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Obesity Panacea Interviews Author and Boston Marathon Winner Amby Burfoot

Wednesday, May 06, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Amby Burfoot at a 5km the day before the 2009 Boston Marathon (Photo by Stacey Cramp)
It is an understatement to say that Amby Burfoot is a an influential figure in the distance running community. His running credentials are impeccable - he won the 1968 Boston Marathon while a Senior at Wesleyan University, finished top 6 in the NCAA cross country championships, and later ran 2:14:29 at the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon, a time that was within 1 second of the American Record. As a result of his achievements, he has also been enshrined in the American National Distance Running Hall of Fame.

Since his days as a world-class marathoner, Amby has become an influential advocate for the sport, writing numerous books (see the complete list here) and countless articles for Runner's World magazine, where he is now the Editor at Large. He also authors the Peak Performance blog, which provides a great roundup of the latest health and fitness research. He has done more than almost any other individual to promote running to the masses, and he exemplifies a lifelong commitment to physical activity and healthy living. He has graciously taken time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions on running, working at a "treadmill desk", and how to prepare for my next crack at the Boston Marathon.

TS: You have been running, and promoting running to others, for almost your entire life. In other sports like hockey of football, even the best athletes tend to stop participating once their competitive days are over. What makes running different, and why has it been a lifelong passion for you?

AB: I was very lucky that the major early coach-influence in my life, 1957 Boston Marathon winner John J. Kelley, was a naturalist-humanist-philosopher-amateur biologist/zoologist. He always preached that we were just big-brained animals, nothing more, and that we had to live according to our biologically-evolved mandates. Or else. In short: simple, healthy foods; ample exercise. I believe this, and try to follow the basic principles. Besides, I've become addicted to exercise, in a good way I hope. I'm almost 63 now, and can see that I won't always be running. I already walk 6 to 8 miles a week, and I spend 70 percent of my exercise time on a stationary, recumbent bike, because it allows for "multitasking," ie, exercise and reading at the same time. But I do interval training, lactate threshold workouts, and moderately long runs when I do run, and I still enjoy the occasional race.

TS: In the Runner's World Complete Book of Beginning Running you caution that most new runners start out too hard, and suggest that the best way to start a running program is by walking. Why is it so important to start out slowly?

AB: The only goal is to continue for life and finish as strong as possible, and you can't do that if you go out too fast. Seriously, most beginners quit because they get discouraged that they can't run a mile on Day 1, and don't make progress fast enough. Also, they get passed by little old ladies with 6-inch strides, particularly tough for the male ego. Walking is undervalued as an aerobic activity, and mixing walking and running together is WAY undervalued. It's the way I run on days when I'm not feeling good, or when I'm exercising with my wife, and it's the way most people should probably run most of the time. Find a relaxed pace, hold it for a while, walk; repeat, and repeat, and repeat.

Amby beside a cutout of himself following his Boston Marathon victory.

TS: Running and other endurance events like triathlons seem to be enjoying a new renaissance. In your opinion, what has changed the most during the years that you have been involved with the running community?

AB: Well, I've been around since the mid-1960s, and there's no doubt about the biggest change: women, women, and more women. This is what guarantees the future of aerobic sports like running and triathlon. They're not essentially skill sports like tennis and golf; they're persistence sports: If you stick with the program, you get better. Women are very good at sticking with the program, probably better than men with our testosterone problem. (We want success and we want it now!)

When I first started running, there was exactly one runner in the known Universe over age 50, and that was John A. Kelley, who eventually managed 58 Boston Marathon finishes. Now masters runners are everywhere, and we're all determined to stay fit as long as we can. This is the second biggest change.

Thirdly, the looming obesity crisis and the accumulation of some nice epidemiological studies makes it pretty clear that exercise has important personal and public health experts. Jim Fixx set us back a bit in 1984. Most people now realize that exercise can't guarantee perfect health, but inactivity can guarantee bad health.

TS: We know that for any training plan to have a real health impact, it has to be maintained over the long-term. And yet, many people find that their training grinds to a halt after just a few short months. Do you have any advice to help people become physically active for years, rather than just a few months?

