Though running has been a popular activity for a very long time, there has been an emergence of running events over the past few years. I'm elated that the country is moving more toward doing some form of activity. However, I have concerns.
My primary concern for this trend is the purpose why one would choose to run. If it's for cardiovascular conditioning, incorporated with lifestyle changes and other facets of fitness, I'm all for it. Unfortunately though, most people I have met, or that you hear about on the news are doing it to lose weight. They use something such a marathon or triathlon as a goal (similar to the FitNation as seen with Dr. Gupta). Of course, I can understand the accomplishment one could feel by finishing a marathon. I also understand that it's all well intentioned. However, to do it for the purposes of losing weight can be counterproductive.
I mean, what is the goal here? Lose weight? Finish a marathon? Or, improve your health and fitness? I can make a very strong case that a regimen of long distance running could actually be the counterproductive to weight loss and health.
Too often, people try to go from A to Z in their fitness goals, when what you need to do is go from A to B to C to...
Over the years, I have encountered numerous individuals who run almost daily who have hit a weight loss plateau. Most of them actually gain some or a lot of the weight back, even though they're still running regularly. Worse is, their body fat actually remains the same or gets worse, even though they lose weight (this is attributed to muscle loss). Because they have been led to believe that everything is calorie in, calorie out. The body is is too complex to operate this way.
Then you have to factor in chronic injuries and postural displacement of runners. The constant pounding on pavement, and the lack of additional training leads to consequences that go beyond weight loss issues.
Here are some things to consider as to why running can be counterproductive:
Doing the Same thing over and over again:
Einstein defined insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result." When it comes to human physiology, the body adapts to expend the least amount of energy possible. Therefore, if you do the same thing over and over again, it will adapt to where you expend less energy in order to do the same amount of work. This is for good reason as it applies to the real world, not the exercise world. In the real world, if you're doing some form of the same activity regularly, your body will begin to make adaptations so you use less energy (known as S.A.I.D., or that is, specific adaptations to imposed demands). In a world when food was scarce, this makes sense.
If you're going to continue running, that's fine. Just know in the exercise world you must change it up! Learn more about interval training, Fartlek training, biking, cross-training and other modalities. This type of training actually leads to the less is more principle. The intensity will be higherand you burn more calories, but the amount of time and distance decreases.
Lack of strength and conditioning:
No matter how much you run, it will not improve metabolism (very minimal), it does not improve muscle tone or strength, and it can contribute to chronic injuries and poor posture. Even if you're a professional marathon runner, you need to do some form of resistance training. Though there is conflict on this, some form of anaerobic, resistance training activities at moderate to high intensity is what improves your metabolism. This is due to increased muscle mass (not talking about turning into He-Man or She-Ra), hormonal shifts (that will increase metabolism long-term), anaerobic threshold (acute demands), and sub-cellular changes. This is assuming that you're eating enough calories to support your metabolism.
Runners who especially want to lose weight, usually decrease caloric input. However, when caloric input falls below the demands of the what is needed, you begin to use the next readily available source of energy which is protein, not fat. It's not the protein you just ate, it's the protein you have stored in the form of muscle. This happens in particular when you do not get enough carbohydrate energy. Your body is also guided by hormonal controls that will shift metabolism. If it senses that there is not enough food to supply the body with its energy needs, it will slow down your metabolism. This can impact your thyroid gland which is the master metabolism gland.
Think of it this way, fat burns like a candle, very slowly. Conversely, carbohydrate energy (which you do need!) in the form of glucose, burns quickly like matchstick. As you do cardiovascular exercise, you use carbs and fat, not just fat. In a sense, you have to go through the carbs to get to the fat. As you deplete yourself of glycogen (stored glucose molecules), your body will go through a process known as gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis is the process of creating glucose from protein to give you the energy you need. When this happens, your metabolism decreases because you lose muscle and you are secreting hormones such as cortisol to breakdown muscle. Cortisol also stores fat. So, watch out!
"Does this mean I shouldn't run?"
I don't want you to think I'm telling you not to run. What I am telling you is that it is not the only thing you should do. What I will also tell you is that half-marathons and marathons require a lot of conditioning and time (way more than what most people will give time for). Don't try to go from A-Z, take your time.
My recommendation is to stick with 5K's and 10K's at first. You can reach your weight loss goal along with some other fitness goals to get in great shape. Take your time and develop a fit and strong body. Learn proper nutrition habits. Once you've done all that, you will be more prepared to do a long distance race. By that time though, you may decline doing a marathon/triathlon altogether as you've met your aesthetic goals.
I always point out that the leanest people on the planet are sprinters, gymnasts, dancers, etc., yet they don't run long distances. Most fitness enthusiasts who are lean year round incorporate all facets of fitness including running, yet they do long-distance events very sparingly.