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The Benefits of Running, by Elizabeth McLeod Sadler

Why do they run?
Running and diet.
Run for a cure.
  Why do they run? Running. It’s painful, tedious, and exhausting. So, why do so many Americans do it? People run for many reasons. Most often, people run to stay in shape and to reach an ideal body weight. Studies show that a combination of diet and exercise is the most effective way to lose weight, as it triggers a loss of body fat and a proportional increase of lean tissue. Running, a rigorous cardiovascular exercise, allows a person to burn an average of 100 calories per each mile he or she runs. Other popular activities, such as biking and walking, only burn a fraction of those calories in the same amount of time. While the average human being burns about 2000-2500 calories a day by simply existing, running 5 miles a day can burn an additional 500 calories, making it a legitimate way to lose weight. Furthermore, running is an easily accessible activity-- with a decent pair of sneakers and some determination, anyone can run.

Surprisingly, how fast a person runs has little effect on the number of calories he or she will burn. The most important factor is weight. For example, a 220-pound person running an eight-minute mile burns 150 calories, while a 120-pound person running at the same pace burns only 82. Every person’s body requires an excess of 3500 calories in order to gain a pound or a deficit of 3500 calories in order to lose a pound. Thus, 180-pound person who runs 5 miles each day will lose about 5 pounds a month. However, as his or her weight goes down, he or she will burn fewer calories per mile. Eventually, a runner’s weight will stabilize. When this will happen depends on how much the runner eats and how far he or she runs. Most runners lose weight effortlessly at first, but eventually, their weight stops declining and reaches a plateau. In order to continue to lose weight, some serious runners will intensify their workouts, as extra weight will only slow them down. Otherwise, recreational runners can maintain their lower body weight by continuing to run consistently.

Health benefits are another motivation for runners. For example, running helps lower blood pressure by maintaining the elasticity of the arteries. As a person runs, his or her arteries expand and contract more than usual, keeping the arteries elastic and the blood pressure low. In fact, most serious runners have unusually low blood pressure. Running also helps maximize the lungs’ potential, as it keeps them strong and powerful. While deep breaths force the lungs to use more tissue, the 50% of normally unused lung potential is utilized. Even smokers can sometimes recover full lung potential through running. Finally, running strengthens the heart and helps prevent heart attacks. The large muscle exercise it provides helps keep the cardio system efficient and strong. In fact, the heart of an inactive person beats 36,000 more times each day than that of a runner, as running keep the arteries open and the blood flowing smoothly.

Yet, most serious runners will say their addiction goes beyond the physical benefits they achieve from running. Runners say the intense exhilaration and euphoria that comes after a run is what motivates them most. In fact, this euphoria comes from a betaendorphin release triggered by the neurons in the nervous system. Intended to alleviate the pain after a run, it creates a feeling of extreme happiness and exhilaration. Runners become addicted to this intense high, and it can often replace other addictions to drugs, alcohol, and even food. While runners claim to achieve more energy in daily life from running, it also helps bring appetite, exercise and food into balance. Furthermore, as running makes the body function better, it improves sleep, eating, and relaxation.

Running and diet. Running does not increase appetite. In fact, exercise tends to diminish it, acting as a suppressant. "For better running, watch what you eat and when you eat it," is the advice of the Running with George web page. Runners pay close attention to their diets, as most runners try to maintain a balanced diet that is low in fat. Carbohydrates are especially important for runners; muscles need the glycogen that comes from them in order to produce energy. Thus, Carbohydrates should supply about 60 % of food intake among runners. In order to boost energy, some runners practice carbo loading before big races. Several days before competition, they eat foods high in complex carbohydrates, such as pastas and potatoes, in order to increase their supply of glycogen during the race. However, carbo-loading is not the most effective way to enhance a performance, as it is probably better to eat normally and maintain a balanced diet.

However, muscles do not work well on a fatty diet, and intake of fat should not exceed 25%. Aside from carbohydrates, proteins can also supply energy and should comprise about 15% of calories in a runner’s diet. Most importantly, fluids are necessary in allowing blood to transfer glucose to muscles and in flushing out metabolic waste. Furthermore, insufficient fluids inhibit one’s ability to sweat... and runners need to sweat. While the most important and effective fluid is water, Tom Osler recommends sweetened caffeine drinks before a marathon, such as highly sugared teas. Such drinks are said to boost energy and stamina during a run. Beer is also "a legendary favorite of runners" because it contains water and carbohydrates. In the 1970s, Jim Fixx advocated beer drinking among runners. However, studies now show that beer actually dehydrates the runner, as most of the calories are from alcohol and alcohol is not converted into glycogen. Still, many runners claim that a beer after a long run invigorates and it is still a favorite along finish lines.

