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Are Marathon Runners Healthier than Runners Who Don't Do Marathons?

Monday, April 20, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
 Travis competing at the 2007 Western Open (Photo by Alex Green).

As some of you may know, today is Patriot’s Day in Massachusetts, which can only mean one thing – it’s the day of the Boston Marathon!  My girlfriend Daun and I are competing in the race this year, and by the time you read this I will hopefully be cresting the final hill and about to sail into the finish line.  This will be my 4th marathon personally, and the 2nd for Daun, and we’re both very excited about the experience.  My goals for race day are as follows (in order), and are the same as any long distance road race I have competed in during the past few years:

1. Enjoy myself
2. Finish
3. Finish ahead of Daun
4. Run a personal best

It might seem harsh that I want to beat my girlfriend, but we both come from a competitive running background (we met on the Queen’s Cross Country Team – Go Gaels!), and frankly I think she’d be disappointed if I didn’t try to beat her (I’m sure she’d love to beat me as well!).  Although I don’t want to jinx us by posting our time goals before the race, I will post both of our times and finishing positions after the race, or you can follow the results yourself here. (My bib # is 1304).

In honour of the race, today’s post is about a recent article which found that marathon runners are at lower risk for chronic disease than runners who do not run marathons.  Now I know that it is not earth shattering news that marathoners tend to be healthy people but the study, which was published in the March issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (available here), has some interesting findings nonetheless.

In this new study, Dr Paul Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory examined the association between marathon participation and metabolic risk in over 100,000 men and women.  In their study they compared two groups of people – runners who compete in marathons, and those who don’t.  They report that running marathons (even just once every 2-5 years) was associated with lower risk of taking medication for blood pressure, cholesterol, or blood sugar, after control for miles run during training.  In other words, people who run marathons appear to be healthier than non-marathoners who do a similar amount of training.  It might be that people who run marathons do so because they are genetically more likely to be healthy, or there might be something unique about marathon training (e.g. the proportion of weekly mileage that is spent doing “Long, slow distance” runs) which influences health differently from regular distance running, but it appears that runners who do the occasional marathon are healthier than those who don’t. 

Before anyone goes out to run a marathon – there are some (small) risks. Williams cites a report stating that an average of 8 people of every 1,000,000 participants dies of sudden cardiac death – a small risk, but a risk nonetheless.  So it’s not a bad idea to talk to your doctor first, especially if you are at high risk for cardiovascular disease.  For what it’s worth, road races of any length are a lot of fun, regardless of your skill level.  Whether you are walking or running, it’s an excuse to come together with your friends and family and get some physical activity, which is the real reason why events like the Boston Marathon are so popular.  Knowing that you have a race on the horizon is also a great incentive on those days when you don’t want to get out the door.  Just remember that the first goal is to enjoy yourself, no matter who finishes first (but seriously, I want to finish ahead of Daun).    


WILLIAMS, P. (2009). Lower Prevalence of Hypertension, Hypercholesterolemia, and Diabetes in Marathoners Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41 (3), 523-529 DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e31818c1752

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1 Response to "Are Marathon Runners Healthier than Runners Who Don't Do Marathons?"

  1. docvini Said,

    This a general comment. I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and specialize in eating and food problems. I started reading your blog recently and find it quite valuable and interesting. It's nice to see a blog where you can get direct researched information. I would love to share my blog and website with you:

    Posted on May 21, 2009 at 10:31 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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