To run or not to run...that is the question?

Thousands of people every year enter a plethora of running events such as The London Marathon, both The Great North and South run and local distance and, fun run events. This coupled with the recent London Olympics encouraging the population to be more active means that as a nation, we appear to love "hitting the road" whatever the weather!

However, is running really that good for you? Or should we think about taking up another form of exercise?

As a Chartered Physiotherapist and someone who enjoys running as a method to keep fit but also unwind, I will always remember what a consultant orthopaedic surgeon said in a training session during my time a student, "running is not a good form of exercise and should be avoided at all costs." The following article briefly identifies whether this statement held any truth, and whether we should throw away our running shoes and invest in an exercise bike instead.

Your joints

There is a common belief that long term running is bad for your joints, and that vigorous exercise such as running, may predispose a person to joint wearing conditions such as osteoarthritis in later life. Recently, an emerging body of research has contended this myth, demonstrating that there is a minimal connection between running and arthritis, with bouts of vigorous exercise such as running helping protect people from arthritic joints in the lower limb and help to maintain and improve bone density.

Inactivity and obesity are suggested to increase the risks of joint stress and osteoarthritis. Runners have been shown to have healthier knee cartilage (the substance that coats the ends of the bones) than sedentary individuals. However, to simply get up, put on some footwear and go out for a run is not suggested. Sudden unstructured bouts of exercise should be avoided due to the risk of injury, and if in doubt, seeking professional advice is recommended.

Unfortunately as we age, we are more predisposed to osteoarthritis in our joints, particularly those that move a lot and take a lot of pressure. This can be due to a lot of different reasons such as genetics, body weight, previous injuries etc. Some people who are genetically set up for arthritis, regardless of how they run, will still end up developing arthritis. For those people who already have an arthritic condition in a lower limb joint, running can worsen the symptoms and affect the walking/running pattern. People who are overweight and commence a running programme may also be predisposed to injury to the joints, especially the knee, due to the increased force and subsequent breaking down of the bone-coated cartilage.

General Health

Running can have both short and long term effects on your general health and well being, however excessive amounts of running may be counterproductive, especially if you are new to this form of exercise.

Running engages most parts of the human body and, increases your heart rate, burns calories and strengthens leg, arm, and core muscles.

Short term benefits from running include increased mental clarity, a boost in energy and improved sleep. Running stimulates the brain chemicals that make you feel relaxed and happy, and also improve confidence and self-esteem. These chemical releases also cause an increase in your energy levels.

Running on a regular basis can help prevent certain diseases, such as stroke, diabetes, heart disease and might also contribute to a higher life expectancy. Running burns a lot of calories, which can contribute to consistent weight loss which assists in lowering blood pressure, blood sugar and blood cholesterol to recommended levels.
Running style and Footwear

Runners can be susceptible to repetitive stress injuries. On average, a runner can strike the ground almost 1000 times per mile. The incidence of such injuries remains, despite the advancements in footwear that aim to provide more cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for runners, particularly those that heel-strike.

Research has suggested that runners who land on the ball of their foot (either in footwear or not) have greater efficiency and less force compared to those that land initially on their heel. There is a belief that this type of running style protects the foot and reduces the chance of injury

Some studies have suggested that barefoot running, or the increasingly fashionable minimalist footwear running, allow a runner to 'feel the ground' enhancing balance and increasing strength in the muscles of the foot. Unfortunately the depth of research into this notion is not currently wide enough to conclude whether barefoot running reduces the risks of injury compared to runners who wear footwear.

VERDICT

  • If your joints are healthy and you are not predisposed to arthritic conditions, you follow a reasonable approach running and, you are not overweight, running should not predispose you to joint arthritis.
  • Running can have a positive impact on your general health and well-being, as long as it is undertaken at a safe and suitable level. If you are unsure whether or not running is a good form of exercise for you, seek advice from a health professional for guidance and information on alternative methods of keeping fit, healthy and active.
  • There is conflicting evidence regarding running styles and the use of footwear when running. Generally speaking, most individuals will use a running technique with/without footwear that they feel comfortable with. Seeking professional advice to assess your running style and optimal footwear is recommended if this is something you wish to investigate.
Top Tip: Do not just go out for a run. Like any form of exercise, an adequate warm-up and cool-down regime should be adopted to prepare the body to exercise, prevent injury and, assist in returning the body to a resting state.

Michael Anderson Chartered Physiotherapist

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Page last reviewed on 04/12/2013