Bodywork

Q:

Is Marathon Training Dangerous?

Forget about the pros. How safe is marathon training for the average Joe?     Photo: Nidreas/Flickr

A:So you want to train for a marathon, but all your wife can think about are those stories of supposedly healthy people having heart attacks during their races, right? Tell her she's sweet to be concerned, but that embarking on a 26.2-mile journey will likely benefit your health much more than risk it.

In a study presented yesterday at the American College of Cardiology's annual meeting, researchers looked at how marathon training affected the heart health of recreational athletes ages 35 to 65—guys who signed up to run the Boston Marathon for a cancer charity, and who hadn't qualified based on time or previous race history. The participants were generally healthy, but about half of them had at least two cardiovascular risk factors, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure.

The runners trained for 18 weeks, running between 12 and 36 miles a week. And in the end, saw significant decreases in their overall heart disease risk: Their bad cholesterol was reduced by 5 percent and triglycerides by 15 percent. They also increased their peak oxygen consumption, a measure of cardiorespiratory fitness, and reduced their body mass indexes.

Now, these guys weren't elite athletes by any means—but they weren't couch potatoes, either, says lead author Jodi L. Zilinski, M.D. "They turned out to be a healthier population than we expected, with a lot of them already exercising on a pretty regular basis." She cautions that anyone considering something as rigorous as marathon training should check with his or her doctor first, and should always follow a responsible training plan

As for those news reports about people collapsing on the course? It's much rarer than it seems: A 2012 Johns Hopkins study found that even as marathons have become more popular to us Average Joes over the past decade, the death rate remains at less than one for every 100,000 runners.

If your wife is still hesitant to let you go, point her to another recent study—this one on marathon runners and their non-running partners. Surprisingly, the researchers found, the sport not only made runners themselves healthier, but it seemed to also have a positive effect on their significant others' health, as well.

Bottom line: Check with your doctor first and avoid over-training. But for most fit, middle-aged men, running marathons can be rewarding and healthy—for you and maybe even for your wife.

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