In Defense of Running
A non-runner explains why pounding the pavement is not the “worst way to get fit.”
Photo: Geber86/Getty Images
Fighting Words is a column in which writers rub you the wrong way with their unpopular but well-argued opinions on fitness, health, nutrition, what have you. Got something to get off your chest? Send your pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am not a runner. I've tried it multiple times, and never once managed to slog past 5 miles. Even then, my pace would embarrass a turtle. (For the record: 12-minute miles.) I suck at running, and for me, running sucks as a form of exercise. That's why I don't run or promote running. Almost all the articles and books I've written over the past quarter-century as a certified strength and conditioning specialist have focused on strength training. So, with my non-running credentials firmly established, let me say this:
It's completely fucking absurd to say that running, or any other form of exercise, is the worst way to get fit—as one writer on this very site asserted a couple of weeks ago.
But before we can even have that argument—and trust me, we will—we need a definition of what fitness is. Good luck coming up with a consensus. Is it VO 2 max? Muscular strength? Low body fat? Is it even measurable, or more like "I know it when I see it"? (Be forewarned: Another article on this very site takes apart the notion that the best-looking body is also the one that can do the most.)
If I had to pick one way to measure fitness, I'd use METs, short for metabolic equivalent of task. One MET is the level of exertion required to sit in a chair and do pretty much nothing. The harder something is, the higher your fitness level needs to be to pull it off. And the higher your fitness level is, the farther you are from death or disability. The ability to complete a five-MET task—to walk a mile in 15 minutes, for example—is considered the edge of the cliff for mortality risk. Below that, you're screwed.
This is the important part:
Each 1 MET improvement above 5 lowers your risk of dying of any cause by 12 percent. The benefit tops off at 10 METs. Go beyond that and you're just showing off. (Fun fact: A 22-year-old cross-country skier reached 26 METs, the highest ever recorded.)
So, with apologies to you for going into the weeds of exercise science (and with apologies to exercise scientists for pretending the basic crap I just explained is "the weeds"), I want to make sure you understand how I define fitness: getting the fuck away from death.
The more your body can do, as measured by METs, the farther you are from that moment when people who hated you IRL go to your funeral just to see if your grieving partner is as hot as they remember.
That brings us back to the anti-running article, which made two primary arguments:
1. Running is the worst way to get fit.
2. Strength training is the best way to get fit.
Remember those pathetically slow 12-minute miles I slogged through? They were 8 METs .
Strength training? Six METs.
You know what else is 6 METs? Walking uphill. Hitting a punching bag. Riding a bike at a moderate pace of 10 to 12 mph.
They're all fine forms of exercise. But if that's the best your body can do, even a shitty runner is 24 percent less likely to die.
To be sure, these are population averages. A good trainer should be able to push his clients beyond 6 METs. A great trainer can charge them a lot of money for the privilege.
Which brings me to Alwyn Cosgrove. He's the owner, with his wife, Rachel, of Results Fitness in Newhall, California, and my coauthor on the six books in the New Rules of Lifting series. Alwyn's anti-running credentials are even better than mine, largely because mine were informed by his. Together we helped popularize the idea that you don't need to do long hours of steady-pace endurance exercise to be lean and healthy and feel good about yourself, and countless readers have thanked us for liberating them from the cardio grind. (In The New Rules of Lifting for Women, by far our most popular book, Chapter 3 is titled "Step Away From the Treadmill.")
Today both of us regret staking out such a militant position. The truth is far more nuanced. "The pendulum swings back and forth," Cosgrove says. "First aerobics was awesome. Then it was the devil. I was part of that movement, but sometimes you have to take an extreme stance to be heard."
As a gym owner, his business depends on his clients' success. A client can't succeed if Alwyn and his trainers don't understand what she wants. "My first question is, 'What's your goal?' " Cosgrove says. "If it's to build muscle, then running isn't great. If it's to lose fat, then running isn't great." But if it's to run a 5k or a 10k or a marathon, then running is obviously important. If it's to improve in a sport like soccer or basketball, again, running has to be part of the mix.
These examples assume that the individual client is agnostic about exercise. Some are, but many aren't. "If you don't enjoy running, then good news, you don't have to run," he says. "We can get fat loss and cardio improvements without running at all. But if you love running, then good news, we can build that into your program."
But even this discussion trivializes the reasons why running appeals to so many millions of people.
"If you don't like running, if you think running sucks, God bless. Nobody's forcing anybody to run," says Mark Remy, a contributing editor and columnist for Runner's World and founder of dumbrunner.com. "But it's not hyperbole to say it's actually saved people's lives. Shame on you if you make it your mission to convince people not to run."
When I showed Remy the article, his first objection was to the notion that running is a bloodbath.
"The injury thing sticks in my craw," he says. "It's always used in a context like this to scare people away. I've been running more than 20 years now, and yes, I'm just one person. But I think I've had one injury that caused me to take more than one week off. Is it some rampant, awful, crippling thing? No, of course not. It's not like you've got legions of runners rolling around on the ground, writhing in pain."
Specifically, the article says "up to 79 percent of runners get sidelined with an injury at least once per year." It links to this study from 2007, which says, and I quote:
"The incidence of lower-extremity running injuries ranged from 19.4 percent to 79.3 percent." It also says this:
"[A]n increase in training distance per week was a protective factor for knee injuries."
Yes, it says more running leads to fewer knee injuries.
And that's just the abstract. The actual study offers even more nuance. For example, some studies show that older runners are more likely to get hurt, but others show the opposite. Its one conclusive point is that a history of injuries puts you at higher risk for future injuries. But that's true of every sport and form of exercise. If it fucked you up in 2016 there's a really good chance it'll fuck you up again in 2017 or beyond. That's not news, and it's not surprising.
Nor is it in any way, shape, or form an argument in favor of strength training. Injury data for lifters is harder to find, but every serious meathead knows that the harder you push yourself in the weight room, the more likely you are to strain something. And, as with running, your last injury is the best predictor of your next one.
So where does all this leave us? If you agreed with the original article, and think running is the worst way to get fit, I probably haven't changed your mind. If the original article pissed you off and you've been waiting for a convincing rebuttal, I've probably left you unsatisfied. And I'm okay with that. I've been writing about fitness since 1992, and I'm simply too old and weary to think of these things in black and white. (As the man said…)
But for those who celebrate the anti-running message, consider who's recently started running. No, not me. I ground my knees into gluten-free flour playing basketball into my early 40s. Him: "I started competing in 5k races this last year," Cosgrove says. "I'm not fast at all, but I've won or placed in my age group a few times."
Why would the coauthor of six books with "lifting" in the title, a guy who once made a powerful argument against endurance exercise, take up running? If you're hoping for a paradigm-shifting revelation, you'll be disappointed. "I just wanted to give my training some direction," he says.
Then he reminds me of something I wrote in our first book, the original New Rules of Lifting. This, I said, is what matters most:
- Do something
- Do something you like
- The rest is just details
I've changed my mind about a lot of things over the years, but I think this sentiment holds up.
Lou Schuler is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, a contributing editor to Men's Health magazine, and author or coauthor of a whole shitload of books. Strong, the follow-up to NROL for Women, just came out in paperback.