Does this popular exercise do more harm than good?

By Emmy Liederman, for MDLinx
Published May 11, 2020

Key Takeaways

After nearly 2 months in quarantine, any opportunity to step outside feels like a luxury—even if it’s as simple as lacing up those old sneakers, loading up a cardio playlist, and going for a run.

Running can be great for anyone’s health, but many people make common mistakes, such as overextending their bodies, using improper form, or failing to integrate running with other types of exercise.

Each error can hinder fitness progress and even cause serious injuries. If you are curious about the benefits and risks of a running program, remember these four tips.

Pace yourself

Studies have shown that running can reduce the risk of premature mortality. Runners may live approximately 3 years longer on average than non-runners, but these benefits don’t come without risk. According to data from the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, up to 79% of runners will sustain a running-related injury in a given year.

“The majority of running injuries are due to training errors,” said Julie McGee, PT, DPT, CEAS, physical therapist, Tahoe Forest Therapy Services, Truckee, CA, in an interview with MDLinx. “Running injuries typically occur when people increase their training volume too much or run too fast.”

To avoid overexertion, runners should not increase their run time or running intensity by more than 10% each week, McGee added.

Although pushing it might seem like the key to improvement and better results, taking up running without preparation can be detrimental to the body. More often than not, people run in a manner that increases the likelihood of injury,  Kristen Gasnick, PT, DPT, physical therapist, Lincoln Park Care Center, NJ, told MDLinx.

To reduce the risk of common injuries, Gasnick stressed the importance of building muscle, specifically in the glutes, through supplementary exercises such as squats, side-lying leg lifts, and bridges with a band. Strong glute muscles improve a runner’s ability to move their hips in a powerful, circular motion, which takes pressure off the knee joints.

Proper footwear also plays a large part in reducing joint pressure, but there has been little research regarding the best type of shoe for different types of runners. Running stores are full of shoes that are meant to accommodate a runners’ gait, but according to McGee, “some studies do suggest that the best shoes for a particular person are the ones that they find to be the most comfortable for running.”

Identify your goals

Before committing to a running regimen, it’s important that you define the ideal outcome. If weight loss is the goal, walking may be more effective, Gasnick said.

“For those looking to lose weight, walking is a great alternative. It is lower impact and places less stress on the joints of the lower body,” she said. “Walking also does not increase cortisol, a stress hormone that increases with high-intensity exercise like running, which actually interferes with the body’s ability to lose fat.”

Running can help improve strength and endurance, but its benefits are tied to the intensity and duration of exercise. In fact, some studies suggest that slower, prolonged jogging is not nearly as beneficial as shorter, high-intensity sprints for increasing strength and endurance.

For example, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the results of short, high-intensity workouts and longer, lower-intensity workouts. Athletes trained three days a week for 15 weeks, and the interval training (or short, high intensity) group improved endurance and power output more effectively.

Take an individualized approach

Like most health advice, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, which is why it’s important to consider your overall health when creating a fitness routine.

For example, Claire Brodie, BSc (Hons), a sports and women’s health physiotherapist and founder of Spring Physiotherapy, East Sussex, UK, warned women with pelvic health issues to pay close attention to how their bodies react while running.

“Many women think it is normal to leak [urine] when running, but it is a warning sign that the pelvic floor and core muscles are not coping with the strain of running, and it also indicates there is inadequate support for the pelvic organs,” she said. “Repetitive strain can eventually result in a prolapse of one of the pelvic organs.”

Lynell Ross, certified health and wellness coach and certified personal trainer with The American Council on Exercise, stressed that although running can reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke among healthy people, this may not be the case for those with underlying conditions.

“Running causes an increased demand for blood supply to the heart, and the heart can’t keep up if arteries are clogged, so a heart attack can occur,” Ross said.

Be sure to compile a thorough cardiovascular history before starting a running routine or  recommending one for your patients.

To assess whether an exercise like running is safe for a particular patient, the Adult Pre-Exercise Screening System (APSS) can be a helpful tool. Generally, you should pay particular attention to people with the following conditions, who may be at risk for complications from running:

  • Cardiovascular disease 

  • Arthritis (conflicting research makes it crucial to pay close attention to these patients)

  • Osteoporosis 

 However, running may be particularly beneficial for those with: 

  • Compromised immune systems 

  • Back pain

  • Cancer (studies have shown that it reduces cancer mortality and lessens treatment side effects) 

  • Depression 

  • Disordered sleeping 

Consider alternatives

There is a common misconception that low impact means low intensity, so it’s important to remember that impact has to do with the force exerted on joints, not the impact the exercise has on health.

“During a 30-minute run, the body experiences approximately 5,000 foot strikes, with the force of impact being absorbed throughout the joints of the entire lower limb,” Gasnick said.

Low-impact workouts like cycling or weight lifting can be a good alternative to running for those looking for intensity without the added force on joints.

Proper balance

Experts agree that running can be beneficial when done correctly, but it doesn’t come without risks, making it crucial to pay close attention to side effects, pace yourself, and know your limits.

“Like with many things, moderation is the key,” Ross said. “When we overdo anything, we can cause ourselves harm. If you…can balance running with other forms of exercise and plenty of stretching, it can bring you much pleasure and good health.”

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