Well Being

Marathons: Good For Bucket Lists, Bad For Our Bodies?

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The Mayo Clinic’s monthly journal is reporting that extreme exercise like marathons or long-distance bike races can actually be detrimental to health, causing heart problems like irregular heartbeats and cardiovascular scarring. Will it deter die-hard endurance junkies? Almost certainly not, and we hope it doesn’t deter any other healthy athletes, either.

Everywhere I look, people are running races. Each weekend, my Facebook feed is clogged with photos of my friends, sweaty, red-faced, and beaming at the finish line of the latest 5k, 10k, half marathon, and even the occasional marathon. They certainly seem happy and healthy, but perhaps there’s trouble down the line? After surveying more than 50 studies, researchers concluded that veteran marathon runners and professional cyclists were five times more likely to have irregular heartbeats. Dr. James O’Keefe of the Mid-America Heart Institute, a lead author of the article, said: “You can do light to moderate exercise as long as you want. We’re genetically designed for that kind of activity. We’re just not designed to run 26 miles at a time, or 100, or go on a full distance triathlon for 12 hours as hard as you can go.”

Running marathons is generally considered a commendable, worthwhile accomplishment, but apparently the instances of cardiovascular distress that occur during race time are increasing. One Blisstree writer even witnessed a heart attack right after a race. Still, fatalities are extremely rare; the biggest risk when running a marathon is actually dehydration.

O’Keefe doesn’t recommend laying off exercise altogether, of course. He does say that “that many people misunderstand exercise and think more is always better,” but that it’s safer to participate in moderate exercise for 30 minutes at least five times a week. And it’s worth mentioning that the number of people who can be considered “extreme” athletes or runners is relatively small, so if you’re not constantly running long distances, this study probably doesn’t apply to your exercise routine.

Many people find the experience of marathon running life-changing, both physically and mentally. Australian Tristan Miller ran 52 marathons during the course of a year in 2009 and 2010, totally revamping his body, mind, and spirit in the process :”I did it to change the direction of my life, there’s no doubt about that.”

Lots of people, longtime athletes and new runners alike, respond to the tangible, motivating goal of race running. Every exercise comes with risk,but if the challenge of long-distance running keeps you motivated, we say keep on keepin’ on. Don’t cross “run a marathon” (or even a few!) off your bucket list; the risks of cardiovascular damage are small, and the returns can be large.