Readers Roundtable: Health Risks of Running?

skeptical runnersWe runners like to think we’re healthier than most, and we’re probably right! However, there have been some studies suggesting running might not be the fountain of youth and healthfulness we like to think it is.

By now you’ve probably heard about the marathoner kidney study published last week in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases. In the study, researchers found that 82% of the 22 runners studied showed signs of Stage 1 kidney injury immediately following completion of the 2015 Hartford Marathon.

You might also remember the marathoner heart study, which found that marathoners’ and other endurance athletes’ hearts show signs of acute injury following endurance races and that veteran endurance athletes seem to be at five-times the risk for developing the condition atrial fibrillation than non-athletes.

Do you think these studies are cause for concern? Do they make you reconsider the healthiness of running? Do you think their conclusions are being oversold?

Do reports of negative health consequences of running affect the way you approach your training?

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Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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14 comments

  1. As with anything, too much is a risk and too little is also a risk. For me, the joy I get from running and the full life it gives me is worth the health risk. It’s along the lines of I’d rather live a shorter higher quality life than a longer minimal existence.

    1. To be clear this and the heart study were about the acute consequences of endurance racing, so running itself is not the cause of those effects. Just don’t want people thinking running itself is gonna make us ALL GONNA DIE!!! Ha :)

  2. It’s funny, but I always have to wonder what ‘showing signs of xx’ actually means in practical terms – in terms of people’s real quality of life. Here’s an example. Lots of studies have found the plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease…in the brains of older people who were cognitively normal at their death. https://www.statnews.com/2016/11/14/alzheimers-brain-amyloid-plaque/ So just because runners have the biomarkers for kidney damage, what does that actually mean in terms of their short- and long-term kidney function? It’s an interesting and valuable finding for sure, but doesn’t translate to running away screaming yet. (Or…not running away. You know what I mean.)

    1. Good question! Does the damage/healing process potentially have any long-term benefits? The a fib thing is more interesting – I would need to look at the study but I wonder if athletes are more likely to notice signs of a fib. In my experience with my heart condition, I doubt id have known about, at least not as early as I did,but for running.

  3. For me, I definitely don’t shy away from reading studies but always take it with a grain of salt. Like hey, who is publishing this and what do they have to gain from it. Beyond that I am aware that running at a certain level means that there are more risks than if I ran more recreationaly for general health and fitness. But, that is like anything- when taken to extreme naturally the risks are higher. Those studies usually focus on running at high levels, longer distances and certain events. So I tend to read, but also note that while I plan on being a runner for a very long time- I am well aware that it won’t always be marathoning multiple times a year, or training XX miles per week. If you were to do anything to the extreme for extended periods of time you are going to see issues- so while it may make me think when I read articles, it almost never makes me think about stopping running. But I will admit that some studies are good reminders to me that down time, and not always going 100000000% is important.

    Also, running studies are becoming like coffee studies. There is a new one out every week and each week alternates between omg it’s amazing for you and the best thing to help you live longer, and it’s the worst thing you can do to your body.

    1. Hmm. Yeah and I think people see these studies and read them in the light that supports their beliefs. So if they are sedentary then they’ll probably glom onto this to feel less bad about not exercising.

  4. I’m always interested to read these studies, but I don’t give it too much thought. I find there’s always evidence out there that could have us spiraling into all the “what ifs”. For me the benefits of running far far FAR outweigh the risks. If anything, I care more about my health, nutrition, medical status because I AM a runner.

    1. I agree, I think running has made me more aware of my health status and I’m more in tune and likely to notice if something is off. I feel like this is true of most athletes, and those who work out, and those who rely on their bodies for work- far more aware of what is going on good or bad.

  5. In answer to the bigger question, no, these studies don’t change what I do. As has been mentioned, when you look at the sample sizes and what those impacts really mean, it is hardly ever as drastic as the headline implies. (Clickbait? Whodda thunk?) In the grand scheme of things, something is going to kill me. My grandpa walked about 10 miles a day and died of cancer at 73. My dad doesn’t exercise and doesn’t eat vegetables, and had cancer at age 40. I’m basically effed, and I’m not going to let those type of unrealistic fears take away something I enjoy (I will, however, be diligent about putting on my sunscreen).

    More specifically to this study — is anyone surprised that a marathon can cause some mild kidney damage? Think about what it does to the other parts of our bodies. Or think about the urine-color hydration charts you see at ultras. Heck, even John Parker knew the impacts when Quentin ran 3x20x400 and was warned he might pee blood.

    1. YES! Also, there are studies that show “sudden, extreme exercise” cause similar kidney injuries. I’d like to know what kind of training the subjects of the study undertook and if the effects were mitigated by higher volume/intensity training.

  6. It doesn’t change my immediate decisions but my own investigations do lead me to the conclusion that long distance running over many years isn’t the best option for long term fitness and health. It is the best option if your goal is to win marathons… but I agree that most of the population would be safer and better off with shorter, higher intensity workouts with more variety, less repetition. I’ve done enough research on my dying thyroid to know my running habit probably isn’t doing my metabolism any favors in the long run (pun intended). Am I still training for a spring marathon? Yes.

  7. Minor, transient kidney damage following a marathon not only doesn’t surprise me, it doesn’t phase me at all. Of course I’m a little dehydrated during a marathon. That’s why you never take NSAIDS – also damaging to kidneys – during a marathon. They’ll heal up in a few days with proper hydration and avoidance of any nephrotoxic substances. The heart article…well, that was little more than an opinion piece, so it offers precious little guidance, but I’m sure extreme endurance events do tax the heart. I’m not worried about it. It’s a trade-off. Not running and failing to exercise your heart muscle at all isn’t exactly a healthier option!