Beer is not the only unusual substance ingested by runners. Frank Shorter, winner of the 1972 and 1976 Olympic marathons, confessed to a diet of Schlitz beer, ring dings, and pizza "topped liberally with mayonnaise" prior to his two outstanding wins. And Portugal’s Carlos Lopes wolfed down a steak 2 hours before winning the gold medal in the 1984 Olympics. But perhaps the most unusual, Chinese coach Ma Junren claims that the fungus that grows on caterpillars, and soup made from soft-shelled turtles fuels his record-setting athletes. Recently, natural remedies such as this one have been replaced by supplements, sports drinks and smoothies, which also claim to enhance performance. However, it is uncertain whether or not these methods are effective, and many runners choose to stick to a normal and balanced diet, while some continue to snack on pizzas and pancakes.

Most runners are extremely careful about their diets. Marathon runners claim that it is important for them to maintain an unusually low body weight in order to run their fastest and reduce the strain on their cartilage, joints, and muscles. Thus, marathoners are often "startlingly thin," as they try to stay about ten pounds below their normal body weight (Fixx, p.75). This means that a good runner weighs no more than two pounds per inch of height and has about 5-7% body fat if he is a man and 15-20% if she is a women. This measurement is extremely low, as the average man has 15% body fat and the average woman has 22% to 35% body fat.

It is not surprising that most runners are able to achieve an unusually low body weight, as serious runners train up to 20 miles a day. Most train two times daily, once in the morning and once in the evening, seven days a week. Thus, a normal training program burns an extra 2,000 calories each day, aside from the 2,000 a person needs to simply exist. Yet, the desire to stay "unnaturally thin" often prevents runners from providing these extra calories (Simbeck, p.19). As a result, eating disorders are not uncommon among runners, especially women. While one would assume that a highly trained runner who runs 90 miles per week would need to consume extra food to provide the 1200 plus calories he or she burns each day, studies show that most trained women runners consume the same number of calories as recreational female runners and sedentary women (1500-2000 calories/day.) Thus, problems range from anorexia nervosa to bulimia as the extremes, to more subtle eating problems. While many female runners will eat, they will not consume enough to support the physical demands on their bodies.

Run for a cure. Some runners view their running as a remedy. The psychological benefits of running far outweigh the physical demands. In fact, running is often used to treat clinical depression and other psychological disorders. Furthermore, some doctors claim that running works as well as psychotherapy in helping patients with clinical depression. Running makes patients less tense, less depressed, less fatigued, and less confused. It gives patients something other than their depression to focus on, as it removes from the world around them into their own liminal zone. While studies show that running is a natural tranquilizer, its effects on patients with clinical depression, addictions, and disease are remarkable.

When used to treat addictions to drugs and alcohol, running has also shown outstanding results. For example, Rob Simbeck, marathoner and former drunk, was able to overcome his addiction to alcohol by replacing his daily drinking binges with daily runs. For Rob, running was able to "fill a lot of gaps in my life after I quit drinking" (Simbeck, p.19). Completely on his own, Rob gave up his addiction to booze, and instead "became addicted to that hour or so of cardiovascular exercise each day" (p.19). This remarkable story comes to a climax upon the completion of Rob’s first marathon "on a cold December morning in Huntsville...[when] after nearly 11 years without taking a drink, my soul, which had for years known only profound weariness, was somehow freer" (p.26). In cases such as Rob’s, running is an effective and affordable way to treat illness, both psychological and physical.

In fact, running programs are also used in treating patients with heart disease. Special classes designed specifically for heart patients promote running along with other types of exercise as a means of increasing activity and rebuilding strength. Under medically supervised running programs, death rates among patients who survive the initial attack drop from 4-6% to 2% each year. Says Dr. Terence Kavanaugh, cardiologists have "learned how to fight back, and in that battle one of their most effective weapons has been running" (Fixx, p.227). As it helps strengthen the heart significantly, running also helps patients to become less depressed after a heart attack. While one-third of heart patients develop neurotic-type personality and excessive depression after a heart attack, running significantly reduces these effects. Remarkably, some patients even go on to run marathons.

I, too, can vouch for running as an effective treatment for depression and anxiety. After my first boyfriend dumped me, I began running at eighteen. For me, my daily runs gave me the time and space I needed to heal. As I continued to run, I grew stronger physically and emotionally. I, too, became addicted to running. There truly is a time when running transforms from a painful and dreaded torture into a wonderful and rewarding experience. Now, when I describe it too my friends, I give the analogy of diving into a swimming pool. As you float beneath the surface, where all is calm and peaceful, you feel removed from the problems and chaos of your life... just like running. Since eighteen, I have continued to run, recreationally and competitively, and have even won a few awards. But for me, running is not about who can run the furthest and the fastest. It is a place where I can escape my problems and enter into a world where I am invincible.


Blinkie, David. What is an Ultramarathon?

Fixx, James F. The Complete Book of Running. New York: Random House, 1977.

Simbeck, Rob. "Running it Off." Nashville Scene. January 22, 1998. Pp. 18-26.

Galloway, Jeff. Galloway's Book on Running. Bolinas, California: Shelter Publications, 1984.

Hang, John. The Essential Runner. New York: Lyons and Burford, 1994.

Henderson, Joe. Better Runs. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics, 1996.

Rodgers, Bill. Lifetime Running Plan. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

Running with George. Eating Right to Fuel the Runner.

Running with George. Finding the Right Fuel for Your Body.

Running with George. The Fight Against Fat.



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