Is Running Bad For You?

Learn what the latest research says about running. Can it make you live longer? Or is it dangerous? If so, what kind of aerobic exercise you should do instead?

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #92

Is Running Bad For You?

This week, a Copenhagen City Heart Study was released that showed regular jogging to increase the life expectancy of men by 6.2 years and women by 5.6 years. Suddenly fitness blogs, TV shows and magazines trumpeted the news: running will make you live longer.

But does running really make you live longer? Or is running bad for you? In this episode, you’ll learn whether or not it’s actually healthy to take up the sport of running.

Running Makes You Live Longer

Back in the 1970s, after a few men died while out on a run, various news outlets suggested that jogging might be too strenuous for ordinary middle aged people. In 1976, the Copenhagen City Heart study began as cardiovascular study of about 20,000 men and women between 20 to 93 years old. This study explored incidents of heart failure, pulmonary disease, allergies, epilepsy, dementia, and other diseases in relation to different forms of exercise and lifestyle factors. 

For the running part of the study, the mortality of 1,116 male joggers and 762 female joggers was compared to the non-joggers. Results showed that over 35 years, 10,158 deaths were registered among the non-joggers and 122 deaths among the joggers.

And that’s not all!

Further analysis revealed a U-shaped curve for the relationship between the time spent exercising and mortality. This revealed the optimum amount of time to run for increasing your lifespan is between one hour and two and a half hours a week, over two to three sessions (that coms out to about 30-60 minutes per running session). In addition, a self-reported “slow or average” pace delivered more benefits than a hard and fast pace.

When Running May Be Dangerous

But wait a minute? What about famous runners and marathoners you’ve perhaps heard of who have died of sudden heart attacks while out on a run? These would include running legends such as Jim Fixx, Alberto Salazar, Alem Techale, and several runners in the world-famous Comrades marathon. Each of these athletes died while running, which certainly seems to suggest that running may actually not make you live longer.

Dr. Peter Schnohr, a Danish researcher who was part of the Copenhagen study, puts it’s like this:

"The relationship appears much like alcohol intake. Mortality is lower in people reporting moderate jogging than in non-joggers or those undertaking extreme levels of exercise. You should aim to feel a little breathless, but not very breathless."

In other words, too much running may actually be dangerous for you, while moderate amounts of jogging appears to significantly extend your life. The professional and advanced marathoners mentioned earlier were exercising a volume and intensity that far exceeded any studies that have shown exercise to lengthen your life. And while their heart attacks may certainly have simply been isolated cases due to a genetic heart abnormality or coronary artery disease, there is plenty of evidence to show that exercise can be stressful to the heart, especially in endurance athletes.

Although it is lighter than a professional marathoner’s training schedule, the “advanced marathoner” training schedule for the ING New York City Marathon (which I happen to be competing in, if you care to join me) involved 50-70 miles of running per week and several two-a-day, hard workout sessions (you can view the New York City Marathon training schedules here).

Frankly, even an amateur runner preparing for a marathon is in most cases far exceeding the volume of running performed in the study, and it may be necessary to make some modifications to a running program so that it doesn’t actually become dangerous.

As I mention in my article Top 10 Reasons Exercise Is Bad For You, and also alluded to in Should You Run Every Day?, this advice is not simply limited to runners. It should be heeded by anyone who is exercising with a combination of high-volume and high-intensity, since this type of training requires large amounts of dietary carbohydrates (sugar), increases cortisol stress hormones significantly, causes muscle damage and inflammation, and creates excessive free radicals.

Tips For Running Safely

Now that you know that light to moderate amounts of running can make you live longer, but too much running or running too hard may be dangerous for you, should you quit your rigorous 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon training routine?

No way! Just use these 5 Quick and Dirty Tips to ensure that you’re giving your body proper rest and recovery, and not training too much:

  1. Eat Right. When you’re exercising extensively, your body produces lots of free radicals, which can be good in moderation, but can be tough on your body in excess. This is why it’s very important that you focus on real foods that have high amounts of antioxidants. Some of your best choices, the type of foods I eat extensively when I’m training hard, include dark leafy greens (like spinach, kale, bok choy and mustard greens), dark berries (like blueberries and blackberries), and antioxidant rich spices (like curry and turmeric).

  2. Avoid Stress. Running is already stressful to your body, so be careful not to introduce other stressors, such as multiple cups of coffee or frequent use of energy drinks, a fast-paced lifestyle with late nights and early mornings, or exposure to high amounts of pollutions and body care or household chemicals. 

  3. Care For Your Joints. Expose your joints to a wide variety of running surfaces and terrains, and avoid only exercising in one plane of motion (such as having your only form of exercise be the front-to-back running motion). Instead, choose side-to-side motions like tennis, basketball or soccer, and attempt to address a wide range of musculature with your exercise patterns. Include sports frequently when you can, and try to schedule at least a few workouts in which you substitute running with an elliptical trainer or water running.

  4. Don’t Calorically Compensate. Many high volume exercisers use exercise as an excuse to eat lots of junk food, or just to overeat in general – especially when it comes to carbohydrates. Try to write down and keep track of the foods that you’re eating, be careful with using too many sports drinks, gels and powders, and don’t think of exercise as an excuse to eat more.   

  5. Identify Any Addictions. Consistent exercise causes your body to produce endorphins, which are hormones secreted by your pituitary gland to block pain, decrease anxiety and create feelings of euphoric happiness. But endorphins are chemically similar to the drug morphine, and so exercise can be psychologically addictive. For regular exercisers, reducing or stopping exercise suddenly – or even missing one single workout – can result in depression, stress and anxiety, and this can lead you down the long road to over-exercising. So try to include at least one day per week in which you do not exercise or your exercise involves no structure (such as playing a new sport). If your running ever begins to feel like a job, then switch to a new form of exercise, and also find alternate ways to satisfy your brain, including cooking, wine tasting, music, new books, social events, and relationships.

Whether you’re running extensively, or engaging in any other form of heavy or hard physical activity, these tips can help you ensure that your body is actually benefiting from exercise, and not simply being exposed to a constant cycle of breakdown and damage.

And if you need other running tips, be sure to check out my articles about How To Run Faster and How To Start Running.

If you have more questions about whether running is good for you, or your own squat variations to add, then share them in Comments or on the Get-Fit Guy Facebook page!

Man and Woman Running image from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.