Lessons From a Recovering Wanna-Be Marathoner: Health Isn’t About Running

While walking around a local lake last week, I passed by a cheerful, yet serious walker in her early 30’s.

She was the type with the hard, swinging arms (not laughing, I’ve been there before), and a pace at about a 10-minute mile.

Sporting a pink t-shirt with the words, “I’D RATHER WALK,” she put slow joggers to shame as she passed them with ease.

The hilarity of it struck me more than it probably should have, but I laughed to myself twice (because we crossed paths on the other side of the lake) because of her animated yet focused manner, and from the reactions of other runners scanning her outspoken, yet friendly, pink t-shirt, too, as they passed.

I almost gave her a fist pump as we crossed paths our second time, because I, too, would rather be walking.

Yet, at one point in my life, I would’ve looked down upon her shirt and probably sprinted past her, because walking wasn’t “hardcore” enough, and because I so aspired to join the elite folk that call themselves “marathoners.”

My Failed Marathon Mission

In fact, I signed up for one in 2008, only to fail at my prodigious attempt.

A self-proclaimed overachiever, I had just successfully completed the 25k Grand Rapids River Bank Run a year prior, and a marathon was my next itch that needed to be scratched on my bucket list.

So, without hesitation, I joined a few co-workers and signed up for the Chicago Marathon to hold myself accountable (shoving the four stress fractures I had previously had in the back of my head).

And, thus, began my Hal Higdon-inspired training plan. Five days of running each week plus cross training on my days off went well for the first few weeks.

As I started to gain mileage, my dedication was in full throttle.

In fact, my now husband remembers calling me in our early days of dating, only realizing near the end of our conversation that we chatted through my 7th and 8th miles while on a treadmill in Las Vegas.

I was on a mission.

Part of the marathon challenge was to truly test my own mental and physical strength, but the other part was pure vanity. Come on, everyone knows that long distance runners are super lean and skinny.

Combined with my running, I stuck to the USDA’s “simple” recommendations to achieve my desired weight:

  • Maintaining weight — Your weight will stay the same when the calories you eat and drink equal the calories you burn.
  • Losing weight — You will lose weight when the calories you eat and drink are less than the calories you burn.
  • Gaining weight — You will gain weight when the calories you eat and drink are greater than the calories you burn.

Basically, the formula means calories in = calories out.

I knew that 1 mile of running burned about 100 calories, and my eyes glistened like a Vegas slot machine counting all the calories that I would be burning towards my future, leaner self.

Because I was burning SO many calories running, I even fit in sweet treats in my math formula of weight loss. (Bring on the brownie flurry, baby, I just ran 10 miles!!)

The formula kind of worked, helping me drop a few pounds, but several still held on to their dear life. I was also constantly hungry and constantly sore.

Somewhere between the hours of running (a.k.a. over-training), low-fat/high carb dieting and calorie counting (because that’s what conventional wisdom says is healthy!), and “occasional” sweet treats, though, I was left singing Britney Spears’ Oops! I Did It Again after succumbing to my FIFTH stress fracture in five years (so cheesy, I know).

Arg. Enough is enough.

The Paradigm Shift 

Oh, yes, I so badly wanted to cross a true marathon off of my athletic checklist, but after this awesome luck, I finally got my body’s memo that I had been overriding for years: LAY OFF THE RUNNING, WINGNUT!

Why was I getting injured all the time?

Let’s see… Okay, I do have bunions (thank you, mother) and I’ve got weird biomechanics, but there had to be more to the formula.

So, after annoyingly wearing that darn black boot on my feet intermittently for five years, my waves of anger and frustration pushed me into a paradigm shift.

I started reading more about exercise, weight loss, and our genetic makeup to understand what the heck was really going on.

Calories In = Calories Out. Or Does It?! 

Reflecting on the USDA’s simple recommendations, it hit me that this formula was so flawed…

… Especially because I was tracking calories diligently (even with desserts!), running my tail off for at least the USDA’s recommended 60-90 minutes of exercise, and ensuring that I was within the confines of the “Losing Weight” formula.

In fact, if we all followed this robotic math equation, there should be NO reason our country is suffering with the 70% and rising obesity epidemic.

While part of the equation may be true, this view of exercising 60-90 minutes (just to keep weight off), counting calories, and consuming the carb-heavy Food Pyramid is way too oversimplified and way too wrong.

After reading several books, articles, and racking my brain, I finally came across the truth about exercise and health, summarized below.

The Truth About Running (Exercise) and Health

1. We are NOT cheetahs. We aren’t meant to run for hours and hours at the same pace, nor is it good for our health.

Sadly, we’ve all heard about marathoners that die every year trying to complete this arduous physical feat.

In fact, this April, famed marathoner and ultra-marathoner Micah True was found incapacitated off course in the rugged wilderness of New Mexico. According to the Associated Press,

“While medical examiners couldn’t point to the cause of heart disease, they said True’s left ventricle, the chamber of the heart that pumps oxygenated blood to the rest of the body, had become thick and was dilated. That can result in an irregular heartbeat during exertion.”

Another study may help explain this tragedy, involving a randomized crossover trial that assigned 60 male patients with coronary heart disease (CHD) to endurance training sessions of either 30 or 60 minutes.

“The 30-minute exercise sessions produced less oxidant stress and improved arterial elasticity, whereas 60-minute sessions worsened oxidant stress and increased vascular stiffness as measured by pulse wave velocity, mainly in older patients.”

