Some of the health effects of running can be felt almost instantly, but I’ve come to learn this intense form of cardiovascular exercise can have a surprising mix of benefits and drawbacks over the long-term.

The Health Effects of Running

Photo by Cynthia Ottuso – Ottuso Photo

I started jogging when I was in high school because I wanted to be slimmer – plain and simple.

And it worked pretty well, to a degree.

Health Effects of Running – The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly

My body reacted to the sudden increase in activity almost instantly, noticeably slimming my thighs and hips.

But I didn’t join the track team or a gym or anything like that; I was shy about working out in front of other people.

A mess of 16 year old insecurities, I hit the pavement alone at night, running wherever my legs took me for an hour or more.

It started off simply enough, but it quickly became less about fitness and more about emotional release.

To this day, I still crave an exhaustive, sweat-soaked run more than the strength training I know I actually need for optimal physical fitness.

Now at 26 years old, I’m seeing some of the long-term effects of high-intensity interval running:

The Good

Heart of a Lion

Running puts a great deal of strain on your entire body, but your cardiovascular system is one that is especially affected.

Over time, this extra strain on your heart can result in a lower resting heart rate, which typically indicates a strong heart.

The few times I’ve been hooked up to heart monitor in recent years, I was equal parts surprised and concerned to see how infrequently my heart was beating.

However, nurses and doctors have all assured me that this is actually a sign of a strong and healthy heart!

Keep in mind though, that distance running too hard for too long can have a negative impact on your heart and even increase the likelihood of a cardiac event.

Runner’s Legs

As you might expect, jogging regularly can give you powerful, muscular legs, and larger glutes.

That being said, this muscle gain will plateau and eventually level out based on your genetic predisposition, so I wouldn’t recommend taking up running for the sole purpose of bulking up your legs/butt.

I’ve always had thick legs, but running really carved out the muscle tone that I have now.

I can’t even wear super-skinny jeans because my calves won’t fit into the size 3 that suits my hips/butt (thank goodness for stretch denim though.)

As mentioned earlier though, too much running can actually have the opposite effect as your body breaks down muscle for fuel – so try not to overdo it.

Increased Pain Tolerance & Pain Relief

People who hate running feel that way for good reason: it freaking hurts.

A few minutes in and already you can’t breathe, your calves are on fire, your heart is pumping, and your brain is screaming “WTF STOP!”

I totally get it.

I was able to get past this initial repulsion because I started up this habit with the desperate goal in mind of losing weight, being perfect, earning love, etc.

For people of more sound mind and soul, there may not be any good reason to suffer like this and thus the pain of running outweighs the potential health benefits.

But for those of us with a reason to fight the impulse to stop, there is a gradual reduction in the pain perceived during a jog.

To some degree, this is probably due to the body growing accustomed to the exercise over time.

But I also suspect that you can train your brain to drown out pain signals, because my increased tolerance for pain does not seem to be limited to running!

While this is a cool jedi mind trick, I also find myself more prone to injury since I’m not noticing as much pain.

And while I know jogging can actually be the cause of back pain, for me it’s not the main culprit.

Long story short, I have a herniated disc in my lower back from a car accident a few years ago.

It’s a curse (for obvious reasons) but the eternal optimist in me also sees it as a blessing, because nothing makes my back hurt more than being sedentary.

My Dad used to make this joke when I was a kid and complained about something hurting – he’d say something along the lines of “Come here, I’ll punch you in the head and you’ll forget all about how (insert other body part here) hurts.”

The moral of the story is not that my father used to beat me (he didn’t!) but that one kind of pain can be used as a mechanism to distract from another type of pain.

Dark, right? Perhaps.

But fuck if I care – I’ll take a temporary burn in my legs over the constant hum of lower back pain any day.

Besides, running causes the tense muscles at the root of my back pain to warm up and loosen, and increased blood flow to the injured site also offers some relief.

