Meet Mark

Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

Tell Me More
Stay Connected
November 01, 2010

Monday Musings: Marathons and Heart Damage

By Mark Sisson
104 Comments

This post is the first in what may become a new series here on MDA. Most of my articles are full-length feature articles. While I love and will continue to do them I think there’s room for a post each week that’s a little less formal; something shorter than my usual fare that’s published each Monday (along with the WOW) that allows me to spout off on any number of things on my mind. I’ll likely be reviewing the latest medical research and ranting on hot topics in the news. What do you think? Would you like a hodgepodge collection of my thoughts on the world of health and fitness? I hope so, because I’ve got a lot to say! Let me know what you think in the comment board. And now… the inaugural Monday Musing…

Marathon running is supposed to be good for you, which is why so many people (intend to) do it. The overweight and the untrained often use the successful completion of one as a landmark on their weight loss journey, sometimes the goal itself. Others think, erroneously, that it’s part of an anti-aging strategy. If you can run a marathon, you are fit, or so the story goes.

New MRI data out of the Heart and Stroke Foundation suggests the contrary: that “less fit” runners running a marathon are damaging their hearts for up to three months. The musculature of the human heart is made up of 17 segments. If one segment fails due to stress (say, from a marathon), adjacent segments pick up the slack. Unfit marathoners exhibited abnormally high amounts of overly stressed heart segments. Their hearts were working harder, and the work was concentrated across fewer segments. These abnormalities persisted for as long as three months after the marathon.

Okay, exercise induces muscle damage as a rule. That’s how we get stronger – by undergoing stress and muscle damage, and adapting to it by rebuilding our muscles stronger than ever. But muscle damage isn’t supposed to last for three months. Sure, even the study’s authors admit that the damage is reversible, but is that really an effective way to train?

The problem is that there’s no built-in shut down code in our central nervous system when it comes to running a marathon. The heart muscle doesn’t sense the “pain” of exertion the way leg muscles do. It just tries to keep up with the demand to pump more oxygen. Total beginners with a new pair of $150 Nikes (with shock absorbers, stabilizers and motion control) and a fanny pack full of glucose gel can sign up for a marathon and (just) do it. It’s not so traumatic an ordeal to trigger an automatic response; it’s more drawn out and gradual a muscle stressor.

Beginners should probably not be running marathons. Truth is, I don’t even think experienced endurance athletes should be running marathons as often as some do (I keep tabs on all my old elite runner/triathlete friends who have had serious heart problems – or died – and it’s at a significant number now). But good luck getting that across. They – we – can be a stubborn bunch. If you want to get fit and you’re starting from scratch, lifting heavy things, engaging in slow steady movement often, and getting your diet in order are the most reliable, safest steps toward that goal. Running a marathon sounds badass and impressive, but remember – the first marathoner dropped dead after completing it. Myth? Maybe, but I wouldn’t take it lightly. If you insist on doing one, please train properly.

Subscribe to the Newsletter

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

Leave a Reply

104 Comments on "Monday Musings: Marathons and Heart Damage"

avatar

Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Jenny
Jenny
5 years 10 months ago

I wonder what their definition of “less fit” is? Let’s see… looks like they tested V02 max, though it doesn’t say what the cutoff was. (though that hardly matters to me beyond intellectual curiosity — I have no marathoning planned for the next several evers of my life.)

Geoff
Geoff
5 years 10 months ago
Mark – Interesting concept. The full length articles have been great, but I think shorter pieces like this can serve a great purpose as short reminders about the simple truths behind the Primal Blueprint. Quick question about marathoning (from a recovering endurance athlete) – how do you feel about training for – and running – a marathon or ultra endurance event in the “move slowly” zone? Of course there would be a couple of “lift heavy” sessions each week and some regular sprinting to round out the primal fitness, but what about doing the vast bulk of the running training… Read more »
Blakery
Blakery
5 years 10 months ago

I don’t think, aside from sprinting, that I ever run at more than 75%. Probably significantly less, although I have no intention of using a heart monitor. The whole point of distance running is long and slow. I think most marathon injuries are from just bad running (and diet, and poor training, and bad shoes, bad all sorts of stuff).

SLS
SLS
5 years 10 months ago

Yes, random thoughts are often the most interesting cream of the crop gleans from the morass of information that you surely process day to day. Please share!

Pandadude
Pandadude
5 years 10 months ago

I’d be glad to see some more short posts about random stuff that isn’t necessarily preaching the primal lifestyle. I’ve read a lot of your old blog posts aswell, and studies on sleep quality when wearing socks or not are fun to read imo!

