As more and more people lace up their running shoes and jump into the marathon circuit, you may be wondering about the long-term impacts of distance running. In addition to the huge accomplishment of crossing that finish line, we’re learning that there are many health-related reasons to celebrate the popular sport.
Several long-term studies have shown that marathon running can actually protect your knees, ankle and hip joints. According to Dr. Justin Hess DPT, a physical therapist with Florida Hospital, this is due to the so-called milking effect of synovial fluid, which Dr. Hess calls “nature’s WD40.”
“The more we run the better of a response we get in terms of bone-building,” Dr. Hess explains. “Running in general can protect the knee joints because those weight-bearing moments promote a synovial fluid exchange, which keeps the joints lubricated, and promotes bone growth.”
Marathon running has also been shown to lower all-cause mortality, meaning runners are generally living longer, healthier lives with fewer diseases like diabetes and improved cardiovascular health. Overall mood also gets a boost, too.
“We’ve all heard of a ‘running high,’ and it’s true – when you’re used to that running activity and then you don’t run, you can see the differences in overall mood and energy,” Dr. Hess says.
“Running promotes an endorphin release, which is psychologically beneficial. It promotes a balancing response in cortisol, which we have in high levels when we’re stressed. Not to mention the cardiovascular health benefits. Running helps those with high blood pressure, because the heart learns to be a stronger pump “
Myths, misconceptions and outright confusion have dogged the sport for decades, leading some people to believe that marathon running is ultimately harmful on the body.
“I think the preconceived notion that running is bad for the body is widespread,” says Dr. Hess. “Overall, running has a lot of health benefits that are just starting to surface.” One large-scale study published in the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy in June showed that recreational runners had a lower risk of osteoarthritis compared to sedentary individuals.
Of course, there are limits and exceptions. Many a new marathoner has been taken off course by jumping in too quickly and not giving the body enough time to heal. To cash in on these health benefits, runners must be ready, steady and well-recovered.
“There’s a safe medium,” says Hess. “Whenever someone asks me about marathon running, I say go for it, but in a safe, progressive way. You can always progress once you have a stable foundation. It’s easier to build a house on concrete than sand. ”
Justin Hess’s Tips for Marathon Training
1. Start Slow & Recover
“Running, especially if you’re sedentary, is a new demand on the body, which the body has to adapt to and overcome. When runners come in, my first question is, ‘how many miles have you run this week?’ More often than not, it’s usually too much, too soon – a higher intensity, faster pace or more miles than they’re used to. That’s where we get these orthopedic, musculoskeletal issues. I can’t stress enough that you want to load your body properly by following a safe program. One rule of thumb is no more than a 10 percent increase in mileage per week.”
2. Listen to Your Body.
“Injury is a loose term, ranging from simple knee aches to ligament tears. When it comes to pain, we usually use the ‘two point rule.’ If you start a run with a zero out of 10 pain, make sure you don’t push past a two out of 10 pain. Likewise, if you start the run with a four out of 10 pain, make sure your pain doesn’t go past a six.”
3. Run with a Partner.
“I’d encourage anyone starting out to run with a buddy or a running club, for additional social support and tips on how to run efficiently. Additionally, in case anyone gets injured someone has tips and tricks you can learn.”
4. Incorporate Cross-Training.
“On your non-running days, be sure to incorporate resistance training, flexibility training, or maybe do some elliptical, swimming workouts or some other non-impact physical activity. That way, those joints have a chance to recover, especially when you’re just learning to run.”
Interested in marathon running or have questions about running safely? Contact Dr. Justin Hess, DPT and the other experienced physical therapists of Florida Hospital’s Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation program by calling (407) 303-8080. The program offers direct-access, so many physical therapy services are offered without a required prescription.