Long distance running: What effect does it have on your body?

We look at the pros and cons of long distance running [Photo: Getty]
We look at the pros and cons of long distance running [Photo: Getty]

Around 40,000 runners will take part in the London Marathon on Sunday 28 April 2019, with the aim of completing the gruelling 26.2 mile route.

Most participants start training six to 12 months before the race, clocking up hundreds of miles before race day.

But what impact does long distance running have on your body - and mind?

“There are various factors that come into play; it depends on your age - the younger the better, if you have better health,” says Paul Jairaj, a consultant orthopaedic surgeon for London Bridge Hospital (part of HCA Healthcare UK).

“Also, if you’re fitter and if your biomechanics are such that you’re built for running or you have a particular running style and pattern, you’re less likely to run into the cons of running,” he adds.

The physical effects on your body

While there are some risks, there are plenty of positives to running long distances.

In a nutshell, running builds muscle mass and helps keep you toned, says Jairaj.

Running also improves your cardiovascular health and help to build up your fitness levels, keeping your heart healthier.

But, because it’s a high-impact sport, it can take its toll on your body. Particularly if you tend to jog on pavements rather than grass and other softer surfaces.

Giving your body time to recover after a long run is key, says Jairaj. Distance running can run the risk of inflaming the muscle, which can give you pain and stiffness.

Runners who follow a training plan will usually ensure their weekly long run is usually proceeded by a rest day.

Runners at the start of the 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon [Photo: PA]
Runners at the start of the 2018 Virgin Money London Marathon [Photo: PA]

“Where you need to be careful is if you’re overworking and getting that inflammation, with that you’re then getting fibrous tissue production and scarring,” Jairaj says.

“That scarring to the heart can theoretically result in abnormal rhythms or even a catastrophic failure. If you’re working it that hard and you’ve got quite a fibrous heart, that could result in sudden death.”

The London Marathon has claimed 12 lives in its 38-year history. Sudden cardiac death is one of the most frequent causes (often from underlying, or unknown, heart conditions), along with exercise-associated hyponatremia (overhydration) and heat stroke.

Impact of running on your knees

If you’re a regular runner, many will be accustomed to hearing from others that ‘running is bad for your joints,’ but is it all doom and gloom?

While runner’s knee and tendinopathy are common injuries, the quicker you seek treatment for them, the better. However, age can play a factor.

Jairaj says: “With age, you lose the elasticity of cartilage, if you damage it, it has no ability to heal.

“If you continue to run on it, you can damage it even more and loss of articular cartilage, is in essence, arthritis.

“Younger patients can be treated and prevented. Your ability to make new cartilage drops as you get older.”

Running can have an impact on your joints, so rest is important [Photo: Getty]
Running can have an impact on your joints, so rest is important [Photo: Getty]

And what sort of impact does long distance running have on your bones?

Jiraj explains that he sees a lot of runners with stress fractures in the lead-up to the marathon.

“If you load up a bone too quickly, through repetitive activity, you can get micro fractures and stress fractures,” he says.

“But if you’re loading them up correctly and gradually over time, you’re going to get strong, healthy bones.”

How running effects your immune system

There is conflicting research over whether running long distances is good for your immune system or not.

In the lead-up to a race, runners are also out in all kinds of weather. Last year’s London Marathon was the hottest on record with a peak temperature of 24.1C, but participants also had to contend with the Beast from the East just months before.

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“Your immune system can take a bit of a beating with long distance running,” Jairaj says.

“Your immune system drops off, so you’re more likely to have other little issues, but the body does try and mount a response, it does try and heal itself.”

Running can improve your mental health

There are many studies which have shown that doing physical activity can improve mental health.

“Running gives you a release of adrenaline and endorphins, that’s going to make you feel good,” explains Jairaj.

“It’s rare for that to give you a negative effect, if anything, the negative effect is when you can’t run.”

It’s common for runners who are tapering (reducing exercise in the weeks before a race) to experience restlessness and frustration in the lead-up, because they’re used to a certain level of exercise.

Advice to follow

If you’re thinking about signing up for next year’s London Marathon, Jairaj shares his top pieces of advice.

  • Take the commitment seriously

  • Follow a reputable training programme

  • Go to a running clinic before you start training and get someone to assess you and your gait to iron out any issues early on

  • Look at your nutrition

  • Don’t set crazy goals, build up your training gradually and take advice from experts, who have done it before

  • Don’t build up your training too quickly, only increase your training by 10 - 20 per cent increments - remember that everyone has a fatigue point and when you go beyond that point, that’s when injury and damage can occur

For more training tips and advice, visit the Virgin Money London Marathon website.