Like many who write about running, I felt compelled to comment on Kevin Helliker’s provocatively-titled, predictable, yet oddly written article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave: New Studies on Older Endurance Athletes Suggest the Fittest Reap Few Health Benefits,” that appeared in this past Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. Helliker’s article summarizes one of those periodical reports by hand-wringing cardiologists warning us about the dangers of excessive exercise. The assertion that seems to have caused the most controversy among serious runners is the idea of what constitutes excessive: twenty to twenty-five miles per week and a pace of eight miles per hour – or 7:30 minute-per-mile pace. This is not a lot of mileage, although the pace stipulation does logically lead to a future blog entry concerning how fast should we be running our long runs. Helliker’s article reads like a typical throwback to the “exercise is actually bad for you” pronouncements that usually accompany the deaths of notable runners such as Jim Fixx and Micah True. Men’s Health, for example ran an article on October 14, 2008, entitled, “Are You Running Yourself to Death?” This is by no means a recent development. In the wake of the first running boom, cardiologist Henry A. Solomon foresaw several of the arguments of Dr. O’Keefe’s upcoming editorial in the journal Heart – in The Exercise Myth (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984). At my most cynical, I would dismiss Helliker’s gloss of O’Keefe as merely a way to sell papers.
There are some interesting observations, however, to be made about “One Running Shoe in the Grave.” First, it’s telling that O’Keefe’s recommendations to scale back under twenty miles a week and slow down – especially if you are over fifty – are being made on the basis of research that is only showing an association. There may well be some legitimate issues with the statistical significance of the sample size, particularly concerning high-mileage, high-speed elite athletes. There was also no mention of the sex of the runners in the study. I’m sure we’ll find out more about research design when Heart is published next month. Ominously, I noticed that when questioned about his research, Dr. O’Keefe, rather than talking about methodology, accused his critics of being “chronic exercise addicts.” Using a dismissive, catchy phrase to derail intellectual inquiry is a common rhetorical strategy of the academic under threat. I have the feeling that this report might be dead in the water once we get to take a closer look. Academics confident of their numbers usually don’t childishly lash out against their critics. It is also odd that Dr. O’Keefe bases his recommendations on his personal experience as a “former elite athlete” on a “sense” that his athletic regimen was aging him prematurely. I think he might need some evidence here to back him up. Most credible scientists get a bit skittish when talking about an individual’s “sense” trumping observable fact. I want some numbers. It will be interesting to see what people say when the full editorial in Heart is published.
There is another assumption that Helliker makes that is fully debunked in the accompanying comments to his article: everyone exercises to live longer. In fact, most people do not take up running in the expectation that it might prolong their lives. Unsurprisingly, as many of the commenters explained, they run because it improves their quality of life, not the quantity. At its most prosaic, it is great to be a runner for the stress release running provides, for the ability to walk up several flights of stairs without being winded, or for the ability to proceed through a busy day without becoming overly exhausted. But, as the devoted runner knows (and this is only reflected in the last quote of the article which is intended to point out that most serious runners won’t listen to this “sound” advice) is that running is fun and for many that have caught the running bug, racing is even more fun. We don’t do this merely for the real and (possibly) perceived health benefits. Here’s a dose of reality: longevity is never guaranteed. People die everyday in unanticipated ways. Many, however, have realized that running makes them feel better while they are living. I can’t stress enough the quality of life aspect of running, as well as what Dr. George Sheehan argued was the appealing “play” associated with running. For Sheehan, at its core, running constituted a return to childhood play for adults – racing even more so. So, the appeal of running – and this is by no means an original thought – far surpasses any quest for longevity. The fact that these articles arguing that exercise might be bad for you come out on a predictable basis backed by the authority of cardiologists makes me wonder: why? I think it has something to do with the popularity of running and some perceived threat that it poses to the status quo. It can’t be a coincidence that we have seen this type of article – ostensibly backed by reputable science – at the peak of several running booms. There is more to be said about this, but it will have to wait for another blog entry.
Finally, I need to mention the “oddly written” part of Helliker’s article. Several commentators in the Wall Street Journal also pointed this out. This is the story of Meghan Newcomer, a 32-year-old professional triathlete, who passed out during several races, and whom Helliker uses as an example of why 50-year-olds need to run less. Newcomer was told to triple her intake of salt, which solved her race-collapse issues. This looks like it was more of an issue of hyponatremia and certainly not a cardiac problem, so why the story? Yes, it makes that much sense.
Although this article has generated a fair amount of discussion, it is ultimately part of an old narrative that often rears its ugly head when running gets too popular – an old story verging on a non-story. I think the real story here, is the opening up of a larger conversation about why people run – not as controversal, but ultimately more useful.