Endurance: What the Research Doesn’t Tell You

Felkerino and me. Hilly Billy Roubaix
Photo courtesy Mike Griggs

When mainstream media picks up a thread about the effects of endurance pursuits on health, I usually hear about it. The most recent one I know of was covered in the Wall Street Journal.

The article’s focus was “extreme exercisers,” and how they may experience some health benefits from their activities, but likely put their health at risk in other ways as a result (such as atrial fibrillation and coronary-artery plaque).

I’m sure this study and others like it are a validation to all those who put extreme exercisers in the “crazy” category. “What did I tell you? You-all are crazy for doing insert whatever endurance activity you do here!” they say. “Not only are endurance pursuits crazy. They’re bad for you, too! ”

My rando-buddies and I love reading and discussing studies about endurance. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Barry.) I find it interesting that certain scientists and researchers want to study the physical effects of endurance activities on people.

As someone who has completed multiple marathons and 1200K randonnees, I will tell you straight up that studies suggesting potential health dangers due to these activities will not deter me from doing them. Why? Because my impetus to attempt endurance activities is not founded in physical benefits. In fact, their appeal goes far beyond that.

Felkerino, Jon, and me. PBP 2011
Felkerino, Jon, and me finish PBP 2011

I admit that I started running as an adult because I wanted to get into shape. I started cycling to maintain my fitness when I could not run. Overall, I believe I’m healthier as a result of randonneuring and marathons, not necessarily from the events themselves but because of the level of fitness and nutritional awareness I’ve gained by training for them.

However, I never ran a marathon or rode a brevet because I thought it would make me healthier. I began participating in longer events primarily because I wanted a new goal. I wanted to test my limits, and to see how my body would fare under more intense physical and mental challenges.

So much of my life falls into what I consider the safe and even boring category. Brevets and marathons give me a chance to extend the limits of my safe and boring life while still being relatively tame activities I do mostly on weekends.

Someone once told me that we so often have no idea of what our bodies are capable of doing. Through endurance, and the effort of pushing through sleep-deprivation and other physical and mental discomforts, I become more deeply aware of myself. I experience the endorphin release and emotional thrill that comes from weathering whatever a ride throws at you. And at the end of it all, I get a story to file away under life’s great memories.

Some people understand that allure well. Some have other reasons that draw them to endurance sports. Others will never get it. To them, we’re just crazy. To me, we’re clawing our way to a glimpse of the good stuff.

It may seem ironic that a physical endeavor is not so much about its relationship to overall fitness, but rather its psychological aspects. If my lifespan is shortened because of the marathons I’ve run and the 1200Ks I’ve ridden, I accept that fate.

For those of you who randonneur or run marathons or ultras, would a research study detailing the physical limitations of endurance events dissuade you from participating in them? I doubt it.


  1. You are absolutely right on this one MG! Besides, with all the studies out there, I just have to find a practice that counteracts the downside of endurance events and I’m back to neutral. Besides, when I tell my daughter how far I’ve ridden and she says, “I don’t like driving a car that far”, I’m sure that the pleasure I get adds another minute to my lifespan.


  2. I think I am 35 pounds healthier (lighter) since I started riding Brevets. I also know that I won’t get stressed over these studies as I am too busy riding to worry. Please keep on riding and writing MG.


  3. The Edmund Hillary’s answer to why he climbed Everest was “because it is there.” I have been told that when Edmund Hillary used that answer he did not mean that the mountain was there but rather he meant that he climbed Everest because “it” was on the mountain. In other words the testing of the limits, the challenge was on Everest and so he went there to experience “it”.


    • It’s a long time since this blog entry, but I can’t resist pointing out that it wasn’t Edmund Hillary, it was George Mallory who said “Because it’s there”.
      Mallory died on Everest in 1924. He and his partner were about 200 m from the summit when last seen disappearing into the mist. Mallory’s body—still clad in his tweed (!!) climbing clothes—was found on Everest in 1999. Whether he reached the summit is impossible to say, tho he no longer had in his well-preserved pockets a photo of his wife that he intended to leave there.


      • Thanks for correcting the attribution. It’s actually been quite a while since I looked at this post so your comment gave me a nice opportunity to see what I was thinking about back in 2013.


  4. The factor of quality vs quantity plays a big part in it too. I love the long rides and the glow of the ride lasts for days for me.


  5. I agree MG, great post. However, if i may comment additionally…I will say that sometimes I personally get too wrapped up in posting miles. I think some of us may fall victim to this or perhaps it’s just me, defeating the purpose.

    Regardless, we all have limits. I myself, have to be careful to not push past my limit. Because, after all, I want to enjoy it enough to do it ANOTHER day. Not cut the party short.


    • I go through phases of chasing miles. This year has been more about trying new challenges and bringing back the thrill of riding and being active, whatever form that takes.


  6. I’m at the low end of training mileage for a runner. Studies like this don’t dissuade me one bit from my beloved ultras, but like you, I’m certainly not running these races for my health. They do make me feel better about my low mileage, though!


  7. A research study wouldn’t dissuade me from my pursuits, but as Velo Haven alludes, hitting my physical limit would, and I’ve discovered I have limits. (boo!) But I enjoy bicycling, and like you, it’s all about learning about my level of fitness and nutritional habits that influences my health.


  8. Totally agree with you. I cycle everyday because I enjoy cycling & if I miss on this activity I feel like something is wrong …. it is important for my physical & mental health. I enjoy cycling long distances & will keep on doing that no matter what the scientists & their research tell us..


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