Let’s hear it for endurance athletes

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Most people know that the marathon was named after the courageous/suicidal sprint by the Greek soldier Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the battle victory.  After which he promptly dropped dead.

The first man to win the marathon race at the Olympics in 1908 finished in 2 hrs 55.  Last year a new world record was set for the men’s marathon of 2.02.57, almost an hour faster.  That’s sprinting at about 20km/hr… the whole way. Sheesh.

For the less elite, there are more than 500 marathons held throughout the world each year and finishing a marathon features on many people’s bucket lists.  Completing the marathon is arguably more of a mental achievement than a physical one, however properly training for a marathon is an arduous and time-consuming task.

Predominant advice is to begin training for a marathon no less than six months out, with mileage of around 64-70km a week being considered essential for adequate muscular and cardiovascular adaptations to occur.
Running is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to increase cardiovascular capacity and there are few people whose joints and limbs are not capable of the running motion.  Any difficulty in running usually stems from a history of inactivity and limited muscle use, or excess body weight which results in unnecessary pressure on the joints.

Scientifically based advice on maintaining adult health is to perform 1 -2 sessions of moderate to high intensity exercise in the week. Running ticks this box as its very nature means it is almost impossible for running/jogging not to end up moderate to high intensity. Elevating the heart rate to this level burns more calories, while the weight-bearing action of foot hitting ground can help strengthen bones.

The most pointed difference between running for health and running to train for a marathon is the volume of running that must be done to create the endurance adaptations. Like cycling to the shops, versus the Tour de France – the extended duration that the heart needs to pump oxygen and that the muscles need to continually contract, is the thing that must be trained.

Increased endurance and cardiovascular capacity are markers of increased fitness and health and so it must be said, training for a marathon (if your mind is up to it) can aid this.

However, according to a study presented in 2010, running a marathon can result in the decreased function of more than half the segments in the heart’s pumping chamber, although other parts of the heart will take over. The fitter the runner the lesser the effect.

In 2006, a post event study of 60 non-elite marathon participants tested runners for certain proteins which indicate heart damage or dysfunction, and gave them ultrasound scans before and after the race. The study revealed that runners who had done less than 56 km per week of training before the race were most likely to show some heart damage or dysfunction, while runners who had done more than 72 km per week of training beforehand showed few or no heart problems.

You have been warned.

Additionally, a 1999 study found that men were at increased risk of hamstring and calf problems, whereas women were at increased risk of hip problems. Participation in a marathon for the first time, participation in other sports, illness inside two weeks before a marathon, medication use and drinking alcohol once a month or more (yep, once a MONTH), were associated with increased risks of problems. Interestingly, while increased training seemed to increase the risk of front thigh and hamstring problems, it may decrease the risk of knee problems.

The study, not surprisingly found that there are significant but complex relations between age and risk of injury.

So it would seem there are a balanced amount of positive and not so positive effects of training for a marathon and these must be factored in when deciding to take on sport’s most ambitious running race.

Last but not least, what most people forget to factor in to the entire marathon experience – full physiological recovery can take up to three months. Preferably in the Bahamas.

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