The pros and cons of running, and why the benefits often outweigh the risks

Simon Winnall/Getty ImagesRunning is a great form of physical exercise that can help build strong bones and strengthen muscles.

The Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimates that over 50 million Americans jog or run regularly, making it one of the most common forms of exercise.

Running comes with many physical and mental health benefits, but it can also lead to injury. Here’s what you need to know about whether or not running is bad for you, and how to prevent yourself from getting hurt.

The downsides to running

Because running is a repetitive, weight-bearing exercise — meaning you work against gravity — injuries are common.The Cleveland Clinic estimates about 60% of runners experience a running-induced injury severe enough to warrant a break from the exercise.

Certain factors, like not having the correct running shoe, can make runners more prone to injury since shoes help cushion the impact from landing.

However, the most common reason runners get injured is because they do “too much too soon,” says Jessica Zarndt, DO, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. Runners can avoid injury by monitoring their own fitness level and ensuring they are not overtraining.

In particular, increasing weekly running distance too rapidly can cause injury. A 2014 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy of 874 healthy runners found that people who increased their weekly running distance by more than 30% per week were about one and a half times more likely to get injured than those who upped distance by less than 10% per week.

Most running injuries occur due to repetitive force on the knees, shins, and feet. According to the Cleveland Clinic, some examples of common running injuries are:

  • Plantar fasciitis: inflammation in the bottom of the foot
  • Achilles tendonitis: overuse injury in the Achilles’ tendon — a band of tissue that connects calf muscles to the heel.
  • Runner’s knee: pain below and around the kneecap that’s often caused by overuse
  • Iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome: pain on the outside of the knee or hip when running caused by repetitive use of the knee.
  • Shin splints: inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and bones around your shins.
  • Stress fractures: tiny cracks in the bone caused by continuous force and overuse.

Most overuse injuries can be treated with rest, ice, and pain medication like aspirin or ibuprofen as needed. However, Core Orthopedics and Sports Medicine Clinic recommends seeing a doctor if the pain does not subside after a week of rest.

Cardiovascular health

Running and jogging are associated with many cardiovascular benefits. However, with the growing popularity of long-distance running events like marathons and half-marathons, researchers have started to examine the cardiac risks of logging double-digit miles.

While there have been worrying instances of sudden cardiac arrest during marathons, most occurred in middle-aged males, a subgroup that is already at risk.

In general, marathon running carries a low risk of cardiac arrest, and most deaths in this setting are due to pre-existing coronary artery disease.

The benefits of running

Running is associated with many health benefits. Regular running can help you build strong bones, strengthen muscles, improve cardiovascular health, and maintain a healthy weight.

Running also comes with mental health benefits. While running, your body releases hormones called endorphins. Some say that endorphins put you in a temporary euphoric state referred to as a “runner’s high.” Exercise also increases the amount of endocannabinoids — natural substances similar to cannabis — in your blood, which tend to produce feelings of calm. Both of these substances can promote overall senses of well-being, and may even ward off depression and anxiety.

Additionally, running boosts life expectancy. A 2014 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology surveyed over 50,000 runners and non-runners. It found that running even five to ten minutes a day at speeds under 6 mph reduced the risk of death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease.

Runners had a 30% to 45% lower risk for all-cause and cardiovascular mortality compared to non-runners and lived 3 years longer on average. The benefits increased with running frequency and distance. However, there was a slight uptake in mortality rates among those who exceed 176 minutes of running per week.

While The United States Department of Health & Human Services recommends completing between 75 to 150 minutes of aerobic exercise per week, even a small amount of running can make a difference for your health. “I encourage us all to challenge ourselves to be our best,” says Zarndt. “If your best is starting with 10 minutes a day, that’s a great start!”

The bottom line

The benefits of running for both your mental and physical health far outweigh the risks. However, running can often lead to chronic injuries like shin splints and stress fractures due to the overuse of muscles and joints.

The key to avoiding injury when running is to start with short distances and a slow pace. Then, you can build speed, duration, and distance gradually to prevent overdoing it. If you are unsure where to start, consult your doctor to come up with a training plan.

Related articles from Health Reference:

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.