DThalman
DThalman
5 years 10 months ago

i think preaching the primal lifestyle is a main thrust of the blog? …i like such posts, they keep me inspired

Primal_Joe
Primal_Joe
5 years 10 months ago
Well, I have been thinking a lot about this lately. Back before I started to adopt the Primal lifestyle I signed up for a 1/2 marathon which is scheduled to be run this weekend. So I am wondering how to approach it. The way I see it I have the following options: 1. Skip it and be out $70 2. Run it 3. Approach it as a Grok-a-thon. … Sprint, jog, walk etc. and just enjoy it. Maybe do a little persistence hunting? I’ve tried and change my approach to this. I’ve done a lot of low heart rate training… Read more »
andrea
andrea
5 years 10 months ago

Grok-a-thon all the way! Just go out there and have fun…for me I love the excitement of races even though I ALWAYS finish last (or nearly last) in my age group…but no worries, it’s just a good fun time especially without the pressure of performance.

TexasPrimalSurfWahine
5 years 10 months ago

I vote Grok-a-thon! At very least walk through the water stops and sprint at the finish to run down your prey (a runner you can see that you want to beat)!
Years ago when I did a marathon with a friend this was our approach. Of course that was just because we could never get the water from the cup in our mouths successfully!

Kelda
5 years 10 months ago

Go and enjoy, keep the pace slow, it’s way more fun amongst the guys at the back, far more inspiring, and once you’ve done it, pat yourself on the back and don’t sign up for any more 🙂

Cavegirl, retired endurance athlete!

Mark – musings are the way to go, fill your boots, as your Aussie readers would say!

Primal Toad
5 years 10 months ago

Grok-a-thon all the way! Skipping it is a BAD idea. Just go out there and have some fun! Run with an older gentlemen in the back. Start off running and then walk for a while. Then sprint for a minute, etc.

Go barefoot or wear your vibrams!

Harry
Harry
5 years 10 months ago

In my experience, the older gentlemen do very well. And older ladies too. They probably have been running a long time and have the technique perfected.

hiker
hiker
5 years 10 months ago

Absolutely enjoy. I’ve done the Seattle Half-Marathon twice. The first time I trained and did a run/walk. The second time I didn’t even train, was going to skip it, but my Seattle friends convinced me to go. I walked the whole route, and had a great time. Of course, the weather was much better than the first time.

I say have a good time and do it the Grok way.

pj
pj
5 years 10 months ago

FWIW, you’re out the $70 either way, so don’t let that factor into your decision. No point in wasting your time and/or harming your body, too.

TMOD
TMOD
5 years 7 months ago

Good pick up! The formal term for letting unrecoverable money affect your decision-making is “sunk cost fallacy”.

http://www.skepdic.com/sunkcost.html

Peggy
Peggy
5 years 10 months ago

i LOVE everyone’s suggestions!! I’m signed up to do a half in Feb. I wasn’t gonna take it too seriously 🙂 I’m just going to be in FL in the dead of winter (for some VIT D) & hang out with my sister. I’m gonna grok mine too…

Primal_Joe
Primal_Joe
5 years 10 months ago

Thanks for the suggestions everyone! All are great ideas. I think I am just going to do this the Tao way (we wei). Just go with the flow. I’ll run how I feel with no specific goal in mind, just make it to the finish and enjoy the journey.

tbird
tbird
5 years 10 months ago
I’m training to walk a half right now. It’s been a little harder than I thought. I’m a slow walker, runner, reader – you name it. So I don’t have to pressure myself to take it easy. In fact, my main worry is that I’ll take 4 hours to finish! In terms of training – I’m relying on podcasts to keep me from getting bored – not to mention chatting on the phone. Every once in a while I get bored and jog for a minute or two. I haven’t lost a pound, but I love what it’s doing for… Read more »
Paul C
Paul C
5 years 10 months ago
While not elite in any sense, I was on the path of steadily increasing marathon training, with steady lean mass and upper body strength loss along with it. The winners of the races I entered were so thin, it was painful to look at their pictures in the paper the next day. One 10K winner was 5’6″, 104lbs. A man. At one point I desired to waste away to be more competitive. Thankfully CrossFit and then Mark helped convince me that was not optimum health. I am now 10lbs heavier, much stronger, with 2% LESS body fat than when I… Read more »
Digger
5 years 10 months ago

All due respect, I don’t believe a word the Heart and Stroke Foundation says.If we listened to them, we’d all be (almost) vegetarians.

