Are endurance sports worth the effort?


With summer now over the fun runs around Perth are about to get into full swing. No doubt plenty of weekend runners will be dusting off the running shoes and looking to get into some serious training for the big event. Some will be doing their first fun run, whilst others will be seasoned competitors looking for a personal best.

The increase in numbers of people competing in triathlons, fun runs and cycling events grows each year and has also led to the inevitable question. Are we doing ourselves more harm than good by entering these endurance events? With several high profile deaths being reported in the media in the last few years I thought it would be worth visiting this question from a scientific perspective.

Do endurance sports lead to an early finish?

A study in 2012 found that endurance athletes did indeed do some damage to their hearts with training (George et al., 2012). However the study also found that this training led to adaptations in the heart that would allow it to complete these activities without incident. The damage sustained by the heart in the majority of cases was short lived. There was a small group of the population who may be at risk but by and large most people completing endurance sports were not at an increase risk of having serious heart problems compared with others in the community.

More recently a study was done looking at amateur male marathon runners over the age of 35. It too found that there was an increase in cardiac fatigue for these runners but that the effects were short lived. The authors did however point out that their remains some controversy with older athletes completing endurance events and further research was required. Interestingly the author finished with “Finally, it seems to be prudent to advise the middle-aged or older endurance athlete to content himself with a ‘half-marathon’ performed with ‘full pleasure’.” (Predel, 2014)

What about the other benefits of exercise?

Crane et al. in 2013 found that although it is recognized that muscle strength and function reduces with time this can be delayed or slowed with regular aerobic exercise. In fact they found those that continued regular aerobic exercise past the age of 40 had improved lower limb muscle strength and grip strength whilst also gaining the cardiovascular and metabolic benefits previously established (Crane, MacNeil, & Tarnopolsky, 2013).

Even better news comes from a study published this year that found that those that maintain regular physical activity can actually appear younger than their age suggests when physiological markers are compared to others of a similar age (Pollock et al., 2015)

Another study identified that it’s never too late to gain the benefits from exercise, even those that involve intensive endurance training. Matelot and his colleagues reported that those starting endurance exercise after the age of 40 gained similar improvements to their heart as those that had been completing endurance exercise well before the age of 40 (Matelot, Schnell, & Ridard, 2014).

What to do now?

The evidence remains clear that exercise is good for all aspects of your health and the benefits can be gained whenever we start. The information is less clear on endurance exercise, however if completed without extremes then research would tend to suggest that the risks don’t outweigh the benefits. As a regular runner I’m happy to hear this and will go ahead and prepare for my next marathon. Happy exercising!