you fit make you weak? And how can something that builds strength result in muscle wastage? And, for the love of God, how can something that has cardiovascular benefits potentially cause heart attacks? Read on.

The Reality

As weird as it seems, both the benefits and the drawbacks are real! How? It all comes down to three things…

  1. Frequency, volume and intensity of training
  2. Running Technique
  3. Nutrition and hydration

Naturally, if all three are spot on, you will reap most of the benefits of running and almost none of the drawbacks. As you screw up each one of these, you will be gifting yourself to more and more of the drawbacks and hence, none of the benefits. Like everything else, running is an awesome activity… but ONLY when done right and when done in the right amounts! And, again like everything else, running is poison when overdone and/or done wrong! Let me give you 2 examples.

  • You all know how much I love deadlifts and how much I tout its awesomeness. But what happens if I deadlift 7 days a week, twice a day for 100 reps each session at close to max intensity using bad technique? Well, I get messed up and end up with a broken spine is what happens! In other words, I can hurt myself, acutely and chronically, so bad that I might never ever be train again in my life.
  • Everyone knows spinach is awesome and that it has more nutrients than almost any other food item! But what happens if I eat 10 lb of spinach everyday? Two words – Kidney stones!

Similarly, running is an amazing activity with multiple benefits. But what happens if you run multiple times a week for distances longer than you can handle using bad running form at heart rates that are higher than recommended? Well, chronic joint pain, muscle wastage, heart enlargement, fat storage, oxidative stress and weakness! You see what I mean?

Clearly, while the benefits are all super legit, the drawbacks of running are due to a severe case of too-much-of-a-good-thing! So then, running is no different from any other exercise right? Overdoing anything will make it harmful right? So why not warn folks about the perils of eating too  much spinach or about the dark possibilities of  too many deadlift reps? Why the hatred and warning towards running alone?

Because very rarely does one seems to overdo the deadlift or eat spinach by the kilogram, but too many folks seem to over do the running too often! Why? Because… running is one of the most natural human movements, needs literally no equipment/gear, can be done anytime, can be done anywhere and lends itself to progressive improvement! Its kind of sad but, the reasons that make running awesome are the same reasons that make it conducive to overtraining!

So whats the deal then? Can running be a part of a good workout program? What id your recommendation?

The Verdict

Like my answers to all other questions, the answer to this question also changes drastically based on goals and current physical condition!

If you have no goals but run because you enjoy running

  • use your common sense and train for your goal (which is recreation). modify your mileage such that you don’t have any nagging joint/ligament/tendon/muscle pains. This might be 5 miles/week for some and 45 miles/week for others. Find what works for you. Your goal is to be able to enjoy running for a long time to come. So be smart about it and run enough to make yourself better and don’t run so much that you end up in pain all day everyday!
  • invest time in mobility work – I know its boring, but you’ve got to do it!
  • on at least one day during the week, do something that is not endurance – this could be resistance training or yoga or HIT or walking.
  • on at least two days during the week, rest plenty and stretch.
  • eat real food.

If your goal is general health (or longevity)…

  • run moderate distances at a low heart rate (65-70% Max Heart Rate) once a week.
  • run short distances (40-200 m) at a high heart rate (90-95% Max Heart Rate) once a week.
  • do resistance training 1-2 times a week.
  • do yoga once a week
  • eat real food per appetite/hunger

If your goal is fat loss (or to get ripped/shredded or get toned or to have abs)…

If your goal is strength gain (or muscle gain or to get big or to get strong)…

  • drop the distance running
  • lift heavy weights
  • walk for 30-45 min on rest days
  • eat a tonne of real food

If your goal is competitive running

And lastly, if your definition of a workout is running on the treadmill (or “doing” the elliptical/stepper/stationary bike) for 40+ minutes everyday…

  • get off the damn machine
  • meet/make some friends, go outside, run and have some fun. Or, in simpler words, get a life!

There you have it – an honest and legit review on running. Though I work with endurance athletes, this is my first post on running and if there is enough interest I’ll be happy to write more about how to train for your first marathon or how to train to beat your previous best or how to recover from running related injuries or how to fuel yourself right and hence improve performance. Let me know in the comments section.

And considering there are more runners than any other athletes today, I’m sure all of you know folks who are into running. Please share this with them. I’m definitely like to hear their take on this.

Peace out.

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50 responses to “Running – The Reality

  1. Mokshi May 26, 2011 at 8:47 pm

    Great post, Raj.. although I do not enjoy running personally – I agree with your post completely..

  2. swarna mani May 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Very nicely put!

