Posted on June 28 2016
Completing a marathon is widely considered the apex of running.
If you finished all 26.22 miles then you’ve really “made it” as a runner. The achievement comes with a lifetime of bragging rights, and it suggests you are a fit, dedicated, persistent and all-around badass.
However, marathons aren’t necessarily the be all and end all of running, or even the best way to prove your running prowess. Here are some important arguments for why shorter races may actually be better, and in certain cases safer, for your health and fitness.
1. Not all body types are marathon-suitable
This should go without saying, but our bodies are not all made equal. Genetic differences in muscle composition, body shape, bone health, cardiovascular capacity and many other variables means some of us are naturally more suited for speed rather than distance.
Pushing yourself to train and run a marathon regardless of those factors can significantly increase your chances of getting hurt or exacerbate underlying health problems. That’s why it’s always a good idea to consult a doctor before committing to running a marathon or any type of distance racing, especially the first time.
2. More distance ≠ more gains
No one can dispute the plethora of health benefits exercise brings. In most cases, running more and running consistently can only be good for your body, not bad. But there is a limit. Studies have shown that after a certain mileage per week, the benefits exhibit a pattern of diminishing returns, especially for those with pre-existing illnesses.
The National Runners’ and Walkers’ Health Study found that those who exceed 30 miles a week (easily the baseline for marathon runners) may be at higher risk of mortality compared to those at shorter distances. Health attack survivors are especially at risk.
In contrast, 10 to 30 miles a week, the typical distance for 5ks or 10ks, led to the best results.
3. Risk of injuries is lower
Doing any kind of sport can lead to injuries, but marathon runners seem to be especially susceptible due to the intense volume of running they have to do within a relatively short period of time.
The link between training volume and injuries is well established in research. Anterior knee pain, Achilles tendinitis, shin splints and fractures are all common ailments resulting from overuse. A study that surveyed 725 men who completed the 2005 Rotterdam Marathon found that more than half had sustained a running injury over the year leading up to the race.
During race day, as many as 1 in 12 participants seek medical help. Heat-related illnesses, gastrointestinal problems, blood poisoning and a score of other skin issues like chafing are all common complaints. Some races have even asked doctors to participate in the run so they can provide emergency aid!
4. Shorter races are more sustainable
It's tempting to sign up for a marathon on the spur of the moment and assume you just need to exercise a bit more in the 2-3 months leading up to it. NO. In order to have a safe and enjoyable experience, it requires a lot of research and plenty of preparation.
It takes anywhere between 12 to 30 weeks to train for a marathon, and 3 to 5 runs per week. Running alone is not enough. You have to watch what you eat/drink, sleep well, control stress levels and basically do everything possible to ensure your body is at its best for race day.
For beginners and pro runners alike this is not always a realistic lifestyle, and failing to follow through may some's initial motivation to exercise. In comparison, shorter races are much less demanding on your schedule. You can train at your own pace and do multiple races a year without feeling overwhelmed.
5. If you're running a marathon to lose weight...
It should never be the principal and ONLY reason for signing up for a marathon, but many people do so as a drastic way to force themselves to shed pounds. But chances are it won't work, or not as well as expected.
Many marathon trainers overestimate how hard they are exercising, which either leads to disappointing results on the scale or a cycle of overeating because they think they deserve the extra calories. It's both physical and psychological. Running so much makes you very very hungry, and it's much easier to give in to the temptation of food when you "feel" like you worked so hard.
A 2009 study done by an exercise physiologist at a Harvard Medical School research center found that in a group of 64 marathon runners, only 11% lost weight post-run. Just as many runners actually gained weight and the remainder 78% maintained their weight. This is after three months of running four days a week.
None of the above are to suggest that you shouldn’t aim to complete marathon. At the end of the day, it’s a great accomplishment no other kind of race can quite match. But it's not for everybody, and THAT'S OKAY. It's also not a competition that should be taken lightly, and going about it the wrong way can lead to undesirable and serious consequences.