There is this common association with running and health and obviously the relationship makes sense. Be active, work your systems and attain overall strength. I’ve had coworkers say such things as “You are like the epitome of health” or “I look at you as the pinnacle of living healthy”, which is far too generous of a statement to be accepted without reservation. Regardless, it’s undeniable that physical activity, especially something so all encompassing like running, carries the benefits of a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s the thing though, before one should go flippantly advertising their amazing running generated health, they would do good to actually define what health actually means. What are its boundaries and when does one cross them either in moderation or excessiveness? Maybe it’s just a by-product of a sedentary culture, but when we think of someone doing ANYTHING physical, we automatically think they are engaging in a healthy activity, for anything else is probably more akin to watching football on the couch all sloth-like, shoving doritos down our throats or shooting up drugs.
But what about the other end of things? What about the excessive end of the health spectrum?
Lately, I’ve been giving talks (I like to call them “discussions”) on the 101 of veganism to high school health classes (yes, my school is cool enough to let their overpaid janitor actually teach the kids) with the foundation that I’m promoting a healthy lifestyle. I don’t feel many pangs of guilt doing this because when I limit my discussion to veganism I am talking solely about healthy living and what it means to make healthy choices. But inevitably I reference my running or the teacher prompts me by asking about my marathon training and goals, of which the kids are very curious about and ask me many questions. This is the point where the line between living healthy and living obsessively starts to blur a little bit. Because here’s the kicker…
I’m not that healthy.
Ok, by any reasonable standard I’d have to say I’m pretty healthy. The last blood work I had done my numbers were very solid, nothing even close to concerning. The last X-ray I had showed I had great bone density. My credit score is nothing short of improbable (oh…i guess that last one is unrelated…but it’s still true!). These are all denotations of a healthy life, but then again, I’m a competitive distance runner that trains, when things are going well, at 100 miles per week give or take 10 or 20. Each day I put in between 10 and 22 miles of repetitive pounding on my body…and that’s really not that healthy.
I also train a couple times a week at near maximum exertion, which depending on the type and distance I am running, really taxes the system and compromises its ability to fight immunity for a brief period of time. Each full on exertion lowers my immune system and leaves me susceptible to the nastiness that resides in our 4 year olds snotty boogers that he holds and studies like its a new species. This is not healthy.
In race scenarios I push myself to a level of fatigue and exhaustion that is just absurd and somehow when I reach that impassable bridge of breakdown….I keep going. I expend every bit of stored energy my body can hold and run myself into the ground. I distinctly recall a race this past summer where an hour after the whole ordeal was over I was suddenly and rapidly overcome by dizziness and an extreme sense of nausea. I was forced to fall to my knees and nearly vomit violently lest I pass out and smash my head on the ground. This…obviously…is not healthy.
During marathons I attempt to run a distance that, at the speed I do so, is simply beyond my body’s ability to compensate. My body has developed over the millions of years of evolution to only withstand and store enough energy for about 2 hours of running….anything after that is a matter of proper fueling and sheer force of will. It’s also hell on the body and demands not days, but weeks, of recovery when all is said and done. This, is not healthy.
And finally, I run every day. I run every day I can possibly stand to run, which at last count, was 7 straight weeks of running without a single day off, until the weather finally broke me down mentally and I took a day off. The mental effort it takes to do so is one thing, nothing consequential really, but the potential physical wear and tear this brings to my body is something of more concern. It feels like, as a competitive runner, that I’m always running on this precipice of progression and injury. When adviseable, we run at such a significant exertion, trying to push our bodies to this new plateau of strength, speed and endurance, but just as close as we may be to a breakthrough on any of these levels, we are also just as close as pushing our bodies over that edge and suffering any number of injuries. Shin splints, plantar fascitis, stress fractures, groin pulls, achilles, etc. etc. etc. THIS IS NOT HEALTHY. We are the poster children for excessiveness. Screw drugs, we are ruining ourselves through running!
Which brings us to yesterday, when I started running up the street and made it about 200 yards limping to favor my right foot before turning around and calling it a day. All day I had felt a sharp pain behind my big toe that forced me to go home mid-day to change into more comfortable shoes. This only alleviated the problem temporarily. I figured that day off would solve the problem as it often does, but even today the pain was still there. I did stretches, investigated the area multiple times, did some massage, and prayed to a bunch of gods I made up on the spot….but nothing worked. I emailed my coach to alert him to this situation and he had me come into the shop immediately after work to assess the situation, suggesting I bring all my running and work shoes in to help with the diagnosis.
After he stopped wretching at the hideousness that is my naked foot, he had me do some walking and jogging to get a better idea of what my foot was doing. To summarize the situation, I basically have a small bunion just behind my big toe and with a bit of ibuprofen to keep the swelling down, another day off of running (blech), some heat/ice pairing and a realignment of my shoelaces, I should be good to go again. Oh, and I need to stop running on the hard pavement of the canal that is often spotted with ice, snow and endless 90 degree turns, which is absolutely fine by me….if it would only stop snowing and I had some clear ground to run on.
So back to my initial point…Yes, running is healthy. Yes, I’d consider myself pretty damn healthy (knock on wood, stick a pin in an Atkins voodoo doll, etc.). But let’s not get carried away here….I’m a competitive runner and by default this means I’m excessive. I think about my running continuously (I mean, god, how long is this post anyways?), I run more miles a week than any non-civilized person would ever find logical or adviseable, and I subject my body to a level of excessiveness that continuously demands bouts of rest and recovery. I mean, doesn’t the act of “recovery” denote that something happened that necessitates recovering FROM? I think so. So yeah, overall, I’m building a biological system of strength and overall health, but in the process I’m taking risks that really aren’t all that sensible or about keeping me in this game for the long haul. Not that I feel I’m doing anything fundamentally detrimental or so risque, but hey, as long as we’re on the ride of hyperbole…..
I’d rather burn out than fade away.
See you in the streets…once this latest unhealthy setback rights itself.