Endurance running is as physical as it is mental. A workout of the muscles and the mind that tests our limits over hours and miles.
And like most challenges, long-distance running can come with great rewards, no matter your pace or personal best.
Done right — with adequate nutrient intake, attentive recovery and any necessary medical clearance — endurance running has the potential to change your mind and body from the cell level up, making your heart function better, transforming your muscles and improving your memory.
Want to know more? Get the facts from Abbott experts on the many ways running benefits your body.
1. Strengthen your heart
While running, your heart rate rises as your heart pumps increasing amounts of blood and oxygen to the working muscles. "This increase in activity and blood flow over time improves your heart's efficiency, which can lead to a lower resting heart rate and blood pressure levels," said Robert Standley, Ph.D., a marathoner and principal scientist in clinical research for Abbott's vascular business.
In fact, a 2020 study found that first-time marathoners experienced beneficial reductions in blood pressure and aortic stiffness equivalent to approximately a four-year reduction in vascular age.
2. Develop fatigue-resistant muscles
"Your muscles adapt very specifically to the type of exercise you're doing," said Lonnie Lowery, Ph.D., senior research scientist, adult nutrition in Scientific and Medical Affairs at Abbott. "Your body will give you the proper tools that you need to be successful."
For endurance runners, this means increasing their type 1 muscle fibers, which makes the muscles increasingly fatigue resistant, Lowery said.
If looking to maintain or build some of the stronger, more explosive type 2 muscle fibers, Lowery suggests adding strength exercises to endurance training. Doing so may help reduce risk of injury, increase running efficiency, and boost muscle power, Lowery said.
3. Build healthy joints
"When it comes to joint health, exercise can be very important and beneficial," Lowery said.
Research shows that cartilage disorders, such as osteoarthritis, are less likely to seriously impact people who are regularly active, including runners. One study on half-marathoners suggested that running acts as a "therapeutic tool" to limit chronic inflammation and positively affect cartilage cells.
"Cartlidge is typically considered avascular meaning it doesn't have blood vessels, so you need those changes in joint fluid pressures to help nutrients diffuse into the cartilage tissues. Running can stimulate that pressure change," Lowery said.
4. Improve memory and mood
Just like muscles and joints, our brain relies on exercise to keep it in shape, regardless of age.
Exercise boosts blood flow to the brain and releases feel-good neurotransmitters, dopamine and endorphins, all of which can lay the groundwork for immediate, as well as long-lasting benefits, including lower stress, improved mood, enhanced memory and increased focus and mental resilience, said Dr. Beth McQuiston, a neurologist and medical director for Abbott's diagnostics business.
"You don't have to be an endurance runner to get the neurological benefits of running. But endurance runners are likely running consistently, so they're likely building up more of those benefits," McQuiston said.
5. Accelerate your metabolism
Metabolism is a chemical process that takes place as your body stores, and then converts, nutrients from foods and drinks into energy. "Think of it as the internal fire that keeps our energy processes going," said Pam Nisevich Bede, a sports dietitian working with Abbott who is training for her 27th marathon.
"As we become more active and our fitness improves, a metabolic shift takes place. Optimally, metabolically active lean tissue replaces excess fat tissue, leading to improvements in health, performance, and metabolic burn," Nisevich Bede said. "You see this metabolic shift happen in runners and often in marathoners in the lead up to race day.
Reaching a healthy weight and improving metabolism often follows this type of increase in activity and fitness. The same lean muscle tissue needed to support the demands of training burns an increased number of calories when compared to fat tissue."
Remember these running benefits the next time you need a little motivation to lace up your shoes and hit the trail, or road or track.
"People often say, 'I don't have time to exercise.' But the truth is, you don't have time not to," McQuiston said.
Abbott is the title sponsor of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series of six of the largest and most renowned marathons in the world: Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, TCS London Marathon, BMW BERLIN-MARATHON, Bank of America Chicago Marathon and TCS New York City Marathon. Click here to learn more.