Rip City
Rip City
5 years 10 months ago

but just think of all the “healthy” whole grains we could be eating!

Mary
Mary
5 years 10 months ago

I’m also curious about more primal friendly training plans for a 10K or a half. I’m considering doing Jeff Galloway’s run/walk program. While obviously not primal, it seems to be a much less intensive approach, and with the planned, frequent walk breaks, you aren’t maintaining a long-term heart rate elevation.

GadgetBoySI
5 years 10 months ago

I had a friend run the marathon last year using the Galloway method.

I think the method needs to be followed very closely – many people think that they can use the method to train less than they really need to in order to complete a marathon.

andrea
andrea
5 years 10 months ago

I love the idea of short posts…

Rip City
Rip City
5 years 10 months ago
Mark, I definitely like the idea of this occasional shorter article. One thing I’ve been wondering about lately and haven’t put enough time/effort/energy into is whether some of the genetic predisposition stuff is really that, or just similarities in lifestyles, particularly nutrition. Like, say my dad had 3 heart attacks, or high cholesterol, my dr might tell me I’m genetically pre-disposed to that. Am I really? Or is it likely that because my dad raised me I’ve probably taken on his lifestyle habits that led to said maladies? Anyway, if you’ve already covered this and I missed it my apologies,… Read more »
grok groupie
grok groupie
5 years 10 months ago

Love the idea of shorter posts, love the lengthy ones too….. how about just keeping ’em mixed-up…. I apprecaite all that you write Mark as your passion just shines through.

Thank you!

guy
guy
5 years 10 months ago

I remember reading about Derek Clayton who ran 2.08 for the marathon in 1969,a revolutionary time then.He suffered for months after.
However the Kenyans with their background of running to school from the age of 5 seem to bounce along through a marathon.

DC
DC
5 years 10 months ago

Mark,

What I’d like to know (and probably never will) is: how many of your “elite runner/triathlete friends who have had serious heart problems”, have such problems due to the effects of performance-enhancing drugs?

Seriously, have there been any legitimate studies on the topic?

Ginger
Ginger
5 years 10 months ago

Yes, I like the idea of you spilling your random thoughts on fitness. Carry on, sir!

Maria
Maria
5 years 10 months ago

I am a Greek who use to live by Marathonas road and I have no ambition to run it in this life or my next one! By the way that’s what I know too that Pheidipides dropped dead in the end

Lars
Lars
5 years 10 months ago

Mark, what would you say if I plan to do a trail race of more than a marathon-length? I mean, that is very primal. But how to train for it?

Primal Toad
5 years 10 months ago

I must say that I would love a short post or 2 throughout the week. Random ones with your thoughts on different topics within the health world. While I enjoy reading your longer articles some of them are… VERY long!

Danielle
5 years 10 months ago

I love hearing this info from a former serious distance competitor. Thank you for giving me permission to stick with short distance and enjoyable exercise!

Ahmed Serag
5 years 10 months ago

Sprints are just so much more fun! And the results make it all worth it

meredith
5 years 10 months ago

Al Sears writes about this in his book PACE training. He says that sustained moderate endurance activities teach our hearts and lungs to become smaller and more efficient rather than stronger and larger when we do intermittent activity with intensity. Ya know, the way Grok woulda’ done it!

Aaron Curl
5 years 10 months ago

I just watched a video about PACE. I like the way he said…”you wouldn’t curl a 1/2 pound dumbbell 10,000 times to build your biceps….this is what running distances is”. My brother tried getting me into running around the same time I started understanding the paleo lifestyle. Now I go out and sprint about 3 times a week.

Clint White
Clint White
5 years 10 months ago

oh yeah. I’ll take some random thoughts. I think this is a good idea.
Random thoughts on fitness is a bottomless well. There’s so many “fitness experts” out there selling their ideas. I’d love to hear what you think about some of them.

Trevor
Trevor
5 years 10 months ago

I’ve wondered about Kenyans and the Hunter Gather societies that hunt for hours on end with running down their prey. I don’t think you would see some of them running 8 hours that often, only when it’s necessary to kill a good chunk of meat.

I would like to do a marathon but I know it’s out of the question with my current work schedule (7 day work week).

