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Photo courtesy of Josiah Mackenzie/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
Photo courtesy of Josiah Mackenzie/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
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From Chafing To Cardiac Arrest: This Is Your Body On Multiple Marathons

Picture of Nadia Elysse
US Editorial Team Lead
Updated: 4 November 2016
Running a marathon isn’t all shiny medals and cool running shoes. Preparing to run 26.2 miles requires time, discipline, and loads of sweat. Marathon runners are what many would consider the pinnacle of physical fitness, but they put their bodies through some serious rigors just to get to the starting line of any major race. As with any athlete, the health benefits of this kind of training must be measured against the possible consequences.

As far as cardio, nothing beats running. When training for a marathon, most people get into the best shape of their lives,” Chris Martinez, race director and founder of premiere trail running organizer Grassroots Events in Moab, Utah, told Culture Trip. “[Running] helps improve cardiovascular health and lowers your chances for diseases like diabetes. Plus, the time and energy it takes to achieve a goal like a marathon gives [runners] a sense of accomplishment when they finally cross that finish line.”

Getting in consistent cardio is one of the best things you can do for your body. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that running for just 10 minutes daily can extend your lifespan several years. Running has mood-boosting benefits, too. “Runner’s high,” or the euphoric feeling people experience after a good run, has been credited with getting people hooked on running as exercise.

But marathon training isn’t just short bursts of daily cardio. And the health consequences of these miles-long runs, multiple times a week can be deadly.

Consider Pheidippides, whose legend is largely credited as the inspiration for the marathons we have today. The story of the 490 B.C. Battle of Marathon is considered the beginning of democracy. The Greek messenger Pheidippides ran from the battlefield all the way to Athens (a distance believed to be about 26 miles) to tell the Athenians of their triumph. According to legend, he died immediately after sharing the news.

If that’s not a cautionary tale, I don’t know what is.

Here’s the thing about running: it is good for you, even if you do it for way more than 10 minutes a day. But anything done in excess, and without proper execution, carries the possibility of negative health effects.

A 2013 study in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology found that strenuous exercise, especially for lesser-prepared marathon runners, puts them at heightened risk of a cardiac event. To be fair, the likelihood of experiencing an actual heart problem isn’t necessarily high — one in every 184,000 marathon runners dies from cardiac arrest after running. Smaller health issues like chafing, gastrointestinal problems, and knee injuries are also common among runners. Training may also negatively impact immunity, making runners more prone to colds, viruses, and other infections.

“In periods following prolonged strenuous exercise, the likelihood of an individual becoming ill actually increases. In the weeks following a marathon, studies have reported a 2 to 6 fold increase in the risk of developing an upper-respiratory infection,” said Mike Gleeson, a professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University, according to Huffington Post.

The key to staying healthy, it seems, is to prepare, prepare, prepare. But also, give yourself time to recover. If you’re interested in running a marathon, know your body and do what’s right for you.

“I’m definitely a risk taker, there’s no doubt about that, but I’m mindful of training in a smart way,” said trainer and fitness personality Robin Arzon, who is running her sixth NYC Marathon on Sunday. “I listen to my body. I don’t blindly look at a training plan. I’ll shift things around if necessary, like miles or workouts, but there is a gray area where you cut too many corners and aren’t doing what you should be. The authentic athlete in us says, ‘You can go harder and farther or you need to take a step back.’ I’ve listened to that over the years.”