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Can anybody run a marathon?

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney  February 2, 2010 09:47 AM

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Going the distanceGlobe correspondent Elizabeth Cooney is writing about the Boston Marathon in the series "Going the Distance," which appears in the Globe's G Health section. She's also training for it, and hopes you'll check in with her along the way.

Can anybody run a marathon? Should they?

I've been asking specialists those questions as I write about the health implications of training for the marathon. I confess I also wanted to silence some nagging doubts about my own uphill climb from short- to long-distance running. My long run on Sunday was less than inspiring, but I'm pretty sure it was just one of those days. Here's what I heard from two health professionals.

Not everybody is built to run a marathon, they say, but proper training and dedication can make a difference.

"There are some body types that excel at running marathon and long-distance events. And other body types aren't necessarily quote-unquote made to go the distance," physical therapist Jennifer Green of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital said. "Most can, some can't."

People who devote the time to preparing their bodies and focus on training will succeed, as will some whose effort is fueled by a fund-raising goal or some other special inspiration.

"That strong motivation allows you to train passionately for something like a marathon," said Green, who is coaching a team from Spaulding.

Dr. Arthur Siegel of McLean Hospital encourages runners to train thoughtfully.

"You need to know the skills you need to acquire," he said. "You don't go climb Tuckerman Ravine, even in June, without enough clothes. You don't go scuba diving unless you're certified. You don't run a marathon unless you have some idea about where your health is."

He's concerned about charity runners, who are not required to meet certain times at qualifying marathons before applying to run Boston. Runners who get a charity waiver might want to check with their doctors.

A veteran of Boston Marathons from the early 1970s to the late 1980s, Siegel now studies the dangers of long-distance running, including hyponatremia, better know as water intoxication, and cardiac arrest. While rare, they are increasing with the size of marathon fields. Both
may be linked to muscle injury when runners hit the wall of intense exertion, he said.

Injured muscles can lead to an imbalance of hormones regulating water, aggravating hyponatremia brought on by drinking too much water and not enough electrolytes. In cardiac arrest, the hypothesis suggests, muscle injury spurs the blood to get ready to clot, moving a runner from low risk to high risk of a heart attack if coronary arteries are narrowed.

"Don't run a marathon unless you have some idea about how good your health is," Siegel said. "You can get an overdose of a good thing."

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5 comments so far...
  1. Sure: not everyone can run a marathon.......without proper preparation and training. Its no different to so many other things. If you dont prepare adequatley and dont train properly its going to be a problem.

    I am a veteran of around 80 marathons (and ultras) and I can honestly say no marathon is ever easy. But it is the fact of its difficulty that makes it a challenge worth pursuing.

    After all, whats the point of only ever doing things that are easy.

    Posted by David Laurence February 3, 10 12:15 AM
  1. Yes, with proper training and dedication it is my opinion that most can complete a 1/2 or full marathon. However, as the miles are added on during training underlying and unknown muscle imbalances will most likely lead to pain and trauma (ie: stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, tendonitis, etc..).My wife and I recently started training for the ING 1/2 in Atlanta and during our 7 mile training run she started experiencing arch pain to which she went and purchased $120 running shoes. The pain still continued. It was now time for me to take a closer examination of what was going on. It turns out that she has underlying weakness in her left hip leading to increased hip/knee adduction and foot pronation thus most likely causing her arch pain. With proper muscle re-education and orthotics she should be running again real soon.
    For those looking to run a 1/2 or full marathon that have never run more than a 5 or 10k I highly recommend you have an evaluation by a licensed Physical Therapist to determine if there are underlying dysfuctions. At our clinic we are now providing walking & running assessments including video analysis to help prevent injuries.

    Posted by Kirk Stewart, Physical Therapist February 3, 10 09:40 AM
  1. Aside from physical preparedness marathon also requires equal mental preparation. Toward the last few miles of the marathon where many also hit the wall, and the energies are depleted, it takes a tremedous amount of mental toughness to reach even furthur down and pull out the resolve to continue and finish. I am veteran of 121 marathons and 3 ultras and go throug the same tough mental drill each time. That's why many people who otherwise are in excellent physical, can not finish a marathon.

    It's the tenacity of working through the utimate discomfort and pain that makes a marathoner. Being a bit crazy is the icing on the cake :-)

    Posted by Arnie James February 4, 10 01:56 PM
  1. Yes, every healthy person can run a marathon, that is, if you have not neglected your body for decades by complete inactivity and eating yourself into a monster. I don't dispute there are different body types, but the only type that prevents one from running a marathon does not exist in nature--it is the man-made overfed type. And I believe anyone can get out of this unnatural body type if truly determined to do so: admitting you have made yourself a jaba is a good start.

    Posted by the running alien February 4, 10 09:06 PM
  1. I agree the Arnie 100%. There is nothing more mentally & physically challenging than completing the last 5 miles of a marathon when your tank is on empty and everything from the waist down is screaming. But that's what makes crossing the finish line so rewarding.

    I will add this too - to me the training is what's really tough. The actual race is the reward for the months of training. And that's where I think you lose a lot of would-be marathoners. If you live in NE and want to run Boston you have to train thru the winter. And there are no short cuts to proper training. It's not like an exam in school where you can study just enough and hope for an easy exam.

    Every Boston runner knows that Heartbreak Hill is waiting for them at 20 miles.

    Posted by JL February 8, 10 11:02 AM
Look for updates, news, analysis and commentary from the following.
  • Steve Silva, Boston.com senior producer, two-time Boston Marathon sub-four hour runner.
  • Ty Velde is a 16-time Boston qualifier who's completed 12 consecutive Boston Marathons and 25 marathons overall. Ty is now training for his 13th Boston run and will provide training tips for those who train solo and outside, no matter what temperature it is.
  • Rich 'Shifter' Horgan is a 19-time Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team member who runs in honor of his father, who died of colon cancer. He will provide updates on local running events with a focus on the charitable organizations that provide Boston Marathon entries for their organization's fund raising purposes

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