Ultra Marathons Are Bad for My Heart? I Don’t Give a Shit.

Thanks to lazy journalism and slow news days, the questionable ultra running “study” recently published in Scientific American Magazine has caught the eye of major media and is making its rounds on the web.

Media companies such as CNN and Huffington Post have all jumped on the bandwagon with shocking headlines and overused scare tactics. Here are some of the stories:

The Original Scientific American Article, “Ultra Marathons Might Be Ultra Bad for Your Heart

CNN’s coverage, “Extreme Endurance Exercise Carries Risks” … which contains the following quote:

 “You can do light to moderate exercise as long as you want. We’re genetically designed for that kind of activity. We’re just not designed to run 26 miles at a time, or 100, or go on a full distance triathlon for 12 hours as hard as you can go.”

Huffington Post basic coverage, so regurgitated they didn’t even bother changing the title.

The Science Codex article: “Excessive endurance training can be too much of a good thing.

Here is a short rebuttal from Runner’s World, which make some good points but doesn’t even begin to cover the bullshittedness of these articles.

And to redeem Huffington Post is this great reply from fellow runner and journalist Kenny Yum.

Last but not least, here is a reply from my ultra friend Jennifer over at Today’s Parent.

I’ve tried to narrow down what exactly it is that makes me irate about these articles. I came up with the following:

1. Shit Ass Journalism

This is so typical of overworked and underpaid journalists. We latch onto a hot or controversial headline, and we spread it like wildfire, regardless of its accuracy or relevance.

Because I’ve worked in busy media companies, I understand the pressures that come with churning out content, but I’ve always had a huge problem with regurgitating crap from other sources just so we can “get the story”.

We KNOW it’s crap. We KNOW it’s stupid. But we still put it out, because the other guy did. That’s what irritates me.

Make your own stories. Do some research. Argue the opposite. Spark some debate. Have an original thought. It’s stories like these that really drive me to freelance and editorial independence.

I believe that putting out content just for the sake of having a new link is always bad. Aim for thought-provoking, high-quality content. Don’t repeat what everyone else is saying. If you have nothing original or helpful to say, keep your mouth shut.

2. Disrespectful References About Micah True

It grinds my gears how, despite the fact that Micah spent so much of his time and energy into promoting ultra running, his death is now being used as a reason to NOT run ultras.

This is combined with the fact that there is no concrete evidence that ultra running caused Micah’s death. Some doctors even told Maria that ultra running may well have extended his life.

The last part that annoys me is the insinuation that it was THAT last particular run that killed Micah – “a short trail run,” as it has been described. The implication is that he ran so much, that this short trail run was ultimately more than he could handle. I don’t buy that.

I think that Micah ran great distances, and his body was conditioned to running. He happened to be on the trail at the time that he died, but who knows if he just as well might have been at home washing his dishes. Again, there’s no real way to draw those conclusions. So this is not proof against the entire sport of ultra running.

3. Making People Feel Justified About Crappy Lifestyles

Considering so few of the population is actually made up of ultra runners, why is it that this story has spread like wildfire?

Because sedentary people are sharing it. Because it makes inactive people feel good about their shitty lifestyles. Because next time they go to a fast-food drive-in, they can reason, “Oh, at least I’m not running ultras. That’s REALLY bad for me.”

Articles like these contribute to a larger epidemic. They are not targeted to ultra runners at all. They are targeted to the tell-me-it’s-OK-to-sit-on-my-ass-all-weekend crowd. Even though the article SAYS it encourages moderate physical activity, that’s not what people take from it.

Instead, this will be used as argument against long distance running. An excuse for staying home. A justification for a crappy lifestyle.

That pisses me off because we work so hard to encourage people to stay active. We know the life-change that can come from completing an ultra. The boost of self-confidence, the physical benefits, the stress-relief, and the love of nature. But articles like these present us as insane maniacs who will die early.

One of my Facebook friends Tanya summed it up well when she wrote,

“Many of us have received more life in our years rather than just years in our lives due to running.”

Ultra running is bad for my heart? That’s fine. You die your way, and I’ll die mine.