AB: Nothing that I haven't already said, and that many others also haven't said many times. Training partners are hugely important. If you extend this a little bit, you quickly get to the national-social milieu. In a few years, we'll all be amazed that we once thought inactivity was a personal issue when in fact it's a social issue, and it will take big social programs to have an impact. We need and will have something akin to the current "green" movement. I'm optimistic that the Internet's social networking abilities can play a positive role, even though video displays are currently seen as mostly a negative factor.

Amby doing a swim and run on January 1st 2006 in Connecticut

TS: In the May issue of Runner's World, Marc Parent claims that "If you can walk from the couch to the refrigerator, you are not too fat or too old or too slow to run". What would you say to change the mind of someone who believes they cannot run due to their size?

AB: I don't lie to people. Size is an issue. A 240-lb person is going to have a harder time with many healthy exercise programs than a 120-lb person. On the other hand, he or she also has more to gain. Basically, we are who we are--size, eye color, singing ability. So, deal with it! Make smart choices! I definitely believe that motivation is the next big frontier in the fitness movement. We talk way too much about vo2 max, muscle fiber types, tempo runs, resistance training, and the like, and not nearly enough about the gray matter between our ears.

TS: You have a "treadmill desk", which allows you to work at your desk while walking at 1mph (burning up to 100 calories/hour in the process). Do you think that devices like the treadmill desk which allow people to integrate physical activity into the workday will ever become the predominant way that people to stay fit?

AB: We have a sample treadmill desk in the office at Runner's World. I talked the company into letting us try it on a "loaner" basis. It's an impressively high-quality piece of equipment,and I'm enjoying it on an occasional 30-minute to 60-minute basis. (It's not in my office, but a "public" office.)

If I had one at home or in my private office, I'd probably use it much of the time. I'm also trying to figure out how to use a laptop while on my recumbent bike, though I'm happy with my usual activity of reading. In my home office, I've perched my computer on top of a desk and plastic crates to create a standing desk. I've read some of the inactivity/sitting physiology studies, and I'm also concerned about good back health. (Had a debilitating muscle spasm a year ago.) Having said all this, I'm not sure that many people are ready to get out of their chairs, and stand and/or move all day. I'd be happy to have them wear pedometers and accumulate 10,000 steps a day.

TS: It's been exactly one week since my first Boston Marathon, and my legs are still screaming - any advice for my next go around?

AB: Yes, Boston will definitely do that. I'm sure you've seen all the studies: a little practice--downhill training sessions--seems to help. But Boston definitely presents a double whammy--26 miles, plus all those eccentric contractions. Just to make you feel bad, I have a colleague at work who set a personal best (3:08) at Boston this year by 10 minutes, and reported no post-race soreness. She's a bit of a phenom--an ultrarunner who seems to be just beginning to discover her talent.


A huge thanks to Amby Burfoot for taking the time to share his thoughts with us and our readers!

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Related Posts:

1. Travis Recaps his Boston Marathon Experience
2. The 50 Million Pound Challenge
3. Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis

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5 Response to "Obesity Panacea Interviews Author and Boston Marathon Winner Amby Burfoot"

  1. jamerm Said,

    Nice interview. I particularly liked the line, "Most people now realize that exercise can't guarantee perfect health, but inactivity can guarantee bad health." How true.

    We now have a pretty active Wellness Committee where I work (City of Fredericton). I would like to share this article with the folks on the Wellness Committee.

    Murray Jamer

    Posted on May 6, 2009 at 5:34 PM

  2. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    Thanks for the feedback Murray! Some of the work I will be doing in Ottawa will be looking at those exact issues - it's a very cool area!


    Posted on May 6, 2009 at 5:38 PM

  3. JBarr Said,

    Great interview, congrats on the marathon, and goodluck in Ottawa!

    Posted on May 6, 2009 at 7:34 PM

  4. Gina O'Leary Said,

    Great interview, Trav. I really enjoyed reading it! Congrats!

    Posted on May 6, 2009 at 7:49 PM

  5. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ JBarr

    Thanks buddy! You know you're always welcome in Ottawa! Let me know if/when you're coming up to race.

    @ Gina

    Thanks! Good luck at the race this weekend!

    Posted on May 6, 2009 at 9:13 PM


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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.


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