  3. Vizeet May 26, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I half agree and half disagree with the post. Humans are evolved to be endurance runner since persistence hunting was common in pre-historic times. But I do agree that it is something not to be done everyday. Sinus bradycardia which is normal condition but signifies low heart rate in athletes and divers. Some of the bad you listed like chronic joint pain and arrhythmia also happens without running. People today consume less magnesium rich food which is the cause of arrhythmia and joint pains.

    • RG May 26, 2011 at 9:41 pm

      Vizeet –
      Humans and persistence hunting is a very different story. Have you seen a persistence hunt? It does not involve running at a constant pace at a medium-high heart rate for long periods. It involves long periods of walking and short sprints. Todays marathon running where folks run at at 80-85% MHR for 4+ hours is completely different and not in anyway ‘healthy’.

      About arrhythmia – there are many causes for it but increase ones heart rate for extra long periods of time is one of the causes. The joint pain your talking about (due to lack of Mag) happens with age. The joint pain mentioned here is purely due to overuse of joints. In other words, beating the crap out of one’s ankles or knees and not doing any mobility and not providing enough time for recovery AND eating a inflammatory diet.

      About Magnesium – Most distance runners are under the impression that they can eat anything since they run off the calories. As a result a lot of junk food binging happens very often. Consumption of anti-nutrients compromises nutrient absorption (Mag included) and even robs the body of already present nutrients.

      So over training + lack of recovery + not enough mobility/stretching + pro-inflammatory diet = disaster… and unfortunately thats exactly what 99/100 runners today do.

      • Vizeet May 27, 2011 at 2:20 am

        Raj, I agree that persistence hunting do not involve constant running but it involves quite a bit of running and no other animal except horse can compete human ability to run long distances. We are evolved to to be able to run long distances and it is healthy to do so “once in a while”. In prehistoric times scavenging was always preferred over hunting so persistence hunting was not done every day. Tribes which still do endurance running or persistence hunting eat quite a bit of carbs.

        I am saying the same thing that one needs to give enough time for our body to recover after long distance running just like HIIT. Shoes also has lot to do with injuries.
        Most of the injuries these days are because most of us are not healthy.

        Watch Tarahumara tribe running: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnwIKZhrdt4

        So I am saying pretty much what you said just that I am not against endurance running.

      • RG May 27, 2011 at 10:55 am

        Sweet!

        Im not against endurance running either… just dont do it all day everyday! Train smart, recover well and eat right!

  4. Gautam May 27, 2011 at 4:04 am

    Thanks for this article – very informative. Since you asked – how can one be able to better performance. I am stuck with a 2.30 barrier for the half marathon

  5. Lavanya May 27, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Once again, awesome post.. I have so many of my questions answered… I have read Arvind’s post on running right, however, your post clearly explains – how much is too much.. and the goal thingy will work appropriately for different groups… thanks a ton Coach!

  6. Ridhu May 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Awesome post. Since I started reading this blog, I have decided to become a little more active physically . It is very easy for me step out and run in our neighbourhood when rest of the family is still sleeping. This means, running on sidewalks. Does it do more harm than good? I am talking about running for about 30 mins at approx 4 miles per hour speed .

    • RG May 27, 2011 at 10:53 am

      What is your goal? General health? How often do you run? Do you do anything else besides this?

      • Ridhu May 27, 2011 at 11:12 am

        Thanks for your response. Yes, General health is my goal. I am not overweight but I have very low good cholestorol (30- something). My first step is to just get out and do something. I want to run 2/3 times a week. I have started to learn to swim recently. I do that 2 times a week for 30 mins (not doing laps for 30 mins, learning to swim for 30 mins)

      • RG May 27, 2011 at 11:21 am

        You need to eat more fat to up your HDL. Coconut oil/milk ftw!

        You’re fine with 2 days of ~30min running and some swimming. Add in some bodyweight resistance training and mobility/yoga 1-2 days a week and ure set.

      • Ridhu June 1, 2011 at 10:31 am

        Thanks Raj. My body fat is on higher side (at 31% last checked). Is it still okay to increase the fat intake? The nurse practitioner who checked my HDL and fat readings told me exercise is the way to increase HDL and she did not seem concerned about body fat.

        I am sorry about responding here. I could not find reply button at your last response.

      • RG June 2, 2011 at 8:09 am

        Ridhu,
        Eating fat does not make you fat. Drop the PUFa and eat more MUFa and SaFa. Coconut oil is known to increase HDL. Exercise (and subsequent weight/fat loss) also helps with bettering your lipid profile.

