Science Lessons from Anti-Runners

One of TOJ's favorite blues song says:

"Ain't nobody owns the truth
about the best exercise,
and if they say they do,
they be flat full of lies."

What's holy gospel today is debunked tomorrow. Not that long ago, the critical necessity of regular rest and recuperation was heresy, and it was conventional wisdom to overtrain week in and week out. It was also believed that weight lifting was bad because it could elevate blood pressure to dangerous levels, so should be avoided. Both have been tossed on the trash heap of exercise physiology history -- for now.

Having been around long enough to see many theories (and "evidence") come and go,TOJs tend to be humble and open-minded about exercise. They figure that what is optimum for a particular person is dependent on a mix of genetics, health, environment, age, nutrition, body-type, and a host of other factors. Whatever you do, you are fortunate if you discover a combination of physical activities that you enjoy and keep you healthy.

But there's always something new to learn. It was in that spirit that I picked up a book by Doug McGuff, M.D., and John Little entitled "Body by Science: A Research-Based Program for Strength Training, Body Building, and Complete Fitness in 12 Minutes a Week." Don't laugh at the "12 minutes" claim. There are some new ideas that have some merit, once you look past their weight lifting/resistance training mania. But there are old ones too: They repeat the tired anti-running story of Pheidippides falling over dead after his historic run from Athens to Sparta, and the tragic death of running author Jim Fixx. Strangely, they make no mention of the fact the Mike Mentzer, a body building champion who pioneered many of their theories and whom they revere, died mysteriously at age 50 after fighting drug addictions and going in and out of mental institutions. (Fixx died at age 52? Is that evidence that running is superior to strength training for longevity?)

What first drew my attention was their frontal assault on the current gospel that running is good for cardio health. They contend that endurance athletes, especially runners, make a fundamental mistake when they equate endurance-based fitness activities with health because it leads to even more misguided thinking that more distance + more time running = more health. The result is runners, who can tend to have a compulsive streak, think they are climbing a ladder to wellness as they progress from 10K to marathon to ultra, when in fact they might put their lives at risk over the long term, or best case, unnecessarily shorten them.

Here's the scientific argument of these two fire and brimstone body builders, simplified so a TOJ can understand it: Low intensity exercise is high risk for your long term health, not because of the the widely known overuse injuries to ligaments, tendons and joints, but because running, contrary to popular myths, does not exhaust the glycogen in enough of your muscle cells. Yes, you might burn some fat, but not as much as you think, because with running you don't actually burn that many calories/mile. Worse, you engage the largest muscles in your body, but not all the major muscle groups in your body.

What is most important to your health, they argue, is to deplete the glycogen stores, otherwise the glycogen stays in the muscles. Then the carbohydrates (a dietary staple with runners) you eat will, after twenty or so chemical reactions, cause the formation of fatty acids and inflame the lining of blood vessels. The body then "mortars" the inflamed areas with LDL cholesterol (the bad one), and places you at high cardio risk. They make their case with some very compelling diagrams and plenty of documented evidence.

In fact, these guys attribute a laundry list of illnesses - CVD, atrial fibrillation, renal abnormalities, cancer, brain damage, spinal degeneration - to long distance running. However, when you actually examine their many interesting footnotes, it is clear that the scientific evidence places the blame not on running, but on over-training. I know many runners, and they do not suffer from any of these any more than the general population, and maybe less. That said, there's some truth in their view. (See the January 2009 blog "Not Too Much, Not Too Little.)

They do make a very important point that every TOJ should heed: running will cause you to lose muscle mass. Aren't most elite runners skinny nerds? Avid runners often ignore most of their bodies except for their lungs, hearts, and leg muscles. It is not a coincidence that many TOJ distance runners have very emaciated upper bodies. When muscles are not used, they waste away. McGuff and Little provide excellent analysis as to why this happens. (You can also find a shorter, but equally enlightening, explanation in Covert Bailey's Smart Exercise.)

The sarcastic tone McGuff and Little use when referring to endurance exercise can be annoying. These guys come from the very extreme end of the strength training spectrum. For them, muscle strength is the Promised Land, and they worship at the altar of anabolic muscle building. Unfortunately, their hostility distracts from some of the most informative scientific discussions for lay persons of certain aspects of exercise that I have ever read.

They believe that the key is overall metabolic health, not just cardiovascular fitness, because the muscular system is where critical enzymatic activity occurs, without which there is no fitness or health. They recommend the simplest and most extreme regimen you will ever hear about. It consists of once a week, 12 minute strength routines, preferably done in a gym/club on Nautilus equipment, during which you push your major muscle groups against almost immovable resistance to the point of total failure (thus total glycogen depletion through a phenomenon called "amplification cascade.") They offer lots of credible evidence that it is effective for building strength, improving cardio heatlh, and promoting weight loss.

Buried amidst their fanatic campaign for strength training are some worthy ideas for a TOJ. In the past few years it has been established that strength training does play an important role in health, maintaining balance, and stabilizing blood sugar levels, so strength training deserves to be in a TOJ's routine. I do strength training twice a week, not to the extremes they advocate, but close enough to exhaustion that I gain some of the benefits they herald. Hoever, though these guys may have great biceps and hearts from pumping in the gym, they need to have their heads examined if they think The Ultimate Exercise is pushing against a machine for a few tortured minutes.

Somehow in their one size fits all approach, they've lost sight of the big picture. TOJs exercise for reasons that go beyond the narrow pursuit of strength and fitness. Those are often just byproducts of a larger, more exciting journey. Exercise is a path to something more -- nature, joy, discovery, oneness with the universe and peace of mind. What happens during a long endurance activity is beyond way beyond cardio health, metabolism, or any other measurable physical system. You know it when you've experienced it. That's why I'm going for a run.

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