Running: Do the risks outweigh the health benefits?

·5-min read
We all know the many benefits to running but what about the downsides? (Getty Images)
We all know the many benefits to running but what about the downsides? (Getty Images)

Words by Gavin Newsham.

If you witnessed Boris Johnson pounding the sand on Blackpool beach recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that running is actually very bad for you.

And the fact is, it can be. It’s why runners will tell you that primary cause of injuries when running is running itself. Plus, according to a study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, up to 79% of runners will get sidelined with an injury on at least one occasion each year.

So, while jogging is one of the cheapest and easiest activities to take up, it shouldn’t be done without due consideration of the health implications, both good and bad.

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Yes, there are myriad issues that can arise from taking a run, both minor and major. Commonly, runners will often experience everything from blisters on the feet to shin pain and the occasional soft tissue injury like a ligament sprain or pulled muscle. They might even suffer from sunburn if they don’t take proper precautions.

But some people are at even more risk when running.

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If you are overweight or obese, you run a much higher risk of injury when you run. Similarly, if you have pre-existing joint problems you may find your problems compounded if you take to the streets.

In 2015, Dr Laurent Malisoux of the Sports Medicine Research Laboratory at Luxembourg’s Public Research Centre for Health led a study looking at runners' injuries and concluded that while a history of previous injury or medical issues was often a factor, if a person’s body mass index (BMI) was higher than 25 – a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9 – then it made them more predisposed to injury when they ran.

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It’s why the knees can take such a battering if you run regularly. In research published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine in 2019 it was the knees that were found to suffer the most when you run, accounting for 28% of all jogging injuries, followed by ankle and foot injuries (26%).

Runner's knee, as it's known, is a common side effort of repeated jogging. (Getty Images)
Runner's knee, as it's known, is a common side effort of repeated jogging. (Getty Images)

Perhaps the most common complaint is patellofemoral pain syndrome, or ‘runner’s knee’. Generally caused by overuse (although poor running technique can also be a factor), the pain will emanate from the front of the knee as movement of the kneecap makes the cartilage rub against the bone. Swelling might also be an issue.

While the cardiovascular benefits of jogging are clear, there is also increasing amounts of research to suggest that long-distance running may do damage to your heart. In a study of amateur marathon runners in Canada, for instance, the Institut Universitaire de Cardiologie et de Pneumologie de Québec found that running for long distances can create changes in the heart muscle that cause the heart to swell and it’s especially true in those with lower fitness levels.

But it can also happen to superfit too. Look at US running guru Jim Fixx. The author of the 1977 bestseller The Complete Book of Running, he suffered a fatal heart attack while running at the age of just 52.

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How to stay safe while jogging

If you’re thinking of taking up or resuming running make sure you have a good pair of trainers, says James Heagney, Gym Director at KX. “Wear the appropriate footwear that complements your running style,” he advises. “Are you a heel or ball of the foot striker when you run? Running shoes can help but they can also considerably hinder when not well thought out.”

Warming up is crucial too. “Try controlled articulated rotations (CARs) of the ankle joint too,” Heagney adds. “The aim is to try and draw a perfect, slow and controlled circle with your foot. If your movement is jittery, sporadic and lacking control you are drastically increasing your risk of injury.”

Always stretch before and after jogging, advises KX gym director James Heagney. (Getty Images)
Always stretch before and after jogging, advises KX gym director James Heagney. (Getty Images)

Stretch key muscles prior to running. “Your calves, vastus lateralis (outside of quads) and your gluteus medius (at the top of the bottom) will all benefit from some focused work before you start to run,” Heagney adds. Similarly, if you strengthen these muscles you’ll also improve what’s called your ‘runner economy’, or the efficiency of your oxygen use as you run.

And don’t overdo it. Start slowly. Two or three short runs a week is a realistic target before you gradually build up to longer, more frequent runs. Just make sure you always allow sufficient recovery time between runs, otherwise you will leave yourself susceptible to injury.

“Recovery from training occurs while we sleep so make sure you are getting between 7-9 hours is my recommendation,” says Heagney. “And try and plan ahead as to when your next run will be, allowing enough time for your body to recover between bouts of exercise,” says Heagney.

“Mix up the styles of running too. Steady jogging one time, maybe intervals the next."