How Much Running Is Too Much?

Humans were born to run. From the dawn of humanity and beyond, people have been hitting the road to catch that runner’s high and cover distances for dozens of reasons. In 2017, nearly 60 million people were lacing up their sneakers to hit the pavement or treadmill; and it’s estimated that the numbers will continue to rise. Unfortunately, you can have to much of great thing, including running.

Studies have long suggested that the more you do of something as beneficial as running, the worse it is for your body. Two shocking reports have recently been published in Heart and the European Heart Journal that say runners who log more than 20 miles a week could die sooner than those who run for recreation. Other research from Stanford University furthers this with research that lasted two decades and reported that those who ran had more disabilities later in life than those who didn’t run as much.

How Running Can Harm You

Let’s begin with a study that was published in the 2014 March/April edition of Missouri Medicine that set out to disprove a German study that found elite runners had more plaque in their arteries. The study looked at 50 male runners who had done a marathon once a year for 25 consecutive years to find out their risk of heart attack compared to inactive men.

James O’Keefe M.D. who oversaw the research stated, “Runners have remarkable reductions in mortality and improvements in longevity, but it’s not a straight-line curve…people who run someplace between as little as two to three miles a week up to about 20 or 30 miles a week at max have substantial reductions in mortality—like maybe 25-45 percent…But the striking thing is runners who do more than 4-5 miles a day seem to lose the benefits of that. While they don’t have a higher mortality risk than sedentary people, it’s about the same.”

In other words, if you run too much, you hit an adaptive plateau and the benefits taper off.

Running Plateau

When your running habit becomes excessive, meaning you are running more than 20-30 miles per week, the benefits of lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, and other cardiovascular gains start to fade. Both the European Heart Journal and National Runner’s Health Study both found that serial runners and marathoners have the same amount of plaque build up as sedentary couch potatoes. Furthermore, the researchers of the National Runner’s Health Study reported that heart attack survivor’s risk of dying from cardiovascular issues increased if they ran more than 5 miles a day.

The speculation is that if you are logging more than 20 miles a week at a pace of around 6 miles per hour, your body could become inflamed from the chronic stress. That inflammation could exacerbate any heart-related issues rather than prevent them.

Heart Trouble

O’Keefe did other research that is prevalent to the negative effects of too much running. Although his research was focused solely on men, it concluded that male marathoners had three times more likely than their recreational running peers to develop scar tissue in the heart muscle. Continuous demands on the heart muscle seemed to accelerate the aging process rather than slowing it down.

The issue here is “time” and “genetics.” Those who are predisposed to heart issues and find themselves logging more than an hour of running a day could be putting themselves at risk.

Joint Problems

One of the excuses people use not to run is “it’s bad for my joints.” Turns out, those people might be onto something. Joint problems are genetic or caused by injuries, so if you already have conditions like arthritis, carry more weight, have overpronation, or hit the ground harder than your fellow runners (your gait), your body won’t be absorbing the shock as well as other people with lighter, more flighty builds. Even those with excellent shock absorption won’t have that cushion forever, and the more you run, the faster those joints wear down. Multiple studies, including the famous one from Stanford University in 2008, claim that runners are no less vulnerable to knee problems than more sedentary people.

Overtraining Syndrome

Running has an effect on endorphins and serotonin. When these hormones are released, you automatically feel happier, less anxious, and sleep better. People tend to get addicted to this high, and that can lead to doing too much. Runners are susceptible to overtraining syndrome because of how simple it is to just run—but there are risks with overtraining.

Signs You’re Running Too Much

Similar to weight training, where you can do too much—a condition known as overtraining—you can end up with the same result from running. Here are signs that you are overtraining by running too much: 

  • Decrease in performance quality
  • Difficulty maintaining your typical “easy” pace
  • Loss of appetite
  • Presence of the female athletic triad in women
  • Wear and tear injuries, such as shin splints, stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, IT band stiffness, and more
  • You have an unhealthy mental obsession about running. For instance, you no longer enjoy running but force yourself to do because you don’t want to fail or gain weight or become deconditioned You are always getting sick and have chronic fatigue—including adrenal fatigue
  • You experience abnormal heartbeats and/or have an elevated resting heart rate 
  • There are new biomechanical problems with your stride, such as limping, weakness in the hips, pronation or supination of the foot

Naturally, these symptoms are what is perceptible as overtraining worsens. The other issues that I mentioned in the previous section may still apply to you.

How Often Should You Run?

The benefits of running have been documented time and again, so don’t let these risk stop you from hitting the pavement. As long as you keep in the back of your mind to enjoying your runs in moderation, you will be able to get the healthy benefits without making your exercise too risky. If you legitimately enjoy running, training, and participating in marathons, you will be able to keep up the pace for many years to come. Just remember to rest when you’re tired, cross train, and maintain a strong running technique.

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