Stylin’ at the start line!
Ever had a super annoying running partner*? There’s The Perma-Injured – the person who always has something wrong with him/her, whether it be fallen arches or a sore knee or a blocked aura or whatever. New day, new injury. Then there’s The Whiner – the one who complains about the weather, his shoes, the TV programming, her husband and the chia seeds stuck in their teeth. Don’t forget The Competitor – the guy or girl who is always trying to stay two steps ahead of you, elbowing you off the sidewalk, telling you all their past race times or otherwise letting you know how much you suck at running. Oh and my personal favorite, The Hip Magnet – the fellow runner who apparently has a magnet in their hip that makes them run so close to you that if you were in a tampon ad you’d be holding hands and braiding daisy chains. No matter how many ninja moves you do to try and regain your personal space they will inexorably be drawn back to your side. If you’re lucky they’ll offer you a piggy back.
Well, on Saturday I was That Annoying Person. I ran my first official Colorado race with my friend M. (The other two have just been “family fun run 5ks”) I’m not sure if it was the beautiful sunshine, the perfect running weather, the excellent company or the gorgeous course that put me in such a bad mood but right around mile 4 I turned into The Ranter – the person who picks one tedious topic to keep going on and on about.
To be fair we were running out of new ground to cover – our training runs had taken care of our childhoods, our favorite candies, our kids, fave books, potty training and that one time we both couldn’t stop quoting The Princess Bride. And when you’re running for an hour or more with no music, you have to talk about something. It was either a rant or another pointless story about me accidentally mooning someone or making lasagna with tuna fish**.
So what was the topic I’d chosen to go off on? Running! Of course! Actually, I “treated” M to my now-infamous speech about how too much exercise can harm your health, make you gain weight/fat *** and can even shorten your life. Of course I’ve had to learn this the hard way, with my overexercising debacle. But it turns out that what our bodies consider “too much” may be even less than we’d previously thought. Or at least of a different type of exercise pattern than what we’ve been taught to admire and glorify.
Remember the TED talk from Dr. James O’Keefe, the world-famous cardiologist and reformed marathoner, about his research into cardiovascular exercise? (You should really listen to the whole thing if you haven’t heard it yet! Positively fascinating.) In his talk he says, “The fitness patterns for conferring longevity and robust lifelong cardiovascular health are distinctly different from the patterns that develop peak performance and marathon/superhuman endurance. Extreme endurance training and racing can take a toll on your long-term cardiovascular health.” That’s doctor-speak for what’s good for your ego may not be what’s good for your body.
A recent talk by Dr. Rhonda Patrick delves into the mechanism behind the biological trade-offs we make when we workout hard and for long periods of time. It turns out that the thing that makes us better athletes – human growth h0rmone and the consequent IGF-1 signalling – is also the thing that can shorten our lives. Yeah, you read that right.
First, the basics (which I gleaned from Wiki, WebMD and other ‘net sources so feel free to correct me if I get this wrong!): Human growth hormone is a hormone produced in your pituitary gland. HGH causes your liver to release insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). You’ve probably heard of HGH as a “miracle” hormone – it’s the whole premise of the dubious HCG diet that got so much attention a couple of years ago – because IGF-1 has lots of cool benefits in your body and therefore everyone wants more of it.
HGH/IGF-1 promote muscle growth, enhance muscle recovery, increases lean muscles mass while simultaneously decreasing fat, and it boosts cognition by both helping the brain grow new neurons (yep, it’s possible) and by preventing neurons from dying off. Too little HGH and your growth is stunted, your brain function decreases and your sex drives plummets. Stronger, leaner AND smarter? Who wouldn’t want all that awesomeness?? This is why HGH remains one of the hottest and most abused “performance enhancing” drugs on the market. (You can only legally get it with a doctor’s prescription, by the way.) I think it says a lot that it’s one of the handful of drugs Lance Armstrong actually admitted to using.
However, HGH has one major side effect that people don’t talk about much: It decreases longevity. The more HGH you have, the shorter your life. First, animal studies have shown a 50% (!) increase in life span when the animals are deficient in HGH/IGF-1 with the converse also being shown true in research. Since it’s impossible to do human studies of the like, scientists looked at people who genetically can’t produce much HGH. The lower their IGF-1, the longer they lived – so much so that living to 100 is directly linked to having a low HGH “polymorphism”, i.e. genetic variation. (The reason for this didn’t make a ton of sense to me – something about IGF-1 increasing oxidative stress on your cells and oxidation is the #1 cause of aging. If you can answer this better, please help me out!)
