The summers after 11th and 12th grade, I worked my way up to 60 miles of running per week. It failed to get me shredded. Thin? Yes. What I think of as a good body? NO.
On top of failing to deliver results of a desirable physique, it also gifted me 10 years of “inexplicable” orthopedic pain and issues, for which, in hindsight, I am now thankful, since it educated me on pain science and therapeutic techniques long before they trended in the fitness industry. I’m genuinely puzzled when people talk about their aching “old bodies.” My body always feels awesome nowadays, but I was in constant pain from 16 to 26 years old. Getting better as we age is how it SHOULD be, thanks to strength training. Thanks to understanding body mechanics. Thanks to everything in my mind that represents the opposite of average American fitness expectations.
When you suffer needlessly for a decade, you develop a strong resent. I did "everything right" from the perspective of popular running culture. But it hurt me physically and prevented a lot of health and fitness goals; and that took a major emotional toll. When explaining this to people, it's hard to drive home just how much potential life I lost by running. TEN YEARS of chronic pain. Dozens of medical appointments. At 26, I was ready to get a hip replacement if that's what it was going to take to wipe away my pain. Think about that. I never stopped acknowledging the personal achievement of running enthusiasts. I've always thought their discipline is honorable. I revere the accomplishments of competitive endurance athletes. Absolutely. BUT, let me be very clear: for most body types, most builds, most people, distance running is a very bad idea. If I had known this earlier in life, I could've saved myself at least ten years of pain and frustration. And until my dying breath, I will spread the word in order to prevent others from wasting precious time on a fruitless pursuit. Repetitive impact reinforces asymmetries, postural distortions and muscular imbalances. Very few people can get away with it. Very few.
According to very giving statistics, there are 60 million Americans who engage in a jog, a run, or hiking. That's less than 1-in-5. And when we look at those who are "built to run," we get down into fractions of fractions of a percent of the population. Since 1975, only 84 American women have broken the sub-4:30 mile, while 562 American men have broken the sub-4:00 mile (https://bringbackthemile.com/history/sub_4_sub_430#:~:text=The%20mark%20listed%20for%20each,30%20seconds%20in%20the%20Mile. ). As distances of running increase, the average size of the elite runner decreases. ZERO outliers. It's a perfect linear relationship. The average body weight of the top male marathoners in the world is in the 130s, while the female average is around 100. And make no mistake: running doesn't create this build. This build creates a runner.
I'll not go deep into the intricacies of muscle fiber type and other genetic and epigenetic factors. Running in order to achieve health and fitness is like practicing basketball in order to become seven feet tall. Can a short person become proficient at basketball? Absolutely. And if he loves it, more power to him. Can a larger person run? Absolutely. And if he loves it, more power to him. But the activity has no inherent value for achieving a certain look or capability. And there are risks involved with impact. As body mass increases and angles of force are suboptimal, those risks skyrocket. Multiply by the number of steps involved. Though now revised, there was a reason why exercise science guidelines required people to achieve a solid 1.5x bodyweight backsquat before BEGINNING plyometrics (this includes the bounding that is a jog).
So, any chance I’d get, I’d make sure to showcase my disdain. A typical exchange might go like this -
They: my friend ran a marathon yesterday.
Me: so he won?
Me: oh... so he lost?
They: well, he completed it.
Me: right. Like the many many other losers.
I found a lot of people too thin-skinned to enjoy the word play. And trying to explain the whole back story on why a society should not hold on a pedestal self-inflicted damage takes more than 15 seconds of attention span. So most of the time I’d just ask why, if the goal is simply completion, anyone would “train” for it. Our ancestors and forebears frequently covered distances much greater than 26 miles as just every-day practicality. Read the Anabasis: 2,000 miles with heavy armor and no water stations or gel packs. Even in the modern world, around 2 billion people have to cover 10 miles per day just to find potable water. The excessive leisure of our modern western lifestyle oddly holds up nonsensical brags which are both inefficient and unsafe.