  7. bee May 27, 2011 at 10:38 am

    another great post.

    i used to hate running. my hubby runs marathons, but now we both do sprints together. three things helped me:

    1. i use barefoot running shoes. vibram five fingers, and on trails i use new balance minimus.
    2. stretching – yoga thrice a week and i use a foam roller a lot. even better than a foam roller is a five-dollar PVC pipe from home depot. it loosens my IT band.
    3. short sprints, as opposed to long runs. these protect my joints and improve fast-twitch . it’s key for me ‘cos i do martial arts where quick responses are essential.
    4. chuck the grains, especially wheat and gluten. it helped me get rid of joint pain.

    art de vany points out why marathon runners have very low testosterone. strength and endurance comes from short bursts – for me. long-distance running just makes me tired and sore. if you love long-distance running, get minimalist shoes and stretch, stretch, stretch.

    • RG May 28, 2011 at 12:42 am

      Sprints are one of the best conditioning workouts cos they’re super high intensity, time efficient and they dont make you sore!

      And of course +1 on chucking grains and on the stretching.

  8. M. V. S. Madhava Rao May 27, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks for the good article. I am doing the treadmill for 30 min daily and covering 4km. I will go out and try as you said.

  9. suganthi May 27, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Nice post. I take exception to your “no machine cardio” stance though:). I agree that it is unnatural to run on a treadmill much akin a hamster. But in the winter it really is a Godsend for people who live in cold climates ( and add Raynaud’s to it). I also find it hard to do HIIT on the roads. I enjoy jogging outdoors more than on the treadmill, but left to my devices I find it hard to run fast sprints on the road. I tend to slow down quickly. On the treadmill, I set it at a predefined speed and with the help of some music I can sustain that speed for the time I plan my intervals. I also find the elliptical to be a good alternative for a no impact workout.

    Any particular suggestions for mobility exercises? I sprained my ankle a few years ago and since then I spend a lot of time stretching. But I think my ankles need some extra pampering. ( Yes, I have googled mobility drills now)…so I think I am all set.

    • RG May 28, 2011 at 12:40 am

      Legit!
      Treadmills are useful during bad weather – no question about that. As a matter of fact I do some sprints on the treadmill too. But most times I max out the treadmill cos my sprints are short and intense, so hill sprints work better for me. Check out this post for treadmill HIIT ideas – https://rajganpath.com/2010/08/19/treadmill-tricks/

      Mobility – This is a good place to start – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CojDzef0FWM

      • Suzanth June 1, 2011 at 2:34 pm

        isn’t treadmill a better option than running on the concrete sidewalk when the neighborhood you live doesn’t have the option of grass/sand ?

      • RG June 2, 2011 at 8:11 am

        Yes. The treadmill is def easier on your knees than concrete. But by running on the treadmill, you’re losing the ‘running effect’ i.e. fresh air, sunlight, mental freedom etc. So see what works for you. I’d say mix up both. Get out during the weekends and find some grasslands.

      • Cade August 21, 2012 at 9:58 am

        That’s a cunning answer to a challenging quiseton

  10. Murali May 28, 2011 at 1:52 am

    great post raj.
    any particular thing to keep in mind when running on different terrains? road/treadmill/beach sand?
    and shoes?

    • RG May 28, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Murali,
      Stick to running on softer terrains (grass, hard sand etc) and stay away from concrete, asphalt etc for distance running. Distance running on beach sand is not too common cos its a bitch really! But sprinting on beach sand – awesome!
      Shoes – The whole ‘shoes to neutralize pronation’ is nothing short of a scam. The excess padding prevent your feet from being exposed to stress and hence remove adaptation out of the equation making your feet weak. Stick to minimalistic shoes which dont offer too much padding or slowly start walking/running barefoot.

      • kabbir May 29, 2011 at 12:31 am

        awww…not barefoot on the beach…had a very bad cut,due to broken glass pieces left behind on the marina beach!!…also people really mess the beach sands….i feel really ashamed and sad !!

      • RG May 30, 2011 at 12:32 am

        well thats a recipe for disaster isnt it!

  11. kabbir May 28, 2011 at 7:26 am

    very nice post…really precise ….i am a runner, a lover of distance running…(half marathons) and what you have put accross is a must read fr newbies and all those who get over enthused on seeing runners and joining a running group and fixating themselves on to out do someone or rush into doing a run fr the sake of keeping up with the jones…. thanks

    running is really beneficial and one has to do it, after understanding his own strengths and weakness in a phased manner., similar to stretching of a rubber band.

    • RG May 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm

      Thank you Kabbir.

