In the last few days, a couple of folks I know from back home in the cold land have signed up to compete in either marathons, ultra-marathons or other extremely long endurance events. The advertising for these events is dominated by emotive jargon that asks “are you tough enough”, “think you're hardcore”, and “put yourself through pain.” The names of the races themselves are evocative of what is to come - “Sufferfest,” “Sinister”, and “Death Race.”
The motivation to do these races, I can only guess, comes from being able to think of yourself as “one tough mudder” (yet another race title) because these races certainly are not about improving your mental or physical health and well-being. They are mindless, disease inducing epics, nothing more.
There is clear evidence, even in the mainstream medical media (which can be frustratingly slow on the uptake), that endurance running causes inflammation, oxidative stress and increased cortisol levels, all the harbingers of cardiovascular disease. Running decreases muscle mass, impairs thyroid function, and causes all kinds of repetitive strain injuries. If you run hard enough and long enough, you can be pretty much guaranteed to impact – negatively – every system in the body, from digestive to reproductive. Put into this light, it is literally mind-boggling that anyone would run for health!
All the runners out there will, of course, come up with all kinds of inspirational stories of the dozens /hundreds of people who went from couch-loafer to runner and have lost weight, improved their mood, or had some other putative benefit from a running program. These arguments, while emotionally appealing have little basis in fact. They remind me of the 130 kilogram guy who switched from a diet of junk food to a vegan diet and reported feeling better. Eating any kind of real food will make you feel better than eating junk, but that doesn't mean that a vegan diet is the best long term health strategy.
The best long term health strategy does not involve running yourself into an early grave. Lift heavy weights, sprint once week, walk a lot, sit a little, eat real food. There's no magic to it.