Is Marathon Training Bad for You?

“You’re training for a marathon? Isn’t that bad for you?”

It’s a question I’ve heard dozens of times, and it usually comes from the same lips that just smoked a pack of cigarettes or threw back three tequila shots or ate an entire KFC family meal, alone.

Go on, pinnacle of health – I think to myself – please share with me your extensive knowledge about marathon training.

“It’s bad for your knees,” they start. “Your joints will never forgive you. It strains your heart. Our bodies just weren’t made to do that.”

Is that all? I ask.

“I once knew a guy whose butcher’s pastor’s prom date died during a marathon.”

Normally, this is when I’d break out my long-form answer. Is marathon training bad for you? Absolutely not. Countless studies have shown that any short-term strain on your body incurred through marathon training is more than offset by subsequent gains in cardiovascular strength, lung capacity expansion and improved brain function, not to mention a significantly reduced occurrence of diabetes, depression and obesity.

But today, you’re not getting the long-form answer. If you asked me at this very moment whether I believe marathon training is bad for my health, I’m afraid I’d have to give you a rebounding ‘yes,’ followed by a resounding cough.

That’s because for the third time since beginning marathon training in July, I spent this week all-but-bedridden with a crippling sinus infection.* It hit the day after I completed an 18-miler, my longest (and most monsoon-like) workout to date.

*diagnosis courtesy of WebMB. It also told me I might have lupus and/or male pattern baldness.

Three Grade-A colds in as many months may not seem wholly out of the ordinary, but these recurrent bouts of illness came on the heals of 18 glorious infection-free months. Since first lacing up my running shoes in January 2011, I’ve been abnormally healthy, and a quick google search tells me why:

“A totally sedentary person is likely to contract a yearly average of two to three upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs) – the medical term for viral infections of the ear, nose and throat, like colds, flu and sinus infections. But a moderately active person can expect to reduce that rate by almost a third, according to Mike Gleeson, a professor of exercise biochemistry at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, U.K.,” this article says.

Hence my glorious and unparalleled cold-free status throughout three half-marathon training cycles.

But amp up that moderate activity level to marathon-caliber exertion? Suddenly, you can expect two to six times as many URTIs during a year, Prof. Gleeson says. But don’t take his word for it. Just ask all the chicken noodle soup vendors I’ve run dry this week. Grilled cheese and naval oranges may also be experiencing a deficit on the island of Manhattan.

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In the past, I’ve continued to train, albeit at a reduced speed and with a lot more pre-run whinging, when under the weather. But with my weekly mileage now grazing 40 and the prospect of an 8-mile tempo run too daunting to imagine through this week’s congestion, I did the until-now unthinkable: I skipped a workout. And then another. And then a third.

That’s right: from Tuesday through Thursday this week, I did not so much as even look at my wicking gear, opting instead to prepare for the fast-approaching Marine Corps Marathon by donning sweats, ordering in and watching romantic comedy after romantic comedy. Forget Hal Higdon’s Novice II program; his How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days fitness plan is much more my style.

By Friday, I felt well enough to hit the park again, but kept it easy and only did 2.5 of the scheduled 5. And by Saturday, having slept among the healing powers of my childhood home (it’s science), I was back to my full 13 miles. I took it slower that usual to be safe; in exchange, it took me to some gorgeous North Baltimore trails. Good trade, I’d say.

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Now that I’m once again on the mend, I’m left wondering: if last week’s 18-miler knocked me off my feet for the better part of a week, what will next weekend’s 19-miler do to me? How about my early October 20-miler? Or, you know, the full 26.6-mile distance itself? Will my evolving body learn to adapt and better fight off the next rhinovirus that’s sneezed its way, or should I start buying shares in Kleenex now?

Either way, if I find myself off my feet, I promise not to again leave this blog untouched for more than a week. Though, to be fair, I did publish this past week – just not on my home site. If you haven’t already done so, check out agoodrun.com (or this link, specifically), to read about my recent participation in a global running project. Per the rules of the assignment, I recorded a run in my home city, donated to a favorite charity and thanked my support system along the way. Oh yeah, and successfully disguised in no fewer than four photographs that I was running with an 101-degree fever. Ah, the wonders of lighting.

OK runners, answer me this: will skipping my mid-week workouts set me back come Marathon Sunday? Or, like fortune cookies and celebrity wedding vows, were marathon training schedules made to be broken?

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5 Responses to Is Marathon Training Bad for You?

  1. First, skipping your mid-week workouts will not set you back for the marathon one bit! I’m not sure about “broken,” but marathon training is much like yoga and it helps to be flexible 🙂

    It was very smart of you to rest! I had a bad cold about a month ago and attempted to train through and just ended up on my ass for 2.5 weeks instead of just one….then 2 weeks later I got a stress fracture, so I’ve been off my feet again for a week now and I got another cold, so I’m not sure the sinus infections can be 100% blamed on training haha. Maybe just a really bad cold season? I’m blaming it on the season changing and my boyfriend who keeps getting sick first.

    Feel better and best wishes with your training!

  2. todkehrli says:

    My marathon training plan blew up three weeks in when I hurt my knee in a Mud Run. After a couple weeks off, I cut my miles back and swapped some runs for bike rides. I finally got back to 5 runs this week.

    I think it’s smart to listen to your body and hold back some. If it happens every week, that will affect your marathon, but a few adjustments along the way are OK.

    Good luck & stay healthy!

  3. A training plan is just that a plan, which needs to be changed and adapted to the actual way your body is responding to the demands you are placing on it. You are in the home stretch of your MCM training and a few days off is not going to demolish your base, in fact it might just help you in the long run. Good luck and keep listening to your body 🙂

  4. terrill hasenauer says:

    I loosely follow my marathon plan. The one time I followed it religiously, I felt run down on the big day. I’ve found that as long as I hit the longest runs, I feel ready (mentally and physically) for the big day!

  5. Wow, you have all made me feel infinitely better about my newfound, uh, flexibility. Thanks for the great feedback, and good luck with each of your own training “plans!”

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