Stress Management & Emotional Release

As I mentioned in the introduction of this post, I found in running a wonderful way to cope with existential angst in my teens.

I started running strictly because I wanted to lose weight, but it’s turned into an important part of how I manage my stress and feelings today.

I can hardly imagine where I’d be now if I hadn’t developed a habit of running to deal with my thoughts; no doubt I’d be mentally and physically weaker.

Runner’s Euphoria

While this ties in somewhat with stress relief, I’ll make a distinction here if you’ll let me explain.

The terms Runner’s High and Runner’s Euphoria are pretty self-explanatory; they refer to the surge of endorphins you’re rewarded with after strenuous exercise.

Studies have shown that after a jog, you’re left with an elevated mood and a reduction in overall anxiety, which is probably why it works so well to manage stress and is even thought to stave off depression.

Interestingly, science has started exploring the link between the endorphins released during exercise and the endocannabinoid system in the brain – the same reward center responsible for feeling high after marijuana use.

But running is more than just therapeutic: it is transformative.

I’ve always had an active imagination, and there’s no time when it comes more to life than when my brain is desperately trying to drown out the pains of running.

In reality, I am an introvert, but in my mind I fantasize about being the center of attention and the life of the party.

I see myself surrounded by whichever people in my life are most important at the time, they are looking up to me, they are inspired, and they are in awe of my greatness.

You could make the argument that these delusions of grandeur are symptoms of an oversized ego, but unless you’re a psychologist or a spiritual guru (funny that I equate the two) I really couldn’t care less!

These positive visualizations of myself which I only experience during a run are part of the addiction, and they leave me feeling mentally as fulfilled as my body is tired at the end of a workout.

It all adds up to me having an unshakeable sense of self-esteem (erring on the side of arrogant perhaps) but beneficial nonetheless.

The Bad

Exercise Induced Asthma

Asthma was not a part of my life until I began running.

(I was such a healthy kid – what happened?)

I’ve still never had an official asthma attack as far as I know, and so my doctor calls it exercise induced asthma.

It’s relatively minor: a tightening of my airways during a run makes it hard for me to go hard for long distances, which is why I settled into a casual version of interval training.

This way, I still get my rush from sprinting, but I break intermittently to catch my breath while walking or jogging at an easy pace.

With a puff from my prescription inhaler before a workout, my symptoms are virtually non-existent.

Runner’s Knees

It’s widely known that running does a number on your joints.

Most commonly affected are the knees and ankles, since they are structurally kinda flimsy in average people.

Many neglect proper strength training to develop the supportive muscles that keep joints stable during a run (guilty) and this eventually and inevitably results in some kind of injury.

For me, I’ve been experiencing painless clicking and cracking in my knees for many years now.

It’s usually the most noticeable right after an intense run, and it sounds like a skeleton walking on ceramic tile.

But it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started having knee pain during and after my workouts.

It got pretty bad after a few long runs on the bare pavement, so I started wearing a compression brace on both knees during my runs which helped keep the joint in place and avoid any further injury.

Ultimately, I had to stop running for a few weeks, and I also stopped wearing high heels during that period.

Thankfully, my knees recovered on this break, and I’ve since made the following adjustments to avoid any future problems:

  • I don’t run on the pavement anymore – I joined Equinox gym and use their special shock-absorbing treadmills as much as possible. If you can’t get to the gym, you can still run on grass or dirt to reduce the impact on your joints.
  • I stretch & warm up – … most of the time. To avoid injury and extra muscle soreness, I force myself through a few stretches and foam rolling moves before I hit the treadmill. As much as I hate stretching, foam rolling actually feels pretty great. It gets fresh blood flowing into your tense muscles which goes beyond preventing injury and can even enhance your run.
  • I don’t run for as long as I used to – In past years, I was running for an hour or longer, which is way too long unless you’re training for a marathon (I wasn’t, I was just compulsive.) Now I run for 20 – 30 minutes and spend the difference strength training. Which brings me to my next adjustment:
  • I supplement my runs with strength training – Nothing crazy, ’cause I still find strength training dull and tedious. But I try to cycle through arms, legs, and abs during the week to keep my fitness routine well-rounded.
  • Lastly, I don’t wear stiletto heels except on very rare occasions – What a difference this made for me! Unstable knee joints combined with spiked heels is a recipe for disaster. And men don’t care for heels as much as we’d like to think anyway. Wedges and block heels are still in play because they offer more stability.

