The Good, the Bad and the Ugly – How Running Affects Your Body
by Simone Wray
Easily accessible and requiring no equipment, running is one of the few sports that provide the benefits of many physical activities wrapped into one—no gym required. While most runners will tell you there’s much to love about running, unfortunately, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Read on to see what makes up the good, the bad and the downright ugly side of running.
It builds your endurance, helps maintain healthy body composition, strengthens your cardiovascular system. Your brain benefits from the increased heart rate and circulation that aerobic activities provide.
It can improve your mood. Endorphins released while running help relieve stress and create a sense of euphoria known as a “runner’s high”. These endorphins interact with the brain’s receptors to reduce your pain perception and even, potentially, symptoms of depression. The Open Journal of Medical Psychology states “evidence suggests a single bout of exercise can promote a change in mood and self-esteem within the general population and in individuals with depression…”
Running can help your body fight infections and prevent diseases such as obesity, some forms of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and many other life-threatening conditions are also positive effects. A study by the American Journal of Medicine found that women who exercised for 30 minutes every day for a year had half the number of common colds as those who did not exercise. Researchers also found that regular exercise may lead to a higher white blood cell count (which fights infections).
It exercises your brain too. Another study by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health found that habitual participation in physical activity can help improve cognitive and memory functions affected in the brain and therefore may decrease the future risk of Alzheimer’s Disease.
The feeling of accomplishment is unmatched. Whether you’re feeling great after knocking out a weekend run or you’re swelling with pride (and exhaustion) after your latest big race, there aren’t many things that can compare to how you feel when you’ve completed a run. Not only is it pride in yourself, but motivation to keep going and level up for the next time.
What’s not to love?
Running can be a (literal) pain. Common runner complaints include blisters, runner’s knee, tightness in the hamstrings, back pain and shin splints. These ailments can reveal themselves as sporadic twinges during a run or lasting soreness throughout your body and even escalating to more serious concerns. They are often caused by weak muscle groups, improper running form or overexertion. Help avoid these pains by integrating warm up and cool down segments into your runs and allow for adequate recovery between runs.
If you find yourself with one of these runner’s woes such as a sore muscle, pain management options include taking a mild pain reliever, resting for a minimum of 3 – 5 days and icing to numb the pain and reduce swelling.
Cross training can also help build the muscles that provide auxiliary support to a sore area by strengthening your ankles, knees, hips and core muscles, etc. Yoga can also help increase flexibility. Each can aid in recovery and help prevent future injuries of this sort.
Race training notoriously leaves runners with unsightly marks and scars. Chafing on the inner thigh from miles of friction, marks from taking a tumble, black or missing toenails from constant pressure in your shoes or even a god-awful farmer’s tan. These are just a few of the blemishes running can leave on your body. Minor scars are to be expected with runners no matter how seasoned, but severe muscle pain can be an indicator of real injury or damage.
More serious injuries like stress fractures, tendonitis, plantar fasciitis or a first-degree ankle sprain can all start as subtle pains that you perhaps thought you could run through. If left untreated, however, these aches and breaks can lead to a need for surgery and prevent you from running completely. Unexpected surgeries will undoubtedly interrupt, well, everything. Plus, finding time for follow-up appointments and physical therapy can also come with unexpected financial obligations. If you start to feel mild pain, cut back on your mileage, reduce the intensity level of your runs and start a treatment plan.
A common treatment suggested by sports bracing and therapy experts to manage and restore full strength and flexibility after a minor injury is to R.I.C.E. – Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevate. Resting takes the stress off of the sore area, applying ice numbs the pain, compression wrapping reduces swelling and provides additional support and, when elevated, keep the sore area at or above heart level to also help minimize swelling. When your soreness and pain has subsided, begin gradually returning to your normal levels exercise.
However, if you experience severe pain, instability in a joint, loss of motion, or simply a nagging issue that won’t go away, seek professional medical attention right away to get to the bottom of your issue.
Whether your reason for running is to improve your health, lose weight, or compete in races, there will be good, bad and ugly times that make up your running journey. Once you start, though, you’ll understand the sacrifice is worth the love of running.
Simone is an avid runner and digital integration project manager at United Way Worldwide. She's been involved with track and field for more than 20 years, first competing in USATF club and collegiate competitions and later as a USATF-certified coach with specialization in mid-distance and hurdles. Her coaching has driven several athletes to reach All-American status, become USATF National Champions, break national records and achieve many state and regional accolades. She loves making friends laugh, brunching and playing on social sports teams. Simone is currently training for the Peachtree Road Race 10K and aims to run a sub-2-hour half marathon this year.