AlyieCat
AlyieCat
5 years 10 months ago
I disagree with your perception that CW thinks running marathons is healthy. In fact, I’d say the majority of the population thinks it’s bad for you. They’d cite “it’s bad for your joints!” as a reason it’s unhealthy. Furthermore, a lot of age group (and certainly elite) marathoners KNOW moderation would be better for their health. I think the general public aspires to marathon running because it’s a long way to run and most people don’t like running. I don’t think it’s seen as a standard of health. I will agree that fat too many people use it as a… Read more »
Roland
5 years 10 months ago
I cringed when Kat Von D decided to do a marathon to “get in shape” recently. She’s since decided to do it as a relay, but that wasn’t the initial plan. People DO think it’s healthy to strive for running a marathon. They train for it because it’s PROVING that they are fit. Unfortunately, along the way, they get addicted to the feeling of running. Another issue is that there are few “group” events that you can train for. People join running clubs, run together, train together, and have measurable and comparable results together. Many other sports SEEM to take… Read more »
R Dunn
R Dunn
5 years 10 months ago

Intervals make sense to me, but I can’t get enthused about distance running.

Wayne
Wayne
5 years 10 months ago

Mark,

Short post good!! Ook!! ;-D

trackback

[…] post by Mark Sisson […]

Rainbow
Rainbow
5 years 10 months ago

Mark, I just found some very nice article entitled “saturated fat may not be so bad for you” and a supporting serious research article quoted there.
Seems people slowly buy into the nice primal wisdom!

http://www.thatsfit.ca/2010/10/29/saturated-fat-good-for-heart-health/

Dave K
Dave K
5 years 10 months ago
I like the idea of posting shorter thoughts on numerous topics throughout the week. Regarding the running topic: While I am not fully following a primal lifestyle, I am trying to shift my dietary habits and exercise routines. Thanks to following P90X and Insanity programs, I have become a relatively fit person. I think they both are overkill as far duration. Recently, a friend talked me into running a 5K. I know this is not a big deal for a lot of people, but it was for me. Considering I am NOT a runner though, and did not train for… Read more »
hiker
hiker
5 years 10 months ago

Mark – mix em up. Like the short posts too.

Meagan
5 years 10 months ago

I much prefer shorter blurbs. Often I wish to read your articles Mark, but they take too much time!

Godzilla
Godzilla
5 years 10 months ago

Keep em long. I come to your blog for information. I thirst for it. You’re a heckuva writer with a lot of knowledge, and I have benefited from your experience and insight.

Dance with the one who brung you. Just look at the success of your site and how many hits it gets.

Harry
Harry
5 years 10 months ago

I’m one of the folks who are glad they did a half marathon. I walked it. Did not finish last.

I trained according to Primal fitness, despite never having heard of Primal.

It does give you a sense of accomplishment. Wouldn’t recommend it for any other reason.

Chris
Chris
5 years 10 months ago

Haha I love how “Grilled Beef Heart with Roasted Chili Peppers” is a related post.

It’s disturbing to think how many other “facts” touted by Conventional Wisdom are completely false.

trackback

[…] a visible 6-pack again and was all-around healthier. This, combined with former elite-triathlete Mark Sisson’s post about the heart damage inflicted by long-distance running, led me to an epiphany of my own. After gaining 2% body fat last month, it is time to bring out the […]

DThalman
DThalman
5 years 10 months ago

how DO you have this timing, Mark??? i am toying with a sprint or olympic distance tri–it would be my first but I’ve raced a mile in swim comps and I swim and mtn bike a lot. I’d be well trained. i know excessive cardio isn’t great but i want to do a tri just once and i do like training…maybe train with lots of tabata/intervals and not too many super long workouts.

Claus Jensen
Claus Jensen
5 years 10 months ago

So, the point of this monday musing (unless I’m mistaken), is:
Train properly!
Don’t run a marathon if you’re not physically fit to do so!

excuse me, but well, DUH!

I’m pretty sure that whoever needs this advice probably isn’t wise enough to search for it here.

Jaques
Jaques
5 years 10 months ago
I had a cousin who was a vegetarian all his life due to the strange SDA church. He marathoned all the time, thinking he was in superb shape. Until his heart chamber broke, and blood rushed into the wrong territory. He almost died, 70 percent heart damage. He told me afterward, the vegetarian diet, let alone the long distance running didn’t do a damn thing for him but hurt him. I think by looking at a marathon runner compared to a 100 meter sprinter, the muscle physique tells it all. Long distance runners are basically “skinny fat”.
Marc
5 years 10 months ago
There is a big difference between running one marathon (or a half) a year and 10 a year. Big differnce between running 10 miles in a week and 60 miles in a week. If you enjoy being active and you want to run a half marathon, have at it. You’re not going to run it in 90 minutes…which is were the danger would lie if you were not trained for it. If you run it in 2 hours…your basically jogging and I don’t think any relatively “fit” person would even breathe heavy during it. I like to run 5k and… Read more »
Ben
Ben
5 years 10 months ago
Getting back to the topic of the study – the results showed that the runners that had damage showed no damage after three months. That’s not to say that it took three months for them to heal. They checked the runners 6-8 weeks before, right after, and then 3 months after the marathon. Since the researchers had no definitive evidence to suggest a shorter time to heal (due to not checking until three months later), they say “up to three months.” Regarding the PB, I’ve run 1 marathon and 7 halves (all after ACL reconstruction) and have to say that… Read more »
William
William
5 years 10 months ago

