Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
1 Nov

Monday Musings: Marathons and Heart Damage

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.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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.

    Callie Durbrow wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  2. 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…

    Gabriel Galeano wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  3. 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 risks taken in completing a marathon, and resulting damage. There are also physical risks involved with lifting heavy things and sprinting, and resulting damage. The difference is that the marathon increases the time that it takes to recover physically by quite a margin.

    I think what needs to be mentioned beyond possible heart damage or physical damage, is that training for and running a marathon causes a much worse short term problem. It causes the body to become ultra efficient at that particular effort… Over time, with distance training, you lose fast twitch muscle mass and start burning less calories over the course of the long run. This in itself is part of our bodies incredible ability to adapt to physical demand. But, it does not help Grok burn more calories or excess fat off the body, or retain any decent muscle mass. So I will say this… if anyone reading this is on the PBD, and is seriously considering running a marathon, or has already signed up for one, I would tell you that you have some serious challenges ahead and if you really want to complete a marathon you will need to sign off this amazing diet at least a month before the marathon.

    Rob wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  4. hey I just had a thought: maybe the marathon will “take out” Subway Jason. That’ll show ’em…

    Peggy wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  5. 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.

    b. strong wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  6. The only marathon I plan to do is thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail next year, and that will take 5 months (Mexico – Canada).

    hiker wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  7. So basically peoples engines need a rev limiter!!

    Elliott wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  8. 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.

    Gal @ 60 in 3 wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  9. 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.

    Bennett wrote on November 2nd, 2010
  10. Gal, I couldn’t agree with you more about motivation. It all comes down to preferences; some people get excited about the idea of a big challenge, others want to curl up and die at the thought of endless hours training for a long road race.

    I think it’s far more important that you’re doing something you enjoy for the right reasons. Poor training may well give lasting damage but it doesn’t follow then that marathons = unhealthy. Look at Stefaan Engels (guy who’s running a marathon every day this year) for eg – a shining example of fitness.
    (Shameless use of a sample of one to prove a point I know…! )

    Mike - Fat Fiction wrote on November 3rd, 2010
  11. “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. ”

    Interesting point. I don’t think I could “just do a marathon”. I did so (well I trained though not enough) with a half marathon (it included lots of walking), and paid with walking down the stairs backwards for three days. Ouch.

    Anyway, the marathon is still a goal and same goes for the Ironman. Bite me.

    San wrote on November 3rd, 2010
    • Ironman is still a goal for me too! Failed last year due to poor training, gonna get it next year (2013) though!

      Melissa wrote on January 19th, 2012
  12. Definitely down with the Monday Musings idea Mark!! I dig it. This is one thing I liked about the recent NYC Barefoot run. They didn’t set a distance so that everyone ran what they felt capable of. Something I could see catching on in favor of marathons over the next decade.

    Mlkrone wrote on November 3rd, 2010
  13. Yes, more short posts please!

    Though the more posts, the harder it is to find something on the site :-) Thinking of it, I think the site’s search function is already not sufficient anymore to find something. It would be great if there was a search function that could be limited to title only. Currently even the comments seem to be part of the search, resulting in usually dozens of articles for any given search.

    Timo wrote on November 4th, 2010
  14. There been increasing evidence that overtraining in endurance is very harmful to your body. Heart disease and early hair loss are just 2 of the side effects.

    Jeff wrote on November 4th, 2010
  15. Geoff,

    That exactly what I am doing! Good results with Dr. Maffetone, heavy lifting, sprints, and good diet.


    Tony wrote on November 5th, 2010
  16. Wow, really interesting post and discussion. For my part, I’ve run 60 full marathons (in the last 2.5 years), so I FREQUENTLY get told that I’m probably doing my body damage. However, I’ve been lucky enough not to have any serious injuries thus far, and I think it’s in large part due to the relaxed approach I take to long distance running. I believe it’s healthier to run MORE marathons more frequently – it takes away the pressure to do well in one particular race regardless of how you’re doing that particular day (i.e. friends who run one marathon a year will a push for a PR no matter how they’re feeling; I wait until the midpoint of every race before deciding if I want to race it or just relax and finish while having fun). Plus, by doing more marathons, your body adapts to the distance much better than a typical training plan of doing one 22 mile run and the rest all much shorter. My favorite part of a marathon is always miles 20-26 – I typically maintain the same pace because it’s still comfortable for me, while others are slowing down because it’s uncharted territory and their bodies can’t take it.

    I suppose it remains to be seen whether or not I’ll have heart problems, as I’m only 25 right now… but hey, I don’t take any drugs, so maybe I can be one of those in that study DC wants :)

    Laura wrote on November 28th, 2010
    • Its the unseen damage that is worse, accelerated ageing, heart problems, etc, these won’t hit you until a few years of doing this.

      The candle that burns twice as bright burns for half as long…

      Barbarian wrote on December 30th, 2015
  17. Great blog! Keep up the great work.

    Eric Falstrault wrote on December 8th, 2010
  18. Since 03 I have done about 80 triathlons.I have been living primal for 6 months and I have never felt better.The hardest thing for me was telling my type A traning partners I am going for a 2 hr hike instead of a 4 hr sufferfest on the bike.Still I have some isssues.I have a hard time letting people pass me on the bike path to work.

    Flintstone wrote on January 12th, 2011
  19. What about running marathons because you love to run marathons? I don’t knock myself out, but I barely get warmed up by 5K. Do you really think Grok ran down his prey in ten minutes? Persistence hunting is all about running for hours to wear out that beast.

    Rebecca Goodrich wrote on January 23rd, 2011
    • Grok devised weapons and traps and worked in small groups to hunt their prey. Grok used incredible sprinting power to move in for the kill. Grok would not have had the energy and caloric intake to run long distances eating animals, nuts, berries, and root vegetables. If Grok had access to GU or huge bowls of pasta that could have been done, but then again, Grok would not have needed to persistently hunt an animal with huge bowls of pasta readily available.

      Rob wrote on January 24th, 2011
  20. I completely agree with this. We have some overly competitive athletes that do not understand that too much is a bad thing. Every time I turn around they are running this marathon or 1/2 marathon or mud run in addition to their normal training…And Mark is spot on, THEY ARE A STUBBORN BUNCH.

    Kevin wrote on January 18th, 2012
    • Yes, have seen this first hand, even as their health fails, and they loose lean body mass, and actually gain fat. Since I ditched the running and focused on resistance training, my body fat has hit an all time low (7%) – when running, I was at 20% and it stubbornly refused to drop, even worse, it was stored around the waist. I see many marathon runners with great V02, but they are actually flabby – thin, flabby, weak, sickly things…

      Barbarian wrote on December 30th, 2015

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