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December 6, 2012

On The Run: Whatever happened to getting better with age?

It happens so often that it’s becoming a cliché: a study comes out asserting that running is bad for you and runners go ballistic while non-runners say, “I told you so!”

The latest salvo in this barrage of studies was highlighted last week in a Wall Street Journal article that said running too fast and too far for too long can have serious cardiac consequences for older runners.

A new editorial in the British medical journal Heart claims that a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades found that the runners in the group had a 19 percent lower death rate than the non-runners. But those who ran more than 20-25 miles per week did not share the reduced mortality rate.

Another large study found a similar effect for runners who ran faster than eight miles per hour, as opposed to those who ran slower and had a lower mortality rate.

Of course, one problem with studies like this is they can only theorize that running is the source of the heart problems in these people. Also, with a large group of runners being studied, the number of them who are considered faster or who run longer distances is much smaller. It’s just a theory.

There is some logic to the studies’ findings in that as runners get older, they’re naturally going to slow down somewhat. That happens. But what’s missing here is a look at family medical history of the runners, which may account for the cardiac problems that arise. Also, the intensity of the exercise makes a big difference in its impact on an athlete. What if someone ran five miles every day but at a moderate-to-slow pace?

Ultimately, every runner is different. I know plenty of runners in their 50s and 60s who are able to run long (and short) distances much faster than me because they’re just plain fast. Fitness level varies greatly among runners; it may take me maximum effort to run five miles in under 35 minutes, whereas some friends of mine would barely break a sweat doing the same.

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