5 Reasons Why Slow Runners are Smarter

Thursday Mar 5 | BY |
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Tortoise And Rabbit

Could it be that slow runners live longer in the end?

You know the tale.

The tortoise, weary of the hare’s constant ridicule of his slow-moving ways, challenges the hare to a race.

The hare leaves our shelled friend far behind. Confident of his win, he decides to take a nap. When he wakes up, he’s shocked to find tortoise has crossed the finish line before him.

Thus the saying, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Now, scientists report we’d all be wise to take a hint from that laid-back reptile, and slow down.

Not to win the race, but to live a longer life.

Study Shows Slow Runners Live Longer

Any exercise is better than none. We all know that. But just how much exercise is too much? That’s a question scientists have been exploring in more detail.

For this study, Danish researchers examined data from the Copenhagen City Heart Study, isolating just under 1,100 healthy joggers and comparing them with nearly 4,000 healthy nonjoggers (who were basically sedentary).

Joggers were divided into three categories depending on their workouts: 1) light, 2) moderate, and 3) strenuous.

Researchers then evaluated death records between 2001 and 2014. Results showed the following:

  • Joggers lived longer than those who didn’t exercise (no big surprise there).
  • Jogging between just 1 hour and 2.4 hours each week was found to be the “ideal” amount of time for prolonging life.
  • It wasn’t jogging, but jogging at a slow pace that was found to be optimal.
  • Slow or “light” joggers lived longer than fast or “strenuous” runners.
  • The fastest runners had about the same lifespan as those who didn’t exercise at all.

“Light and moderate joggers have lower mortality than sedentary nonjoggers,” the researchers wrote, “whereas strenuous joggers have a mortality rate not statistically different from that of the sedentary group.”

They went on to note that when prescribing exercise to improve longevity, doctors should be careful not to advocate for strenuous exercise, as it’s “not necessary and might reduce the health benefits of light to moderate physical activity.”

Weaknesses In This Study

Interesting results for sure, but this is one study, and there are limitations. Few people in the study were hardcore runners, providing a small sample of this group. Researchers also didn’t look into “why” the people died, so they couldn’t determine what damages the strenuous exercise had (if any).

“[T]he main thing the study shows,” writes professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan Justin Wolfers, “is that small samples yield unreliable estimates that cannot be reliably discerned from the effects of chance.”

The truth is, Wolfers adds, most Americans aren’t exercising enough, and should not be worried about running too much.

He points out other weaknesses in the study:

  • By the end of the study, only 17 people had died—too small a sample to clearly determine whether too much jogging was associated with a higher mortality rate.
  • Of the strenuous joggers, only 2 had died.
  • The researchers didn’t determine if those two deaths had anything to do with jogging.

So the next question is, are there other studies showing that strenuous jogging can be harmful?

Indeed, there are.

How Running Too Hard Hurts the Heart

Let’s look at some of the other research on strenuous exercise and health and longevity:

  • Extreme Athletes Risk Heart Disease: A 2012 study looked at the effects of extreme endurance competitions such as marathons, ultra-marathons, Iron-man competitions, long-distance bicycle racing, etc. Researchers noted that “an evolving body of data” shows chronically training for and participating in these events can injure the cardiovascular system. Over time, in veteran extreme athletes, the recurrent injuries can result in arrhythmia, artery stiffening, and artery calcification.
  • Extreme Exercise Ages the Heart Over Time: Another 2012 study reported that chronic extreme exercise causes excessive wear and tear to the heart, offsetting some of the benefits of exercise. “Thus, even though chronic extreme exercise may not kill you, it may erase many of the health advantages of regular moderate exercise,” researchers wrote. They added that high-intensity exercise sessions lasting beyond 1-2 hours caused acute overload on the heart. It usually recovers within a week, but after years of repetitive injury, it suffers from accelerated aging.
  • Vigorous Exercise for Too Long Harms the Heart: In a 2011 study, 60 male patients with heart disease exercised vigorously for either 30 or 60 minutes. Those who exercised for 30 minutes experienced improved heart function and minimal oxidant stress. Those who exercised for 60 minutes, on the other hand, increased vascular stiffness and oxidant stress.
  • Scans Show Heart Damage from Endless Marathons: MRI scans of runners who have been participating in marathons for decades showed a three-fold increased incidence of scarring in various areas of the heart. Other studies found similar results—an increase in coronary plaque and heart injuries in runners who consistently ran marathons. These injuries increase risk of atrial fibrillation—which some studies have found to occur five times more often in veteran endurance athletes than in non-endurance athletes.
  • Mice Fare Better at Moderate Exercise Levels: Even in rats the results are the same. A 2011 study subjected rats to run vigorously for 4, 8, and 16 weeks. Examination of their hearts at the end of the study period showed enlargement, scarring, and dysrhythmias. When the mice were allowed to resume normal mouse activity, the health of their hearts improved.

There’s more—and from larger studies.

How Running is Like Alcohol Consumption

You’ve heard that a glass of wine in the evening can be good for your health, but that too much can cause problems.

Turns out running may be like that.

For a 2012 study, researchers looked at the association between running and all-cause mortality risk in over 52,000 adults, with a 15-year follow-up.

Results showed:

  • Runners had a 19 percent lower risk of death compared with the non-runners.
  • Those who ran more than 20-25 miles a week, however, lost their survival advantage over the non-runners.
  • Those who ran between 5 and 20 miles total had a 25 percent decreased risk of death.