Dear Mark,

With the amount of great reasearch you’ve read zou can’t possibly have missed Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. There he talks about runners who run frickin ultras of a 100 miles or more! Oh and they never get hurt!

How would you explain such extraordinary performances? Is it because the athletes are burning fat instead of carbs and can therefore keep it up for so long?

Best

William

Digger
5 years 10 months ago

There is a huge difference between elite road marathoners and elite trail marathoners.Road marathoners these days are practically sprinting for just over 2 hours,bordering on an anaerobic effort.That is impossible on any decent trail.
There is also a big difference in body build,trail runners are more muscled due to going more slowly and constantly adjusting for varied terrain.
JMO

Kevin - Paleo Playbook
5 years 10 months ago

Yeah, and what about the leading theory that our ancestors developed the ability to run long distances in the form of persistence hunting?

Barbarian
Barbarian
8 months 27 days ago

The presenter of the theory called it a “leading theory”, but only in his own mind. The theory is just that, as a previous distance runner converted now to the primal exercise mode, I can vouch many fitness and health gains. I have direct proof that my heart arrhythmia has now healed as a result of ditching long distance running.

Callie Durbrow
5 years 10 months ago

Hmm I have mixed feelings on the subject. I think it’s great if you make sure you’re running at your own level and not setting out to break a record. I think that kind of thing just kind of has to happen on its own.

Gabriel Galeano
Gabriel Galeano
5 years 10 months ago

The only reason I never really got into jogging (I did it a few times, it was OK) or marathon running (I considered running the London Marathon) is because it’s DAMN BORING.

Plus all the people I see jogging around my area are skinny-fat or flabby all year round…

Rob
Rob
5 years 10 months ago
I signed up for a marathon a couple of months before finding MDA, just before going Primal. I realized the risks while reading Marks blog here, and completed the marathon a few weeks ago. I felt super and had a great run! But, it was not easy on the Primal Diet… in fact, I had to throw some carbs and glucose gels back in within the last month before the marathon to make it work (I tried training primal without the carbs and it was not fun, I bonked severely every time after about 14 miles). There are certainly physical… Read more »
Peggy
Peggy
5 years 10 months ago

hey I just had a thought: maybe the marathon will “take out” Subway Jason. That’ll show ’em…

b. strong
b. strong
5 years 10 months ago

Short posts, long posts, doesn’t matter: I’ll read ’em.

Here’s an idea for a musing: alcopops, aka, blackout in a can. Anyone who has a teenager (or is a teenager) should be very, very scared of their popularity.

hiker
hiker
5 years 10 months ago

The only marathon I plan to do is thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and that will take 5 months (Mexico – Canada).

Elliott
Elliott
5 years 10 months ago

So basically peoples engines need a rev limiter!!

Gal @ 60 in 3
5 years 10 months ago

I don’t disagree that there are physical risks but I also think the motivational benefits for beginners outweight those risks.

Motivation is why people fail to become healthy. If training for a marathon motivates them then by all means. Is it risky? Sure, but less risky than sitting in front of the TV eating twinkies.

Bennett
Bennett
5 years 10 months ago

Definitely in favor of seeing some shorter, musing-style posts. Food for thought is great, even in bite-sized form.

On the whole marathon thing… personally, I took up martial arts so that I wouldn’t have to run, but I have been flirting with some HIIT-style sprint workouts lately. My SO is big on endurance sport, though, and insists that cross-training will fend off any ill effects–of course, she’s also prone to migraines, hypoglycemic events, various illnesses, and already has arthritus in her early 20’s, whereas I’ve had one flu bug in the last two years and that’s it. So go figure.

trackback

[…] a visible 6-pack again and was all-around healthier. This, combined with former elite-triathlete Mark Sisson’s post about the heart damage inflicted by long-distance running, led me to an epiphany of my own. After gaining 2% body fat last month, it is time to bring out the […]

wpDiscuz