Opinion: Keep going (long distance runners die sooner)

POSTED: 04/9/14 12:46 AM

More is less. This expression applies to writing and many other fields. Now it has also hit athletics, in particular long distance running. But the research by the American Cardiovascular Research Institute leaves room for many questions about their conclusion that people who often run long distances die sooner than runners who make fewer kilometers.

The institute considers people who run no more than two to three hours per week as moderate runners. All others fall in the danger-category.

The researchers looked at the data of more than 3,800 runners, men and women, with an average age of 46. Around 70 percent of this group ran more than 30 kilometers per week.

The study examined factors like the use of painkillers, diabetes, increased cholesterol levels, family history linked to cardiovascular diseases and smoking habits. None of these factors appeared to explain the shorter lifespan of the more fanatic runners.

Martin Matsumura, a member of the research team, advises these runners to be aware of the risks and to keep an eye on follow up studies that deal with the effects of frequent running. Matsumura acknowledged that his team does not know yet what the optimal dose of running is for a longer life and good health.

James O’Keefe, a heart specialist who assessed the results of the study, has a definite idea about this. Running long distances in a high tempo demands simply too much from the body, he says. Moving moderately, two to three times per week, on average 2.5 hours, would be the best. Do you want to run a marathon? Fine. Do it and then take it off your list.

We do not know what to make of this study or of this advice from O’Keefe, because we think that the study is at best incomplete. Why not compare the life span of runners with a group of couch potatoes – people who never do any exercise at all? Right now, such a comparison is missing and we suspect that adding such a group to the study would dramatically alter the perspective.

Inevitably, after reading about this study, we had to think about James Fixx, the jogging guru who wrote The Complete Book of Running in 1977. Fixx made jogging accessible for a whole generation and his book sparked a fitness hype not only in the United States but also elsewhere in the world. Fixx was not a top runner but that made his book and his stories so attractive. Readers identified easily with the author.

Seven years after the first print of his best-selling book, Fixx died of a heart attack while he was jogging. Fixx started running when he was 35; he weighed an impressive 110 kilos and smoked two packs of cigarettes a day.

When his book came out ten years later, he had lost 27 kilos and he had given up smoking altogether.

But on July 20, 1984, it was all over: Fixx died of a heart attack after his daily jogging routine. That inspired comedians and critics of the exercise hype to suggest that jogging is dangerous. But exercise psychologist Kenneth Cooper (indeed: the guy of the Cooper-test) did not believe that. He dived into Fixx’s history and found out that he was genetically predisposed. His father died of a heart attack when he was 43 and Fixx had an enlarged heart. Smoking like a Turk and ballooning up to 110 kilos by the time he finally decided to do something, it is easy to see that Fixx might have gone his father’s way with a heart attack at a very young age. Instead, he prolonged his life until he was 52.

Our advice to dedicated runners is for now: keep going.

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