Speed: Fast runners (over 8 miles an hour) experienced no mortality benefit compared with non-runners, whereas those who ran about 6-7 miles an hour fared best.

Frequency: Those who ran 6-7 days a week lost mortality benefits, while those who ran 2-5 days a week had the best survival advantages.

Other Benefits Besides Longevity

It seems we have a lot of studies showing that strenuous, long-term extreme running may do more harm than good.

But we also have reliable information that slower, more moderate running can be good for not only your heart and longevity—but for your running practice.

Marathon runner and coach Matt Forsman writes about this. He notes that running fast causes more trauma on the body, including stress and strain on bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

“There’s serious trauma associated with the act of running fast,” he says, adding that over time, it leads to “burnout and breakdown.”

Slow running, on the other hand, helps facilitate blood flow to damaged muscles, develops key systems to support the act of running, helps avoid injuries, and can help people run for years and years without being sidelined by injuries or other problems.

Turns out that most serious runners run at low intensities much of the time. A survey of runners who competed in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathons showed that men did almost three-quarters of their training slower than their race pace, while women did more than two-thirds of their training at slower paces. Slower running allows for more running—and more running means faster races.

Slow running can have other benefits, including the following:

  • Helps build muscle fibers that support you over long distances.
  • Helps you burn more fat over time.
  • Strengthens tendons to help you avoid injury.
  • Increases “capillary capacity,” which is how much oxygen can be exchanged in your cells—giving your muscles the oxygen they need to work efficiently.
  • Increases the ability of your heart and lungs to efficiently deliver oxygen to the body.
  • Allows your bones to adapt and become stronger with less risk of injury.
  • Helps promote circulation and removal of waste products.
5 Reasons Why Slow Runners are Smarter

Just how fast is too fast? How much is too much?

We don’t have all the answers yet.

We can say, however, that more isn’t always better. If we want to live a longer, healthier life, pushing ourselves to the limit on a regular basis is probably not the best way to do it. Though most Americans need to exercise more, some of us more health-conscious types may want to examine what we’re doing and how often we’re doing it to be sure we’re not going to extremes.

Meanwhile, slow runners can pat themselves on the backs for knowing the following:

  1. It’s best to listen to your body. Fast runners tend to live by the “no pain, no gain” credo. Slow runners know that when you start experiencing pain, you could be on your way to injury, and over the long term, that could derail future exercise plans.
  2. Too much of a good thing can be bad: Just like too much alcohol can be bad for you, too much running can lead to injuries and over time, heart problems. A balanced, more even running practice is more likely to yield benefits over time.
  3. It’s more fun to enjoy it: Runners like the runners high they get after a hard workout, but slow runners know they don’t have to kill themselves to get it. An easy run can make you feel just as good as one that leaves you scrambling for the aspirin a few hours later, and you’re more likely to enjoy doing it.
  4. Speed doesn’t matter: Study after study shows that even just a little running crushes risk of disease. A recent study, for example, found that those who ran for less than an hour a week experienced similar mortality benefits as those who ran more than three hours a week. (Read our post about it here.) These kind of results show that the important thing is to run—and focus less on speed and duration.
  5. Running slower increases the chances someone will run with you: Studies have shown that exercising with a partner makes it more fun, and increases the chances that you’ll stick with it. Run slow and others will enjoy running with you. Leave them in the dust and you’re likely to run on your own, whether you want to or not.

What do you think of these studies? Do you agree that hard, fast running can backfire? Please share your thoughts.

* * *

Peter Schnohr, et al., “The Copenhagen City Heart Study,” J Am Coll Cardiol., 2015; 65(5):411-419, http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleID=2108914.

Gretchen Reynolds, “Slow Runners Come Out Ahead,” New York Times, February 4, 2015, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/04/slow-runners-come-out-ahead/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Phys%20Ed&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs&region=Body&_r=0.

Justin Wolfers, “No, More Running Probably Isn’t Bad for You,” New York Times, February 5, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/upshot/no-more-running-probably-isnt-bad-for-you.html?abt=0002&abg=1.

Patil HR, et al., “Cardiovascular damage resulting from chronic excessive endurance exercise,” Mo Med., Jul-Aug 2012, 109(4):312-21, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22953596.

James H. O’Keefe, Carl J. Lavie, “Run for your life…at a comfortable speed and not too far,” Heart, November 29, 2012, http://indorgs.virginia.edu/MuscleClub/OKeefe_JH_article1%2B2.pdf.

Michaelides AP, et al., “Exercise duration as a determinant of vascular function and antioxidant balance in patients with coronary artery disease,” Heart, May 2011; 97(10):832-7, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21357374.

Breuckmann F, et al., “Myocardial late gadolinium enhancement: prevalence, pattern, and prognostic relevance in marathon runners,” Radiology, April 2009; 251(1):50-7, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19332846.

Benito B, et al., “Cardiac arrhythmogenic remodeling in a rat model of long-term intensive exercise training,” Circulation, January 4, 2011; 123(1):13-22, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21173356.

Lee DC, Pate RR, Lavie CJ, et al. Running and all-cause mortality risk–is more better? American College of Sports Medicine 2012 Annual Meeting; June 2, 2012; San Francisco, CA. Presentation 3471.

Matt Forsman, “The Benefits of Running Slow,” Active.com, http://www.active.com/running/articles/the-benefits-of-running-slow.

Matt Fitzgerald, “Train Slower, Race Faster,” Competitor.com, June 9, 2014, http://running.competitor.com/2014/06/training/train-slower-race-faster_52242.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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