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Fit to Run or Runing to be Fit?

September 21, 2010

Can running make you fit?  That seems to be a fair question.  After all, Nike spends millions of dollars a year convincing you that it does.  In their commercials you see nice, muscular, “fit” men and women running off into the sunset on roads that stretch out for miles.  In addition, if you take into account the millions of people who you see running on the side of the road every morning or afternoon putting in the miles in order to get in shape, running must make you fit.  Surely you know someone, maybe even yourself, who decided to get into shape and started running 1, 3, or 5 miles a day.  Maybe you even signed up for a 5K or a half or full marathon.  You Googled a marathon training program and began pounding the pavement for hours on end, week after week, building up your mileage to run that elusive 13.1 or 26.2 miles.  After running all those miles did you or your friend really get fit?  Maybe you lost a few pounds, but how’s your muscle tone?  Did you get an overuse injury like shin splints, IT band syndrome, knee problems, Plantar Fasciitis, or stress fractues? If you Google prevalence of injuries in runners you will see that the research has numbers anywhere from 24%-64% of runners get injured every year.  That is a lot of injuries, but I digress.  Back to the question, does running make you fit?

Before I delve any further into the topic let me throw a disclaimer out there.  Running has good cardiovascular and health benefits.  Running is also better than sitting on your couch eating potato chips.  If you want to be a competitive runner, and that’s your sport, then that’s great.  Everyone has goals.  I am also not saying that running 100 miles isn’t an impressive feat.  It is!  What I am talking about is if you want to be fit, should running be the only thing you do?  I posted an earlier blog about what I consider fitness you can check it out here:

To answer the question lets do a little experiment.  I would advise you to go to a marathon, or better yet go to an Ultra Marathon, 50K, 40 miler, 50 miler or higher and just take a look around.  Odds are you will see two kinds of people there.  Second disclaimer:  I don’t know who these people are in the pictures I just found them on the internet, so please don’t be mad at me if it’s you in the picture.

One will look like this:
comrades_marathon_vladimir_kotov

Notice the emaciated look.  Yes this guy looks like he has little to no body fat.  He also has little to no muscle tone.  He is too thin and his body looks aged.  I would also venture that if you did a true body fat test on him he would have a much higher percentage then what one would think.  He is most likely what we call “skinny fat”.  This is where he carries a lot of body fat, but doesn’t show it.  This body type happens due to putting in tons of miles training.   The body converts most of the muscle fiber to slow twitch, which is smaller in diameter and weaker in strength.  The body also tends to carry a larger store of body fat even though it doesn’t show on this guy.  This is due to the fact that long slow distance running puts a large amount of stress on the body, it elevates Cortisol levels, and makes the body think that it needs to store more energy in case it needs to burn it off in another bout of long slow distance.  I would also venture to say that this guy most likely is not very strong.  Slow twitch muscle fiber is good for minimal contractions many times over, but not good for a burst of strength or power.  He probably has a vertical jump of less then 10 inches, and he wouldn’t be the guy to call to help you move out of your house.

The next type of person you’d see would most likely look like the guy on the left:

fatultrarunner

Notice the visible body fat around the midsection.  According to the website I got this from that guy is an elite Ultra runner.  Does he look like an elite, fit athlete?  This is the type of guy who spends hours and hours running, building up that Cortisol like we talked about before.  He also, most likely thinks that, “Since I ran for 5 hours today, that gives me a ticket to eat whatever I want.”  This type of guy can go long slow distance for hours on end, but what can he do in sprint?  What is his blood pressure like?  If you saw this guy on the street would you think he’s fit?  He’s an elite runner!

If my point isn’t clear yet, let me spell it out for you….. running, by itself, does not make you fit by our definition of fitness.  Will it make your cardiovascular endurance, stamina, resting heart rate and blood pressure better?  Sure, but what about the other aspects of fitness: strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy?  Will running by itself help these?  Nope!  What about body fat, or muscle tone?  Will being an elite runner help with either one of those?  Check out the pictures or go to a race to check it out for yourself.  The answer to both those questions is no!

Now let’s look at the other side of the coin.  On September 11, 2010, I ran a 50 Kilometer race.  That is equivalent to a little over 31 miles.  My time was 7 hours 48 minutes and 17 seconds.  I didn’t win the race by any stretch.  My goal wasn’t to try and win, my goal was to finish in under 8 hours and I did.  When I tell people that I ran that far, the first thing they ask is how many miles a week do you run.  Traditional thinking teaches us that you need to pound on the pavement for miles and miles to run a distance like that.  Those same people are usually shocked when I tell them I run a couple of miles a week, usually in 400 meter or 800 meter spurts while doing my other training, CrossFit.  The purpose of being fit by our definition is to be ready for the unknown and unknowable.  A person must train to be physically ready for anything.  This includes having a large work capacity for any demands you may put on the body.  In doing the training that we do, I was physically able to complete a 31 mile race, when the most distance I’ve ran in almost a year was 10 miles the weekend before the race.   Obviously, there are people that just want to be competitive runners.  Those people are impressive, and some of them lapped me on the trails!  If you want to be competitive and win races a little more running than what I did must be done, but my argument is there are better ways to train than what traditional knowledge will lead you to.  If you want to be fit, and have all the benefits that go along with being fit, then I suggest you participate in a more comprehensive program like CrossFit.  Running won’t make you fit, but being fit can definitely allow you to run! – CrossFit Bartlett

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2010 7:36 am

    Thank you for posting the article that I wrote. I appreciate it!

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