Also, I have to add that the belief in the goodness of running is psychologically damaging. Most people never think to themselves, "maybe running is a bad fit." Instead, they see themselves as moral failures, carrying incredible shame and guilt for not "becoming a runner." I've assessed thousands of individuals, possibly tens of thousands at this point, and almost everyone has a gait problem which requires six to twenty four months of corrective exercise before they would be low-injury-risk runners. Notice I say "low," not "no." Now, imagine that same person feels the societal pressure to "push it" when she runs, and with a body mass that is fifty to one hundred pounds more than optimal runner physique. Orthopedic injury is assured. She didn't fail. The cultural expectation failed her.
People would chirp back, “well, then, why don’t YOU just show up for a marathon?” I had my reasons. There is little scientific support for exercise duration beyond 45 minutes. After 45 minutes of exercise, stress hormones dominate (which is why I could never gain any appreciable strength or muscle when I avidly ran); and this is why MOST people will never get lean from running. It is just as likely to burn up lean tissue as it is fat tissue. I have case studies of female clients who simply lost bone density and lean tissue and got fatter from their fixation on running. Personally, I was still trying to work on correcting imbalances in my gait which I’d incurred or amplified in my prior obsession with running. My hips and back were at long last consistently pain-free after leaving the running culture behind. And, frankly, I developed a physique I liked. I like being pain-free and I like being built like a man. These aren't ideal fits for running. A man's physique is a lot of weight and upper body to carry; and pain-free doesn't go together well with pain-tolerance.
Naturally, I did the marathon anyway. Though I was just wrapping up my pull-ups experiment in September 2018 (which required keeping the lower body UNDERtrained), and I hadn’t done even a one mile jog in over a year, and I was knocking around 240lbs of bodyweight, what better time to just show up for a marathon? Unsurprisingly, I, along with all of the other people who weigh more than 140lbs, lost the marathon. Finish times are linearly dictated by average body mass, predominance of type-1 muscle fiber composition combined with joint stiffness, then by sex, and a big shocker to many people is that training is a distant fifth. The top East African runners don't train as many long distance runs as semi-elites and enthusiasts. Most of their sessions fall between 5 and 13 miles.
While I took part in the marathon, even before crossing the finish line, it did engender in me a renewed respect for the running culture. I get it. The camaraderie was touching. To some people, it really represents an internal “overcoming.” And especially here in the Twin Cities, the energy for the marathon is over-the-top. Neighborhood people line the whole course, cheering for complete strangers for hours. They set aside their yards and their days to CREATE a special occasion. It was touching. It was convicting. It was... spiritual. My disdain melted. My cynicism paused. My resent remained, but lessened.
I still believe drone-like repetitive pounding/impact is risky. Cleary, there are some 0.01% of people meant for it. The rest of us have a serious cost-benefit analysis to consider before endeavoring to train distance running. It robbed me of some good years, and lots of good days. It made “getting in shape” much harder than it had to be. And I every day work with people who likewise are stalled out because of errant beliefs in fitness, mostly misinformed by “runner culture” and popular fitness culture.
I also acknowledge that people have to scratch an itch. Some activities may get people out the door, whether or not we can substantiate the activity with good science. There are these mysterious wirings in our brains and our spirits which are inspired or motivated by “total nonsense.” Look at how insane, YET effective, marketing and advertisements are. The human mind is compelled in all sorts of ways that make no logical or rational sense. And, unfortunately, it’s even more unrealistic to expect that people will robotically think clearly and execute the most practical plan. Because of that, not just running, but many other behaviors which are inherently questionable for health, may be a good toehold for pragmatic resolve.
That is, if it gets you to show up, then, by all means, show up. If it works, it works.
If you absolutely love it, and it keeps you plugged in, soldier on. There is nothing “loser” about it. But if you hate it, stop forcing a square peg into a round hole. There are safer and more efficient tactics than smashing your poor spine, hips, knees, ankles, and feet into the hard ground millions of times, mindlessly repeating what I can guarantee are improper running mechanics. Even when I observe high level athletes, it’s more common than not to see excessive adduction, limited (or nonexistent) hip extension, and zero proper force transfer in the amortization phase.
Know that you don't need to become other people's definition of fitness. I know plenty of people who are insanely fit and healthy and never run. Sprint? Sure. Run distance? No. I do know people who thrive as long distance runners. If it fits, it fits. Don't abide by anyone else's expectations. In the end, do what it takes for you to be the best and feel the best you can. If you don't want to run, don't. If you do, do. Show up. Just show up, untrained, if need be.
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