Is running bad for you?
I get asked this a lot, and I wish I had a straight answer.
Maybe, maybe not, depends a lot on who you are, how and when you started running, how you’ve built up to where you are now, your biomechanics, your weight, your life habits, and genetics.
Inherently, running is good for you. The joint compression and release helps stimulate the fluid that nourishes our joint cartilage.
Running is good for your heart and lungs.
Running boosts your endurance, your brain, your immune system, and helps get rid of your abdominal fat stores.
Running can be fantastically meditative when you can get in the rhythm of just breathing and feeling your feet against the pavement.
And there is simply nothing like that “runner’s high” thanks to dopamine and endocannabinoids (endowhaaaa? check out this article!)
Running also gets a bad rap – many orthopedic physicians will simply tell my clients not to run, that it causes arthritis, and they shouldn’t do it.
There’s also been some question about running inducing chronically high cortisol levels, which has a detrimental effect on your body and health. This is largely related to overtraining problems, but it is a legit concern.
I am a runner and have been for over 20 years now. So far, so good, no injuries…well except for that time I tripped on a walnut and sprained my ankle…but that was just plain user error.
Is this luck or smart training? I like to think I go about running the smart way, but I guess only time will tell.
When it comes to the big question of does running cause arthritis, my answer is that there are a multitude of risk factors, and unfortunately the effect doesn’t show up until usually age 50 and beyond.
At that point how can you pin arthritis on just running?
Consider all the life history that has happened by age 50.
Consider the effects of genetics and body weight, and what about diet?!
These days we are learning so much about how what we eat can be triggering levels of micro-inflammation that can lead to degenerative processes in the body.
I recently learned that I have a delayed inflammatory reaction to eggs and dairy. Dairy I can understand, but eggs! I never would have guessed.
Aside from food, maybe you live in a 3-story house and have gone up and down a bazillion stairs every day for 20 years.
Maybe you had to have an elective arthroscopic procedure somewhere along the way (which accelerates arthritis).
How can we really really say arthritis is because of running?
The thing about osteoarthritis is that it’s all fine until it’s not. We don’t get the immediate feedback of pain during or after the aggravating activity.
“Wear and tear” accumulates over the years, just as your car does over the miles. It’s not one particular mile or stretch of travel you can pinpoint it to.
But we do know routine maintenance is good!
So here’s my advice on routine maintenance for runners:
- The best way to keep your joints healthy is to keep them mobile. Connect with me or any local Physical Therapist to get your lower joint range of motion evaluated. Full range of motion is requirement #1 for healthy running.
- Strength and flexibility are a close #2&3. Specifically core and hip strength, and flexibility beyond just quads and hamstrings, but really getting into the ankles, hips, and even the torso and rib cage. Hey guess what modality gets at all of this for you?! You got it, YOGA!! Do it, that’s all I can say. I’ve been doing yoga for as long as I’ve been running and I swear it is the #1 thing keeping me balanced and injury-free. Your local PT can test your strength (specifically your gluteus medius, maximus, hamstrings and transverse abdominals) and your flexibility and give your some guidelines.
- Have your stride evaluated. And no, not only by the running shoe store people! Many PT clinics do this, I do this locally and all it takes is an iphone. Slowing down your stride on video helps me identify your landing and propulsion strategies, and from there I can see where your compensating and what your cross training program needs to be. It’s highly worthwhile to get a personalized training program built by a PT to keep you safe!
- Follow an anti-inflammatory diet. Limit sugar, gluten, dairy, (maybe eggs?!) and alcohol. Eat lots of veggies, healthy fats, lean protein and fruits. Take supplements if you are not getting enough of these things in. And drink a ton of water. Food is either medicine or poison that needs to be filtered out, thus taxing your system and creating more inflammation. Make good choices and drink lots of water.
- Follow a training plan. We don’t just get off the couch one day and run 5 miles. Get a training guide (again, your PT should have one, I do so message me you need one!) from a reliable source and use that as a template.
- LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!! Again this is where yoga becomes SO powerful because it gives you lots of information. You will become aware of how you feel in all of your joints. You’ll know what muscles need more stretching, and which side is your “weaker” side. Yoga also provides you a solid recovery workout. Don’t ignore the importance of rest. The body needs to repair and rebuild and let the cortisol come back down.
These are all little things that add up to a long life of safe running or gradual decline.
It’s hard to notice the effects, or lack there of, if you skip a daily stretch, but if that’s your routine it will add up to injury, that I can just about guarantee you.
All the extra things – the shoes and the foam rollers etc – they come in after this foundational stuff.
If you don’t have the baseline strength, flexibility, and joint mobility you are adding force and impact on a faulty, unstable frame. No shoe can fix that.
The body can compensate for a while, but it will max out. So learn to listen for the subtle signs and be smart.
The great thing is you don’t need a ton of time to build in a running safety net.
Today I have a free yoga video for you that demonstrates how good you can feel in only a few minutes.
Give it a try and take note of your own mobility, strength, and flexibility, and make a promise to honor and work on what you discover.
From one runner to the next, I wish you a long life of happy, healthy miles!
What does the research say:
“it appears that long-distance running does not increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees and hips for healthy people who have no other counter-indications for this kind of physical activity. Long-distance running might even have a protective effect against joint degeneration.” – The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, June 2006, Vol. 106, 342-345.
“The evaluation of lesions of the knee with MRI shows that marathon running does not cause severe, acute lesions of cartilage, ligaments, or bone marrow of the knee in well-trained runners.” – European Radiology, , Vol 16, 10, 2179–2185
“The inflammatory response to a metabolic high‐fat challenge may predict individual susceptibility to developing OA later in life” – American College of Rheumatology, March 2012
“The authors emphasize the importance of identifying persons with preexisting joint disease before they start an aerobic exercise program so they can select non-impact-loading exercise. Persons with no evidence of joint abnormalities can exercise without fear of the development of osteoarthritis.” – The Physician and Sportsmedicine , Volume 17, 1989 – Issue 3