Friday, February 27, 2009

Running for Health vs Performance

You hear all the time that to maintain good health you should exercise at least 3-4 times per week for 30-60 minutes. I may be off on those statistics, but the idea is that you should do some kind of aerobic work several times per week. Maybe run 2-3 miles every other day. That would be about 8-12 miles per week of running. I suppose that might keep you in fair health. You won't be an aerobic monster, but you may keep weight gain away and have reasonable cardio-vascular fitness. And injuries should be minimal with that type of weekly training. You'll probably benefit from stress reduction too. You'll likely have some blood-sugar and cholesterol benefits as well. Overall, it doesn't take much to run for your health. It would be awesome if everyone ran that much. Imagine the health benefits, and associated reduced medical costs, for both the individual and society!

Why do I feel like a wastrel if I "only" get in 10-12 miles of running in a week? I'm not a mileage hog--typically I run 25-40 miles per week. But I keep telling myself I'd love to be one of those big mileage runners...75, 80, 90 miles per week. I only dream of 100 mile weeks (never done one without an ultra race as part of it). Then I'd have endurance and speed. Do I run for my health or some other reason? I think the answer is "some other reason." Why would I do long runs of 15-20 miles on tough trails just for my health? Why run fast on a treadmill if all I wanted was to stay healthy and be moderately fit? I suppose the reason is twofold: I want more than "minimal" fitness and I am competitive.

I don't want to settle for the minimum aerobic health the medical establishment champions. I want more. I want to be able to run up a couple flights of stairs and not be winded. I want to tell a friend "Sure, I'll do that 50K next weekend" without worrying about whether I can finish it. I want people at work to always mention me when the topic of health or fitness comes up in conversation. I enjoy being the uber-runner in the eyes of my peers (not my running peers, but my sedentary work peers). That's why I run more than 10-12 miles per week. I desire more than minimal fitness. Of course, to achieve a fairly high level of health and fitness, I would only need to run 20-30 miles at an easy to moderate pace each week. I seem to do more than that in my training. Guess that brings me to the other reason I run...

Competition! I am competitive with myself and others. I want faster PRs at all my race distances: 5K, 10K, marathon, 50K, 50 mile, and 100 miles. And I want to beat other runners! That's what pushes me to do a 20 mile trail run at Clinton Lake on Saturday morning. That's why I get on the treadmill and try to run a 6:00 minute/mile. That's why I sign up for races (no need for that if I only care about health and fitness). Heck, that's why I do ultras. Who participates in a 100 mile trail race for their health? It's to prove to yourself, and others, that you can "go beyond" the normal. Any crazy person can run a marathon, it takes a special kind of crazy to run an ultra! And this is where my health begins to suffer. I get a foot injury after pushing hard on a speed session. I get a knee problem after that 22-mile long, hilly trail run. I get scolded by the wife when I put a race before an anniversary. That's not healthy behavior. At some point the extra health and fitness benefits turn into unhealthy habits--social, physical, and mental problems ensue.

My main long-term goal is to be able to run into my elderly years...I want to still be running when I'm 60, 70, or even 80. Maybe not still doing 100 milers, but possibly fit enough to do some short trail ultras. If nothing else, I want to be physically active (hiking, walking, running) well into retirement. Preferably until I die. So what's the point of this long post? I need to remind myself (and maybe you readers too!) that the real goal of running is to stay healthy and be physically and mentally fit. We all need to decide for ourselves where we draw that line in the sand...when does that extra mile move us into the zone of denial and unproductive behavior? For my current mental health I still need a bit of competition. I still need more than minimal fitness. But I am thinking about pulling back on ultras next year. Maybe no official ultra races at all (only fat ass informal events). It might be time to do a few local short races. I'll still mess around with my training plans and read the latest running books, but I can cut back on extra long runs, super-fast speed sessions, and not worry about continuous high mileage. Maybe I won't even wear a heart rate monitor and log my miles. Hmmm, that sounds good...right now.

6 comments:

Pheid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GTI said...

It really does sound like the two of us are in a similar type place right now on this subject.

Personally, I don't want to quit ultras and marathons altogether, not at all. But just like training on a weekly basis, where you generally have to take really easy days or (for me) days off, I think I might be due for an easy year so I can physically and emotionally recharge for the heavy workload.

I only wish I didn't have so many work conflicts with the upcoming race dates, or I'd be volunteering instead. I'll have to do that for a race or two later in the summer.

Chris said...

Time off, at least from serious training, is good to rekindle that fire. Volunteering is a good way to recharge your batteries too. Unfortunately, when you direct an entire race, the volunteering buzz starts to turn to stress and doesn't do a lot for your overall morale and motivation. I'm hanging in there until Howl at the Moon (August) and then I'll see what the rest of the year brings.

Sharon said...

And yet, when I scold, it does no good...

Maybe I need to start ultra-scolding--

Pheid said...

I like your post, Chris.

More power to the people who can run ultras into their advanced years...

But I agree there comes a time when there are diminishing returns, and we all have to assess when that is for ourselves...

Happy trails,

Connie :)

Kris said...

I'm trying to figure this out too. I want to run more and I'm trying to figure out my true motivation.