The study concluded the following regarding heart health:

  • Chronic intense and sustained exercise can cause patchy myocardial fibrosis.
  • Chronic excessive sustained exercise may also be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening.
  • Veteran endurance athletes in sports such as marathon or ultra-marathon running or professional cycling have been noted to have a 5-fold increase in the prevalence of atrial fibrillation.
  • Intense endurance exercise efforts often cause elevation in biomarkers of myocardial injury.
Is this shocking? I’m not saying to NOT exercise or to never run again in your life (though you can still be perfectly healthy without doing so), but be mindful that arduous, excessive exercise over 60 minutes can harm us in more ways than one.2. Newsflash: Believe it or not, 80% of our health (yes, 80%!) is WHAT WE CONSUME.

In Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat, he outlines a research study on almost 13,000 habitual runners completed by Paul Williams, a stats expert in Berkeley, CA, and Peter Wood, a Stanford researcher. They compared the weekly mileage of these runners with how much they weighed from year to year.

“Those who ran the most tended to weigh the least, but all these runners tended to get fatter with each passing year, even those who ran more than forty miles a week – eight miles a day, say, five days a week.”

Forty miles a week, as in 1 mile for each hour of work per week, and these runners were still getting fatter each year! Sounds like a ton of sweat with way too little reward.

Thus, the jury is in. We can’t undue what we eat by going to the gym.

Clearly, my own experiment in calorie counting wasn’t working for me, despite the miles and miles that I was running. I was still consuming the wrong TYPE of calories in high carbohydrate foods, including that occasional brownie flurry.

A calorie simply isn’t just a calorie; the QUALITY is what matters. See my post here regarding why our body prefers fat over carbohydrates as a quality fuel source.

Moreover, we burn surprisingly few calories doing moderate exercise, and excessive exercising stimulates our appetites greatly, to the point where we can sabotage any exercise benefits we’ve banked (Yup, again guilty with the brownie flurries).

Fortunately or unfortunately, though, we can directly affect our health by the seemingly unimportant decisions we make every single meal of every single day.

What a blessing! Even if we aren’t busting out a moderate workout every day, if we are eating fresh, mostly organic, quality, whole foods in appropriate quantities, we can still be lean and healthy!

And then, what a curse… Food is something we can’t live without. For those of us that struggle during weak moments of vulnerability (myself included), food can be that answer to our boredom, loneliness, energy pick-me-up, and a short-term fix to our bigger issues.

*Sigh…What, now?

Getting to the root of these cravings is crucial in order to change our habits from using food to fill a void, to consuming it like it is intended: nourishment for our health.

3. The other 20% of health is left to exercise, genetics, environment (and luck!?).

I would bargain to say that, like my former self, the majority of us believe that exercise is the most important puzzle piece to health.

This is certainly not the case, but let’s not negate that there are still benefits to moderate exercise. It just doesn’t need to be in the form of excessive, marathon running. Nor does it need to be (and shouldn’t be) greater than 30-60 minutes each day.

I love this, because I know I used to think that running was the only form of appropriate and healthy exercise, which took away from exploring other fun forms of exercise.

Listen to the intuition of your body, and how it wants to be moved! What tickles your fancy in the world of exercise!? Swimming? Biking? Dancing?

Take notes from my older sis (love her!), who recently got into competitive rumba dancing (how awesome is that!?), because that’s what got her excited to move.

Regarding our genes, it is what it is. But, for those of us that weren’t blessed with Jack LaLanne genes, there is hope! A new, emerging field called nutritional genomics has exposed how we can literally turn on or OFF certain genes that we are predisposed to (diabetes, obesity, cancer…) by HOW WE EAT.

And, lastly, how we manage our stress, our attitudes, our social relationships, and the chemicals we come into contact in our environment affects our health as well. Surrounding ourselves with positive people and attitudes and choosing organic food can minimize exposure to negativity and chemicals!

Exercising and Eating FOR Health, Not Against It

So, getting back to basics, let’s look at what IS beneficial exercise for our health, and how we are genetically adapted to move in the following ways:
  • Moving frequently at a slow pace (think nomadic trekking and walking a lot)
  • Occasionally lifting heavy things (think lifting dead animal carcasses, climbing trees, carrying children)
  • Sprinting once in a while (think fight-or-flight, and running from animals)

Translation to a weekly routine?

1) Try to walk every day for 30 minutes, and at least accumulate 2 – 5 hours of total walking (or moving slowly) each week.

2) Incorporate weight training 2 – 3 days each week to maximize muscle

3) Work in a quick sprint session (6-8 all-out sprints on bike, elliptical, treadmill for no longer than 15-20 minutes total!) every 7-10 days.

Finally, remember that when you pass someone like the pink-shirted, “I’D RATHER WALK” lady, smile and realize that she’s right.

Because, the bottom line is that what we put in our mouths on a daily basis has a far greater impact on our health than becoming the next ultra-marathon gladiator.

P.S. As for me? I’ve given up long distance running, though you may find me doing a “run walk” or sprints here and there. I have continued to explore and love other forms of exercise in Crossfit, yoga, and other forms of cross training. And I haven’t had a stress fracture since… knock on wood!

References

Taubes, Gary. Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2011.

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8 responses on “Lessons From a Recovering Wanna-Be Marathoner: Health Isn’t About Running

    • Hey, thanks, Katie! So great to hear from you! You can get email updates by clicking “Follow,” if it tickles your fancy :) Hope to run into you at Barnes soon!

  1. Love this post. My feet have always given me trouble when I run… and I have always felt “lesser” as part of the walking crew. You’ll chuckle to know that as I read this, I actually thought, “I’m done feeling pathetic… especially if JULIA VISSER walks!” Ha! :)

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