      “running is really beneficial and one has to do it, after understanding his own strengths and weakness” – This!

  12. Sriram May 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Raj, Great post. Really great goal oriented info. I sent you an email seeking your help. Would appreciate your response. Cheers.

  13. savithri Ravikrishnan May 30, 2011 at 1:39 am

    hi, thanks..your post is very interesting and educative…Also helped me to meet up with your buddy KK to whom you have dedicated this wonderful article…( Being a Chennai Runner-i run for fun and apart from having met KK personally during CR organised ECR runs i did not know much) Fixed up a meeting yesterday…met him… Great guy and very enterprising and into a more interesting venture.. http://www.twenty19.com you can link up this site too..

  14. George May 31, 2011 at 2:40 am

    Brilliant post Raj! Thank you!
    Could you write up on injury recovery esp ITB related injury? I suffered from ITB due to the too-fast-too-soon issue and now am unable to get past a 10k w/o pain in the Glute! Docs hv advised strength training but it is soo boring that I just stick to the endorphin 30 min run now.. but even that results in niggling pain in the Glute.. so now its a trade-off between endorphins and Pain where it matters!

    any advise on injury recovery will be very grateful!

    btw.. am yet to start on ur guinea pig beginner workout.. the guinea pig needs to get off the endorphin addiction!

    cheers!

    • RG May 31, 2011 at 11:27 am

      Thank you George.
      I’ll get to writing a post on this at some point but for now…
      – if it hurts dont do it! If running a 10k hurts, dont run anything more than a 5k. Sure you like your endorphins, but Im hoping you like your ITB more and realize you need it for many many years to come.
      – a doc advising resistance training is a miracle and when it happens I smile! seriously, stop giving excuses and do the resistance training already. The point of resistance training is to strengthen the muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones that form your different joints. Doing this will help you become a better runner and more importantly, help you stay injury free (and hence continue to run) for many years to come.
      – resistance training is not boring in any way. Shoot me an email. I’ll give you one workout. Do it for 30 mins and then lets talk about endorphins.

      • George June 2, 2011 at 2:41 am

        :)) Many thanks Raj fr the time to reply! much appreciate!

        I already have your beginners and intermediate schedule.. will start with that.. well said.. I will start the resistance hell! 🙂

        cheers!!! and many thanks for all ur research and sharing! awesome!

      • RG June 2, 2011 at 8:13 am

        Sure thing!

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  16. Karthik February 5, 2012 at 1:02 am

    Great post raj. A post on recovering from running injuries would be great. Though I don’t run a lot now and mostly do strength training and HIT these days, those knee injury props up often especially during tennis and HIT with squat jumps.

  17. prabhu February 5, 2012 at 10:40 am

    good post da…I like running early mornings on the awesome roads here at hyd but pretty haphazard routine due to my laziness..many say running on hard roads can hurt your knees and its better to run on a treadmill..i dont buy into that concept.. whats your thought on how to prevent knee related problems?

    • RG February 5, 2012 at 9:59 pm

      If you’re running long enough that your knees hurt, you’re running too much. Here are my recommendations…

      – Fix your running form. Read the linked article. – Run in sane amount. If you’re running for enjoyment, 10-12k a week is plenty. – If fat loss is a goal, dump the chronic running. Lift some weight 2-3 days a week and sprint once a week.

      • kabbirgkm February 6, 2012 at 11:16 am

        its almost going to be a year since this first post….what surprises is….issues on injuries are a part of the gift of running…a smart runner runs so, as, he is wise enough to accept his physical shortcomings and is willing to do the amends at a relatively slow pace and hence develops as a corollary ” patience ” in training his body., while an all spured up runner to be, runs to get a certificate of his peers and even relatives ( many wud be couch potatoes is my guess)…i have had friends and even seen ,well seasoned runners fall for a trap to impatience in training and recovery. my only sincere wishes…lets all take up running ” as a fun to fitness” instead of ” chore to fitness” the difference will be life long fun of “running”

        ( my personal story…i was a hobbyist runner doing about 5km every 5 years..lol..then i met with an accident,rendered me with shattered breast bones and punctures of two inches in my right ankle and a shattered knee cap in 2002…i was opinioned to “never to run ” by my attending orthopeadeitian.,another said i cant jump down 3 steps of a stairs….today…i have finished over 13 half marathons..MANY 10ks runs, CYCLED over 150kms in a day .and i am training fr my first IRONMAN 70.3)

      • RG February 6, 2012 at 10:41 pm

        Awesome @ your story! We should talk more.

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