Not Too Much, Not Too Little -- Part 2

Back in January, I wrote, "If some exercise physiologists and medical researchers are right, the risk to a TOJ's long term health due to over-exercising is much higher than just catching a head cold, a topic to explore in my next blog." Okay, it turned out to be a few blogs later. Here it is:

There are friends and enemies of prolonged endurance exercise. The friends sometimes oversell it and understate both some of its risks, as well as the advantages of other types of exercise.

The enemies, like Al Sears, MD, who promotes intense short, interval training in his PACE Program, or Lou Schueler et al, who advocate that healthy exercise consists of building buff bodies with weight lifting in books like The Testosterone Advantage Plan, like to demonize conventional cardio/endurance exercise. What is odd is the militant tone of these opponents of aerobic exercise, especially against running. Scheuler almost gloats about the unfortunate death of Jim Fiix back in 1984, who wrote the then definitive book on running. Fiix had a family history of heart disease and was a former smoker who took up running in middle age. My hunch is that most enemies of endurance sports feel that way because they are either not very good at it, so it feels like pure drudgery, and they have never experienced the endorphin high that hooks you like a dope addict.

It is true that sometimes endurance athletes die suddenly. For over thirty years, sports science has been aware that many highly trained endurance athletes have over-sized hearts and, often, irregular heartbeats. These irregularities were often the usual suspect when an otherwise healthy endurance athlete keeled over dead. But heart size is no longer considered the problem as it once was. Lance Armstrong has a hypertrophied left ventricle that makes his heart one third larger than the average person and can pump at 200 beats a minute, no problem.

As a friend of endurance exercise, I was concerned when I heard that Alberto Salazar, the great marathoner, suffered a heart attack (but again, a long family history, and already diagnosed risk factors) at the Nike training center in Oregon a couple years ago. Or when I read in Runner's World that Rich Trujillo, an fifty-something runner who has accomplished amazing track and trail running feats over decades, has had a heart bypass operation. And he still runs, a true DTOJ, double-tuff old jock.

You have to wonder if the real underlying cause of their heart conditions is what I first mentioned in the January blog -- chronic inflammation. Ironically, running is likely what has kept them alive, although they were unknowingly setting the stage for future problems. They ran often and ran hard at the highest competitive levels. Years ago, Ken Cooper, M.D., the father of the aerobics movement, noticed that an unusually high number of elite athletes were coming down with illnesses, sometimes very serious ones like cancer.

In recent years, exercise physiologists have been studying the sad phenomenon where athletes train harder and harder, yet their performance gets worse and worse. They have given the condition a name: Overtraining Syndrome (OTS). The subtle physiology of the condition is fascinating, and the net result of the cascading electro-chemical events in the body is inflammation.

The syndrome starts when an athlete over-reaches, that is, tries to exercise faster, longer, or more
frequently than their fitness level is ready to handle.

If you are interested in a good discussion for the layperson, Gretchen Reynolds wrote an excellent article about OTS in the New York Times. Just go to:

And if you are interested in the the hard science of OTS, go to:

So, you wonder, what does OTS have to do with TOJs, who are not elite athletes? TOJs work out hard and often, too. As you age, you are more prone to the very same fatigue and inflammation as the best. TOJs are exercise nuts, so they are predisposed to OTS. It's all relative. Where 100 miles a week might push an elite athlete into the inflammation zone, it might only take 30 miles a week to do the same damage for a over-zealous TOJ.

Or maybe you are one of the one in a million who do not develop inflammation, like ultra-runner Dean Karnazes. He ran 50 back to back marathons, one day after another, with no rest period between days. After the 50th, they drew some blood to measure the effects on his body from such an extreme effort. All the markers of inflammation, like cytokines, were absent.

The good news is that inflammation can be avoided or controlled by three factors every TOJ needs to understand: 1) rest and recovery, 2) the right foods at the right time, and 3) knowing when you are over-reaching.

More on each of those is coming soon. But first it's off to Moab...

Running Over, Around and Through the Recession

Whether you are looking for work, renegotiating your mortgage, reallocating your IRA, haggling with your creditors, or personally okay but worried about your family and friends, find the time to run more and run harder.

One of the worst things about economic chaos is that it makes you feel like you have lost control of your life. Maybe you've lost your job, or your retirement, or your house. Or economic events are going to force you to make difficult business decisions or career decisions you dread. But you own your body, and can still put one foot in front of another. Every step you take is a reminder that you have more control than you realize. Running empowers you.

Economic problems are stressful for you, your family, friends, co-workers, and neighbors. Running will pump endorphins into your brain and help you chill out. You will sleep better. Your body will produce less cortisol and adrenaline. As you go about your day more relaxed, you will help those around you relax. Your peace will breed peace in those around you. The Buddhists have understood that for over two thousand years. The Old Masters would be runners today.

Running allows you to escape the incessant negativity of television. TV thrives on drama, tragedy and conflict. Unfortunately, pessimism is contagious, and the constant bombardment of the angry talking heads breeds fear in anyone who watches it. Peace and quiet don't work on the tube. It's a puny, square, distorted window on a big, multi-dimensional world that can only hold your attention with loud noise, canned laughter, and extreme views and behaviors. Running puts you in the real world where you listen to your own thoughts and the reality around you.

And while you are away from the TV, you will also escape all the ads telling you that you need to go buy something to overcome a personal shortcoming, satisfy some craving, keep up with the Joneses, and achieve happiness or faux security, whether or not you have the money to do so or it's really in your best interests. During a recession is a good time to take a break from it. TV doesn't know you and cares about you only as a customer.

Running keeps you healthy, thus lowers your healthcare costs. Medical costs are the major cause of personal bankruptcies. During a recession, more and more people are uninsured. If you are behind on your mortgage or out of work, the last thing you need is to pay more money to a healthcare system that already consumes more than any other industrialized country on earth. Plenty of reliable evidence shows that regular, moderate exercise helps prevent numerous chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes, cancers and a host of other degenerative conditions. With every step, you protect your health and assets at the same time.

You need to think clearly because you are faced with difficult decisions, irrational fears, and an unstable, shifting economic environment. When you run, your brain will produce brain-derived neurotrophic factor (see Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey's Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain), which actually makes you smarter and more creative. You will be armed with the best weapon a human has to cope with adversity: a high-functioning mind. You are better able to see the Big Picture and find solutions, rather than get stuck in the problems of the moment. Some of your best thinking happens while you are running and not fretting. You are in the present, where problems vanish as you struggle to keep a pace, breathe, and ignore the growing pain in your legs.

Finally, running is cheap. Cheap is good if you are broke or need to hold on to your savings in case you are going to be out of work. All you need a good pair of shoes, you can skimp on everything else. You don't need to spend money on a gym, exercise DVDs, or fancy home equipment or fru fru lycra with dayglo trim. You can just step outside of your door, lace 'em up, and go.

Out on the trail, you will run over, around and through rocks, stumps, downed timber and streams. You'll go up, down, then up again. You see the world is alive and constantly changing, everything is passing by. The recession will pass too.

Note: What is true of running is also true of biking, hiking, swimming, rope jumping, rowing -- whatever you do hard enough to elevate your heartbeat for thirty minutes or more each day. Running is my favorite. Follow your own bliss.