So wait – Stronger, leaner, smarter AND dead younger? Who wouldn’t want all that… oops. It turns out that according to Dr. Patrick, it’s a trade off. There are times in our lives when HGH is naturally very high and other times when it’s naturally very low and there’s not much we can do about that. But there is one major way to increase HGH – with exercise. And the harder the exercise, the bigger the spike in HGH. It’s one of the many touted benefits of high-intensity interval training methods.
We often think of exercise as a way to extend our lives – and it can be, if you do it right. Exercise has a long, well-proven list of benefits physically, mentally and spiritually. Nobody is telling you that sitting on your butt and eating chips all day is a good plan. (Okay sometimes it is – we’ve all had those days! – just not always.) But according to Dr. Eric Larose’s research, presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2010, it can take your heart up to 3 months to completely recover from the stress of a marathon. If your goal is to become a high-level athlete then know you are sacrificing some health farther down the line. If your goal is simply to be as healthy as you can be then know that you are sacrificing a level of performance. The trick is to find the balance where you get the benefits of increased HGH without reaching the levels where it markedly shortens your life.
You may remember Micah True – he’s the ultramarathoner (and subject of the famous book Born to Run) who tragically died on a routine 12-mile run at the relatively young age of 58. Not only was he an elite athlete but he was a paragon of athletic virtue, eating a clean healthy diet and getting lots (and lots and lots) of exercise, yet he died of heart disease – the very thing that a clean diet and lots of exercise is supposed to help prevent. An autopsy found his heart to be very enlarged, particularly the left ventricle, with scar tissue covering it – one expert opined that physically it was worse than if he’d been a life-long smoker. Alarmists said this was proof that running is bad for us. Apologists said this was a fluke and True was a victim of bad genes combined with unfortunate circumstances. I think both are wrong. Exercise is not an all-or-nothing endeavor. The problem with using True as a model or cautionary tale is that the damage can start long before you die so using a catastrophic example when talking about general health is not very useful. And, as heart-rending as they are, neither are anecdotal tales. But there is a middle ground between ultra-marathons (or even just marathons) and Lifetime TV couch marathons.
So where exactly is that middle ground? It’s probably different from person to person but Dr. O’Keefe says that his research has found it’s running 2-3 miles at a moderate pace (or 20-30 minutes of cardio) several times a week. For many people it’s a struggle to do even that much but for some of us the struggle is in not getting drawn into the longer-better-faster-stronger mentality of triathlons, marathons and other longer endurance activities. Am I saying that doing a Triathlon will kill you? It’s almost certain it won’t – at least not in the moment you’re doing it. And I do think there’s some benefit in doing something Big for the satisfaction of accomplishing it. But just as there are physical tolls incurred, so there are mental, economic, time and practical costs involved. It’s important to look past the ego and the hype and make sure you are weighing all the risks when you decide whether or not to attempt something.
[TL;DR] If you take only one thing from my Running Rant, let it be this: When it comes to exercising for good health, something is better than nothing but more of something is not always better.
And now you know what it’s like running a race with me! Want to douse me with a cup of Gatorade yet? To all my friends who’ve had to endure variations on this rant over the past few years (learning curves are full of sharp points), I promise not to torture you with this again!
Does this longevity vs performance trade-off surprise you? What’s your “sweet spot” for exercise where you feel awesome and healthy but not worn down and single-focused? Anyone have a super-annoying running buddy to add to my list??
Sweaty at the stop line!
*Make no mistake, I’m not denigrating them. I have been ALL of these people on one run or another. Dear running partners, I’m sorry. Thanks for putting up with me!
**grossgrossgrossgrossgross I thought it would be like tuna casserole. It was not.
*** M and I discussed this on the drive home and we both feel “squishier” than before we started training for this race. (Mine is actually true – I gained 3% body fat. (Don’t worry, I’m not stressing over it!) M’s was more of a feeling and frustration that after all this running she hadn’t lost weight – not that she needs to!!) She was surprised by this. I, alas, was not. Gotta get back to my weight lifting!!