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41 responses

  1. Has anyone been able to find the original article on the Mayo Clinics website? I can’t seem to find it. As someone who does these kind of studies for a living, I wouldn’t trust the summary of someones summary too much. I’d really like to see the analysis.

  2. I would say its mostly #3 with #1 allowing it to spread like wildfire. Its amazing how people look for any reason that says being active is bad for you so you should sit on the couch and eat Dorito’s.

  3. The issue that I think also needs to be addressed is the nature of the bad and inconsistent research that is being used by the journalists to point towards ‘potential hazards’ with endurance events. Honestly it lacks any resemblance to scientific method. To suggest that an ultra-marathon lifestyle is potentially physically damaging to the heart (as in the article about Micah), it would be like suggesting that because an overweight person wore blue everyday was the reason he was killed by UV exposure. It lacks and credible science. Truth is I had a cardiac ablation in 2002, due to a genetic lineage shared with my mother and a heart condition that runs through my matriarchal line on my mother’s side. 4 months after the surgery, I won silver at the Arnold Classic in full contact stick fighting. Since then I have become a long distance charity athlete, regularly doing over 2000 miles each year for charity alone, owning no car and riding over 6000 miles annually to get around. In addition I have done triathlons, duathlons, ‘dirty’ obstacle challenges, and I continue to fight (with a 37 and 6 record). If I were to die in any one of these activities, via a heart condition, it could be construed that ‘endurance sports’ were hard on me with incorrect science. The fact that I weigh withing 5 # of my high school graduating weight and maintain a nearly vegetarian diet, while most of those I know are overweight and under active, the fact remains that I am aware, mindful, and as mentally/physically harmonious with myself as I can be. These facts are listed because it I think shows, that a heart condition diagnosed in my late 20’s was not the result of ultra-activity, but rather it has contributed to my evolution. The poor journalistic choice to devote themselves to unscientific, poorly researched, and sensationalist-reactive views clearly illustrates a public dependence on mercurial information. To reach out and attack a vibrant and empowering sport community and defile a man’s legacy is really the worse kind of social media and I hope more speak out about this.

  4. Great rant Vanessa!

    I summarized it for my friends in a similar way that Tanya did – “It’s not about living the longest life possible, rather it’s living the fullest life possible.”

    I was diagnosed with a 50% blockage of one of my arteries 3 years ago (not critically serious but needed attention.) I am on some medications that manages the symptoms and I have continued running (I’ve been running for 30 years), finishing 9 marathons or ultras since then. With the meds, even more running than before the diagnosis, and a stricter diet, I may have reversed some of the damage but I’m not going to have another angiogram to find out.

    I feel energized running on the trails and it carries over to the rest of my life. If I drop dead one day, so be it, but it’s been a great journey.

  5. It’s ironic that i am sitting in an auditorium waiting for Scott Jurek to do his book launch. We are amidst an epidemic of obesity with diabetes and heart disease running rampant and people defend a sedentary lifestyle. They ignore the traits we all share after millions of years of evolution. These traits have made us the most ideal edurance running machine on the planet. Running long distance is in our every fiber. A simple search would have uncovered Dan Leiberman’s extensive work in this area.

    I’ll stop there. It is too frustrating. You have the right idea. Run because it makes you feel better. I have been a runner for 40 years and all i can say is I feel great. I am sure i have good genes, but i have logged thousands of miles to take advantage of those genes. Staying fit is work. But for me it is a labor of love because I enjoy life so much better.

    Keep running Vanessa!

  6. Awesome Vanessa! Well said! I particularly like your last comment:
    “Ultra running is bad for my heart? That’s fine. You die your way, and I’ll die mine.”

  7. I think that everything in life has risks. What I’d love to see is this study repeated with the sit-on-the-couch-all-weekend folks. See which group is really more dangerous.

  8. It reminds me of the study that claimed “strenuous exercise triples your chance of a heart attack within an hour of finishing!”. Yeah, if you look up the actual data it goes from 1 in 1,000,000 to 3 in 1,000,000. Not at all significant. Plus like you were saying, your life will probably be extended anyway.

