A recent post went up at one of the blogs I follow which extolled the virtues of Gary Taubes and Mark Rippetoe. Both have books that I own and think highly of. I commented on the blog, with a mention that I'll never be a full Rippetoe acolyte. Quoting him, "An adult male weighs two hundred pounds." My comment was that I wasn't going to haul all that extra weight around on a 30 mile trail run. Another poster, completely serious, asked, "what health (or otherwise) benefit do you think you will get by running 30 miles?"
He wasn't doing to be mean, or even critical. It was an honest question. I tried replying on the blog but the computer went wonky and ate it. So, the longer version of the answer is here.
The health benefits of running that distance are decidedly questionable. As with lifting weights or any other physical activity, there is a point after which you reach your maximum potential, whether it is speed, endurance, strength, or flexibility. I suspect, and science isn't solid on it yet, that the point for running for the sake of fitness is considerably less than 30 miles. My guess would be closer to 8-10 miles at a crack, about an hour to an hour and a half of exercise time for endurance based training.
For the folks that prefer HIIT, that seems an enormous waste of time. High Intensity Interval Training is a well-developed concept that maximizes cost-benefit ratio of exercise by performing highly stressful (physiologically speaking) intervals in relative short durations to improve overall fitness, glucose utilization, and fat burning.
Except it doesn't work for everyone. Neither does running long and slow. Or lifting under the Rippetoe program. Or Taebo, Crossfit, or the thousand other programs that promise the holy grail of personal fitness, sexual attractiveness, and eternal life. For a fee, mind you.
Nope, not cynical. Realistic.
None are sufficient on their own for a fully rounded athlete, but by incorporating elements of all of them, you dramatically improve your overall fitness. That's why I lift and have Rippetoe's book. I enjoy my time in the gym and it's nice to be able to bench my body weight, even if my arms and chest are the weakest part of me. I also do speed work, the only time I wear a watch running now. I'm not too great at the flexibility part of the equation, though.
Which still doesn't explain why I do thirty mile trail runs. The key to that answer is in the parenthesis above, the or otherwise bit.
We live in a dysfunctional society that seeks to justify exercise solely on the benefits of health. The CDC berates Americans seemingly daily with a "you eat all wrong and you don't exercise enough" message. Various state governments have declared certain food categories evil and banned them. The news is filled with stories about the obesity crisis and the cost to society of ill-health. Even fit people, who should know better, hop on the "everyone else should do x" bandwagon.
I don't run because it's good for me. Hell, I don't do much of anything because it's good for me, whether it's exercise or eating or any other the multitude of things that the life-hackers measure. I'm not alone. Most people don't perform exercise because it is good for them. They do it because it is fun. I fall back on the advice I read long ago in George Sheehan's On Running, "We must tailor the addiction to the addict."
That 30 mile trail run? It is my way of playing outside. The run this year is in the Seven Devils Mountains in Hells Canyon Wilderness Area with a trailhead that starts at 7500' of altitude and climbs as high as 8200'. I've run here before, and seen elk, and moose, and bears. I've made wrong turns and discovered beauty because of it. I'll hurdle small logs (smaller by the year it seems.) and splash through creeks. And I know that it will hurt at the end, like the last set of a lift-to-failure deadlift, only longer.
There is a pleasure that comes from having a body that can do things, respond to very primal urges with a surge of strength or the steadiness of endurance. I know, too, that somewhere up in the mountains, I'll renew my sense of awe and wonder. I'll finish, worn and tired, and whole in a way that I wasn't before.
That makes all the difference.
Run gently, friends, if that's your preference. For the rest, find your (healthy) addiction, and play!