Tight Hammies

I’ve had tight hamstrings for as long as I can remember and touching my toes with a forward bend has always been excruciating.

I’ve been told that this is very common in runners, though I’ve found my warm ups now help a LOT.

I won’t be able to reach past my knees at first, but after a few Sun Salutations I can just about touch my toes.

Still, no matter how frequently I stretch, it’s like I always have to start back over at zero with this motion.

The Ugly

Runner’s Feet

This is a tough one to talk about because I’ve always been insecure about my feet (don’t look!)

As a matter of fact, it was a recent close examination of my feet that prompted me to write this post.

My feet aren’t THAT horrible I guess, but they’ve never been my pride and joy either.

Naturally, ten years of jogging and sprinting hasn’t helped this situation.

Although I struggle constantly with ingrown toenails that dig into the cuticles, crooked toenails, and thick callouses, I used to keep my feet looking presentable with regular pedicures and polish changes.

However, I stopped a few months ago because I wanted to grow some healthy nail once and for all (having polish on all the time is not good for nail health.)

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, I finished a run with a tingling feeling in my 2nd toe on my right foot.

And to my alarm, I find that my toenail had turned a lovely shade of purple!

Health Effects of Running - Blood Under Toenail & Ingrown Nails

Bleeding under the toenail aka “subungual hematoma” \m/

After a little Googling, I learned that this must be caused by bleeding under the toenail, and it’s very common in runners wearing improperly fitted footwear – apparently you’re supposed to buy a size up in running shoes, but I’ve never heard of that until now.

It’s weird though because my discolored nail doesn’t hurt, even the tingling went away, but it’s still as purple as the day it happened.

I haven’t really done anything about it because it’s nothing more than a superficial concern right now, and I’ve got more important things to worry about… I’m going backpacking through Europe in a week!

So here’s hoping it resolves on it’s own – and yes, I’m in the market for some new running shoes if anyone has a recommendation.

Body Acne

Last but not least, one of the most annoying health effects of running for me is body acne.

Thankfully, it’s also one of the easiest things on this list to prevent and treat.

If you’re just joining us, you should know I’m already predisposed to bouts of inflammatory cystic acne and I do a lot of internal and external upkeep to keep it in check (not the least of which includes consulting with an online dermatologist to keep my prescriptions filled.)

The superficial breakouts I sometimes get on my body are almost always caused by wearing sweaty workout clothes for too long and not showering off right away.

By reducing my overall time spent exercising and heading straight to the showers at Equinox after finishing, I’ve developed a hygienic routine that makes body acne pretty much a non-issue for me these days.

So if you keep breaking out in weird places, think about whether you’re spending a little too much time fucking around on your phone in sweaty clothes after your workout… and whether you could do a better job of showering off right away.

Health Effects of Running – The Final Word

What started as a coping mechanism and a means to an end has become one of my most beloved habits for self-care.

I love-love-love to run and would do it every day if I had the time and energy!

It’s enough that I’ve started to take note of how improving my diet can help me reach that point – too much junk food, sugar, and calorie restriction have put a hard ceiling on my potential as a runner.

I’m trying to change my ways so I can be as healthy as possible; by enjoying fewer vices, I’ll have the capacity to enjoy more fulfilling workouts, not to mention an even tighter body.

Still, I’m proud after 10 years to be able to call myself a runner, and I urge you give it a chance some time.