  9. #3 nailed it, I think. Folks want to be able to eat fried chicken that has been dipped in butter and wrapped in pizza and wash it down with a 72-gallon Coke and then blame someone/thing else for their health problems (…and for the love of God, do not tell them that they cannot have large, sugary drinks anymore…)

    As for the studies trying to draw a parallel between Micah True dying while running, would they have blamed dish-washing if he died washing dishes? What about folks that die in their sleep? Was it because they were sleeping? True, sometimes there is a causality between our actions and our deaths (e.g. riding a motorcycle into a brick wall), but folks forget that sometimes it’s just two random events that occurred in series. Ridiculous.

    To paraphrase Dr. House: Everybody Dies. We need to get used to that

  10. We all need to make choices that we feel are right for us. No need to justify or defend our lifestyle. Do we ask the couch potato to justify the risks he/she is taking? Of course not. Thanks for the points made, Vanessa! Let’s all go for a run!

  11. Wow, just found your site and found this article. Yes! You’ve just about summed up anything I have wanted to say about today’s journalism. Ultras bad for your heart? I don’t know. I haven’t run one YET, but I hope to one day. I’d rather fall apart from hard work than rust to a miserable decline.

  12. THANK you for this. I needed it. I also hate the shit-ass journalism going on these days. For a while I was on the press-release end of this charade. The journalists would get a press release about a scientific paper, regurgitate its findings as “evidence” and that would be that. They didn’t investigate. They don’t even consider the possibility that it might be anything other than the unvarnished truth. That’s a damn shame, since what passes for good science these days is often quite pathetic, particularly in the “health and nutrition” realm.

  13. Yup,Glad to see that the media has determined that doing anything is “risky”, and that you should do nothing but WATCH THEM PONTIFICATE to have a long, happy life. Yup. Brilliant.

  14. Great article! I wrote something similar on my blog, plus I made the point that “extreme endurance” athletes make up something like one-half of one percent of the adult population of the U.S., which is a bit of contextual information that was left out of almost every news article written on this study. Meanwhile, 70% of the country doesn’t even meet the bare minimum levels of physical activity required for basic health and fitness, but hey, let’s talk about the handful of Ironman triathletes and ultramarathoners as a reason why exercise is bad for you.

  15. Amen!

    “They are targeted to the tell-me-it’s-OK-to-sit-on-my-ass-all-weekend crowd. Even though the article SAYS it encourages moderate physical activity, that’s not what people take from it.”

    We are all going to die but not all of us are going to fully live – I want to be in the small minority that truly live and enjoy their lives… so I’ll run and play as long and as hard as I want and if I die in the pursuit of happiness, then so be it!

    I really wish people would think at the very worst “man, I’m glad I only run half marathons – ultras sound a little too dangerous” but I think you are so spot on… people just think “good thing I don’t exercise at all – must be bad for me!” … sad… so sad.

  16. Reason #3, Making People Feel Justified About Crappy Lifestyles, is the key. It is the same reason that people want thin models banned. They say that they create a bad example for young women. Ha! I say ha! If only that were the case, and “little” Suzy would use them as a role model to drop 50 pounds (and still be overweight by 30 pounds…) Yeah, you hear the cries of how bad thin models are, but nothing about how terrible fat people are as role models.

    So yes, vilifying people who are very fit is the next step. Who knows when they will outlaw fitness, in order to protect “little” Suzy’s delicate self-confidence.

    Blah.

  17. Who cares if you live less years as long as you enjoy life to the fullest.. With that said most of those points sounds like complete denial. Bottom line, the heart is the easiest and tastiest muscle for the body to break down in a state of catabolism. Proper nutrition and resistance training will help offset these issues so you can run as many miles as you like and keep your heart intact. Good luck.

  18. I was starting to let the comments of a few idiots get me down, now ive read this i feel fantastic. stuff the non believers, i run because i love it, the best reason to run!

  19. Pingback: My First 50 Mile Race Experience | Monica Loves to Run

  20. Okay. First off, you act like there is no alternatives here. You’re either running 100 miles or no miles. People are either athletes or they’re not. If you’re against ultramarathons than you’re a sack-of-shit couch potato. This whole articles is full of hyperbole, false analogies, and straw man arguments.

