Marathon Running: Healthy or Harmful?

Dec 19 2017, 9:38 am

In 2012, statistics showed that 59 per cent of New Year’s Resolutions involved losing weight and getting into shape. With 80 annual marathons organized annually in Canada – not to mention over 550 in the US – it’s possible that a lot of Canadians will make running a marathon one of their goals this year. In fact, distance running has seen a rise in popularity in recent years. To see the appeal, you only have to look as far as the Stanley Park sea wall or browse hashtags like #fitblr on Twitter.

Everyone seems to be running marathons lately, whether they are trying to shed those extra pounds or they just enjoy training with friends and the thrill of competition. But of course, as we all know, just because something’s popular, it doesn’t mean it’s healthy. So the question is this: could running a marathon actually damage your health?

Heart Health Risks

Recent studies suggest that while training for a marathon can have many health benefits, actually completing the grueling race might place unnecessary stress on your heart. In fact, some evidence shows that running 42 km (about 26 miles, the distance covered by a full marathon) may cause minor injuries to the muscles of the heart.

Though this damage usually isn’t permanent, the stress of running a marathon can significantly increase your risk of experiencing a heart attack during or within a few hours after completing a race.

For example, a study conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine showed that as many as 71 per cent of heart attacks that occur on race day can be fatal. The same study also showed an increase in the number of marathon deaths in the past few years.

Of course, the increased rate doesn’t necessarily mean that marathons are somehow becoming more dangerous. Rather, higher numbers might just reflect the growing popularity of this activity, particularly among people who aren’t in top shape or just haven’t trained properly for the four-and-half hour ordeal.

Joint and Muscle Risks

Most people are all too familiar with that post-exercise soreness that follows a really hard session at the gym. This soreness is largely due to muscle damage that occurs when working out, and in the case of marathon runners (including those who stick with the quicker 5K race), inflamed muscles can stay sore for up to a week after crossing the finish line.

In fact, over 90 per cent of marathoners report stiffness or pain after finishing their races. For people who never give themselves time to recover, this continuous inflammation of the muscle can have serious long term health consequences, including kidney damage.

At the same time, there is some evidence that running long distances may be associated with osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is the deterioration of the shock-absorbing cartilage in our joints, especially in the knee and hip of distance runners. As the cartilage wears down, the bones grate together and cause further damage and pain.

In addition, distance runners can develop other joint injuries from overuse. The oft-repeated advice to “push through the pain,” could mean pushing ourselves towards chronic injuries instead of better fitness. If you are a runner and have experienced a joint injury from overuse, we would recommend you see a Vancouver physiotherapist to prevent further injury.


Almost every runner knows about the dangers of dehydration, but how many think about the dangers of over-hydration? In 2002, a Boston Marathon participant actually died of a rare type of over-hydration called hyponatremia. Since then, this condition has received a lot attention from the press and the marathon community. Excessively hydrating with water during race day, when the body’s salt levels are low does not actually correct the dehydration. In some cases, like in Boston 2002, too much water can actually be fatal.

Thinking about throwing in the towel?

If the thought of all these health issues is enough to scare you away from Vancouver’s Sun Run in April, don’t despair – there are plenty of researchers and doctors who don’t think these risks should necessarily keep you away from the sign up list. In fact, distance running is often praised for its many benefits. Not only can it decrease your risk of diabetes and heart disease, but it can also help build bone density. Not to mention that running could help over a third of Canadians achieve their New Year’s Resolution to lose weight.

In addition, many experts agree that most running-related injuries are preventable, given a proper training regime. Take the biggest headliner – heart attacks. Studies actually show that people who train by running at least 45 miles per week are at lower risk for heart attacks (compared to those who run less than 35 miles per week).

At the same time, the training process itself has many benefits. Training means a consistent running schedule, variation in work out intensity and type, and good eating habits – all of which can benefit health. Well, now that you’ve weighed the risks and rewards of the 42 km grind, what will you be telling your friends and family? Will you be scratching your name off the entry list, or will you be using a marathon to fulfill your New Year’s resolutions?


This article was written by Alex Roston at Connect the Doc. Connect the Doc is a website that allows prospective patients to find and book short notice appointments online, 24/7 with a Vancouver chiropractor, registered massage therapists, dentists, physiotherapists and other private healthcare clinics. To learn more, sign up for free or book an appointment, visit

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