Running a marathon is an accomplishment that many people have on their to-do lists. And to sure, it IS quite a feat. But is the physical stress of running a marathon more than our bodies should ever handle?

The wisdom-du-jour suggests that any form of cardio - especially long slow distance and running in particular destructive to the body. Pop diet/exercise books of late accuse long slow distance cardio from causing everything from debilitating joint pain to back hair to the economic woes. If you run long distances, you probably order the Filet o fish and think monopoly is a strategy game.

A very intriguing article in the New York Times suggests that we humans are in fact suited for running long distances. Here's the gist...

  • Marathon participation is up 20% from the beginning of the decade, with over 425,000 people in the US crossing finish lines.
  • Much of the criticism of marathon running is valid from an injury perspective, however as 90% of those who take on the training suffer from some form of injury.
  • In his book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall explores the world of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, a tribe known for running extraordinary distances in nothing but thin-soled sandals.
  • McDougall makes a case that running isn't inherently risky but rather the commercialization of urban marathons that encourages overzealous training.
  • He also argues that the promotion of high-tech shoes has lead to poor running form and subsequent injury.
  • Scientific anthropological evidence suggests that humans are well-equipped for going the distance. A 2007 Sports Journal paper makes a case that several characteristics unique to humans suggested endurance running played an important role in our evolution.
  • In a short distance, our four-legged counterparts for the most part school us. But humans can outrun almost any animal. Because we cool by sweating rather than panting, we can stay cool at speeds and distances that would overheat other animals. Take that, Cheetah!

Evolutionary Explanations

  • One theory of why we are adept at long distances suggests that primitive man watched the sky for scavenging birds and then run long distances to reach a fresh kill and steal the meat from whatever animal was there first.
  • Another postulation is that early hunters chased down animals until they overheated and were too exhausted to run anymore.

Physiological Explanations

  • Short toes make for superior running efficiency. This is especially true for our big toes which are in line with our other toes rather than divergent.
  • Springlike ligaments and tendons in the feet and legs are crucial for running. (Our close relatives the chimpanzee and the ape don't have them.)
  • A narrow waist and a midsection that can turn allow us to swing our arms and prevent us from zigzagging on the trail.
  • Humans also have a far more developed sense of balance.
  • And most humans can store about 20 miles' worth of glycogen in their muscles.
  • The gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the human body, is primarily engaged only during running.

Why So Many Injuries

  • Exercise early in life can affect the development of tendons and muscles, but many people don't start running until adulthood, so their bodies may not be as well developed for distance.
  • Running on only artificial surfaces and in high-tech shoes can change the biomechanics of running, increasing the risks of injury.
  • I would personally add that with many more adults overweight - many of whom take up running to help them shed pounds - are especially prone to injuries.

Quick tips on avoiding running Injuries

  • Cross-train - use other forms of cardio activity such as biking, climbing, swimming.
  • Get proper footwear: Don't be fooled by higher-soled, high-tech shoes. Invest in a good, comfortable pair and ask a knowledgeable professional for help.
  • Run on a forgiving surface such as grass, gravel or other softer surfaces.
  • Train with weights to strengthen surrounding muscles and to address muscular imbalances and postures that are conducive to injury.
  • Be smart! At the first sign of discomfort, stop and do things that don't hurt. Seek the advice of a physical rehab specialist if needed.