    Secondly, you don’t really need a study to tell you that running 100 miles in a single day is bad for your health. That’s a common sense thing right there. You don’t need a doctorate to figure that one out. What would be better instead is to vary your physical activity. Try different things like swimming, biking, weight training…whatever. Maybe only run 30 miles.

    Here’s to replacement knees, stress fractures, and a heart the size of a melon.

  21. Matthew, try a search at Pubmed.org. I felt the same way you did till I looked at the studies there. I was shocked to see not a few POSITIVE study results for ultramarathon running. As far as I’m concerned, humans were made to run and hide (from wild beasts and wild men) not to run and run and run and run and run. If we were made to run and run and run and run and run, we’d have lungs like those of a greyhound, or we’d have oxygen pumps like those of birds. They’re like a bellows—work on both the in and the out, so that a bird never pants when it lands.

    Anyone here ever heard of Rhabdomyolysis? THAT is something to be very, very concerned about when it comes to ANY extreme exercise. It can happen simply from pumping iron too often, let alone from improperly running an ultra marathon.

    With regard to the comment, “You die your way, and I’ll die mine,” there is, as you say, a black/white theme running through the rant and the comments.: Either you run hundred mile marathons OR you sit on the couch watching TV and eating Doritos. I don’t do either. I use do aerobics, and I do strength training, stretching and isometrics. I’m 62, just had an echocardiogram, which checked out A OK. I’m not on any pharmaceuticals. Pulse is generally around 72, blood pressure 110 over 60, height 6 ft, weight 165 lbs first thing in AM.

    Certainly folks can do what they wish. They can run 1,000 mile marathon should they care to do so.

    I also think that those who are incapable, or who don’t have the will power or stamina or concentration to run an ultramarathon will get weeded out very quickly, and that only a very small minority of people will ever be ultramarathoners. If that’s what they want to do, fine. There are people who play ultra rugby, people who drive race cars at fantastic speeds, etc.

    The only reason I’m on this thread, by the way, is because COSTCO magazine has a cover story about Mr. Jurek, and the article read as if Jurek has a handle on fitness, when in fact Jurek and those who do what he does are exercise freaks.

    Chacun a son gout.

  22. Matthew, try a search at Pubmed.org. I felt the same way you did till I looked at the studies there. I was shocked to see not a few POSITIVE study results for ultramarathon running. As far as I’m concerned, humans were made to run and hide (from wild beasts and wild men) not to run and run and run and run and run. If we were made to run and run and run and run and run, we’d have lungs like those of a greyhound, or we’d have oxygen pumps like those of birds. They’re like a bellows—work on both the in and the out, so that a bird never pants when it lands.

    Anyone here ever heard of Rhabdomyolysis? THAT is something to be very, very concerned about when it comes to ANY extreme exercise. It can happen simply from pumping iron too often, let alone from improperly running an ultra marathon.

    With regard to the comment, “You die your way, and I’ll die mine,” there is, as you say, a black/white theme running through the rant and the comments.: Either you run hundred mile marathons OR you sit on the couch watching TV and eating Doritos. I don’t do either. I use do aerobics, and I do strength training, stretching and isometrics. I’m 62, just had an echocardiogram, which checked out A OK. I’m not on any pharmaceuticals. Pulse is generally around 72, blood pressure 110 over 60, height 6 ft, weight 165 lbs first thing in AM.

    Certainly folks can do what they wish. They can run 1,000 mile marathon should they care to do so.

    I also think that those who are incapable, or who don’t have the will power or stamina or concentration to run an ultramarathon will get weeded out very quickly, and that only a very small minority of people will ever be ultramarathoners. If that’s what they want to do, fine. There are people who play ultra rugby, people who drive race cars at fantastic speeds, etc.

    The only reason I’m on this thread, by the way, is because COSTCO magazine has a cover story about Mr. Jurek, and the article read as if Jurek has a handle on fitness, when in fact Jurek and those who do what he does are exercise freaks.

    Chacun a son gout.

  23. I’m a total beginner newbie runner and will likely never run an ultra. I admire those that can and do. It’s awesome. Chiming in, what _I_ think is bad for you, is fretting about what other people with agendas say. If running ultras makes you happy, then do it!

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