Running is one of those activities that people either love or hate (and sometimes both at the same time). If you're out there pounding the pavement, you may field quite a few questions about why you voluntarily undergo such torture. And if you're not a runner, you may have some serious doubts about the sanity of your running friends.|
Either way, the sport tends to get a bad rap. To set the record straight, we talked to a couple of running experts to get their take on the most common criticisms, and to find out whether they're legit or full of hot air.
Strike #1: It's bad for the joints.
This is arguably one of the biggest beefs non-runners have against running. Over the years, I've politely heeded plenty of warnings about the sad state my knees will be in if I keep it up. It seems like a logical argument—after all, running is a high-impact activity, often performed on hard surfaces—but there's no hard-and-fast proof that it will have a negative effect on the body.
Kyle Kranz, a running coach based in South Dakota, points out that numerous studies suggest higher-impact activities actually strengthen the joints and bones more than lower-impact activities, like cycling or swimming. In one 2015 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion, women who performed a daily hopping exercise for four months actually increased their hipbone density, while those who didn't hop lost some density. And a Berkeley study disproved the myth that excess running contributes to osteoarthritis and hip replacements.
"Simply stated, running works the bones and joints better, thus strengthening them in the same way that lifting weights works the muscles," says Kranz. "Over time, they adapt to become stronger than they were before."
Madeline Hanley, a competitive runner based in New York City, says proper form is the secret to preventing joint damage. "If you're pounding your whole foot into the ground, then yes, running is going to be very hard on your joints," she says.
To prevent this, Hanley recommends trying impact force reactional drills. "The key is to hop on one foot, while practicing bounding your opposite foot on the ground, trying to do this as gently but quickly as possible," she says. "Be like a boxer with your feet: To get more speed and be less fatigued when punching, boxers think about retracting their punches as soon as they punch. Think about your feet they same way: Bounce up as soon as they touch the ground." It may look a lot like river dancing, but this technique could help increase your cadence and reduce joint stress.
Strike #2: Running causes muscle loss.
There's a school of thought that running is more slimming than strengthening, and over time will "burn" away muscle definition. But as long as you're complementing your running with strength training and getting plenty of protein in your diet, you're unlikely to see any noticeable muscle shrinkage. And as a side perk, you may also find that your weight work increases the quality of your running.
To disprove this one, Kyle lets these pictures of his quads and calves do the talking.
"Unless a person is doing a great deal of running and has a significant caloric deficit, it's unlikely they'd experience much, if any, muscle loss from taking up a running routine," Kyle says.
Strike #3: Too much running is bad for you.
Kranz admits that there's a kernel of truth in this one. "Yes, there is definitely such thing as too much running," he says. "Just ask retired elite Ryan Hall, who partially blames his extremely high-mileage teenage years for his recent health issues." That said, Kranz maintains that researchers aren't exactly sure where that threshold lies, and that most people would find it difficult to run so much as to experience negative health effects.
One study suggested that the health benefits of running tend to drop off around the 20-mile-per-week range. However, those who logged between five to 19 miles per week had a 25 percent lower risk of death.
When it comes to finding that "sweet spot" of running distance, competitive ultramarathoner (and founder of running apparel brand OnlyAtoms) Beth Weinstein stresses the importance of listening to your body. "Do whatever feels good for you, and don't overdo anything," she recommends. "Like all things in life, it's all about balance. Running is about challenging your mind and body, but not about torturing yourself or always being miserable."
Weighing the Risks and Benefits
As with any physical activity, running comes with a mix of pros and cons. "Ultimately, the decision to run is one that each person must make for themselves," Kranz says. "There are certainly more dangerous or costly activities to pursue."
For Kranz, running has allowed him to work toward goals, connect with like-minded people, explore mountains and cities, and—most importantly—feel good about himself after his history as an obese, depressed high-schooler. "If you enjoy running and do it wisely (as with any activity), and it makes you feel good, then the benefits almost always outweigh the risks."
Hanley agrees that the benefits of running far outweigh the risks: "Running is more than just exercise for me—it's a social thing. It's gotten me through countless exam weeks, breakups and bad days, and always gives me a fresh perspective." That said, Hanley has sustained injuries and didn't always listen to her body at first, but now she knows when to run and when to rest.
The best part about running, according to Hanley, is that just about anyone can run. "You don't need tons of expensive gear, or years of experience and technique—you just need a pair of running shoes. The rest is between you and the road."