Sunday, February 12, 2012

Marathons and Health

In a study spearheaded by Dr. Stanley Nattel of the Montreal Heart Institute Research Center, “Canadian and Spanish scientists prodded young, healthy rats to run at an intense pace, day after day, for three months, which is the equivalent of about 10 years in human terms. The training was deliberately designed to mimic many years of serious marathon training in people.” By the end of the study, these formerly healthy rats exhibited scarring and structural changes in their hearts and were more prone to irregular heartbeats, not unlike in humans. “Interestingly, when the animals stopped running, their hearts returned to normal within eight weeks. Most of the fibrosis and other apparent damage disappeared.”

This study, designed to assess the toll that sustained, intense training takes on a person’s physiology, highlighted exactly what some may find the definition of insane. As Sapolsky on page 123, “sit with a group of hunter-gatherers from the African grasslands and explain to them that in our world we have so much food and so much free time that some of us run 26 miles in a day, simply for the sheer pleasure of it. They are likely to say, “Are you crazy? That’s stressful.”” He also addresses the negative correlation between long distance running and fertility (because of low testosterone and estrogen production) and bone health.

I found this topic worth looking into because, in general, we try to get people to exercise more (if at all) to reap its many physical and psychological benefits, but once in awhile a story breaks of a death during a marathon or debilitating injury from improper training and it’s interesting to see there are some people who find pounding the pavement for 26.2 (or longer!) an enjoyable pastime. More may not always be better, but for whomever wants to wake up early for long training runs dedicate their free time...more power to them!


  1. I also found Sapolsky's comment about how cultural relativity can affect what we find stressful to be extremely fascinating. As per the title of his book, I assumed that one of the only comparisons that Sapolksy would mention is the difference between how humans and animals process and react to stress. However, when I read about how marathon running is seen as the pinnacle of health in America and preposterous in some other countries, I started to think about what other common conceptions of what is stressful/not stressful/healthy/detrimental might be seen differently in other cultures. Indeed, maybe this is my nonathletic self speaking, but how can running 26.4 miles in succession actually be seen as healthy for the body? I cannot deny the positive effects of exercise, but it seems like everything must be done in moderation in order to prevent overexertion.

  2. I too am interested in learning more about the detriment that excessive exercise can cause, particularly from running. Reading this book, I was reminded that evolutionarily, running was a way to escape a threatening situation or to capture food but not a means of recreation. While mostly all things in life are good in moderation, I’d be interested to know at what amount of running does your body start to suffer.

  3. I really enjoy your post and have often thought how INSANE running a marathon actually is. I believe that running a marathon is more about accomplish what seems to be impossible. It seems to me to be more about proving something to yourself than about reaching some health goal. With all the information we know about how detrimental, should we still condone running marathons? I know it seems a rather trivial concern with all of the other, more pressing problem in the world, but it is an interesting question. It reminds me of a article we read in Writing the Essay that was in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell called “Offensive Play”. The article is about the brain damage football players suffer over their career, and if we should condone football. The article is quite convincing, and I would recommend reading, if anyone is interested. The last thing I would like to say about the study is that it is amazing how fast the heart healed, but it is deceiving that it healed in eight weeks. According to the early conversion, that eight weeks for rat is equivalent to around 6.6 human years.