Could Ya, Should Ya, Would Ya…Run a Mile?

That is indeed an interesting question, or actually 3 if I check my math. As we roll into the middle of summer, I’m seeing lots of people upping their movement levels, and quite a few of them seem to be running past my view. Enough to make me ponder those questions…

Before I attempt to address the query of “could, should, and would,” let’s take a look at this mile thing. 1,760 yards, or 1609 meters, a mile happens to be the measurement upon which our highway system is based, and it also represents just a little more than 4 laps around your local high school or college track (which is 400 meters). The mile has always been considered the classic “middle distance” running event in track and field. It has traditionally been viewed as a reasonably good “blended” test of a runner’s speed and endurance. In reality, running a good mile probably requires a bit more aerobic conditioning than anaerobic fitness (most experts suggest it to be 60/40 to as much as 70/30 aerobic/anaerobic) and this ratio tends to go up the longer it takes the runner to complete the mile. However, most authorities will agree that a mile time is a very good indicator of overall fitness in not just runners, but most regular exercisers. If we really wanted to test speed, we’d look at 100 meters or less, and if endurance was the objective, we’d probably need to go out past 2 hours (as in how far can you go in that time). But we are talking about the mile here, so let’s stay on track (gotcha!).

Then we get to health, and how running a mile can relate to both disease risk and longevity. In what is now viewed as a classic study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2011, researchers used treadmill testing with over 11,000 men to show strong correlations between mile running times and reduced lifetime risks for cardiovascular disease mortality. Looking at just one aspect of that data, men in their 50’s who could run a mile in 10 minutes had a 30% risk of a coronary vascular incident in their lifetime. If those same 50 year-old men could run the mile in 8 minutes, their risk dropped to 10%. Interestingly, being fitter (and thus faster) than that level did not convey additional benefits and this has been corroborated by many other studies.

Most of the “older” science indicates that we need to be moderately fit to enhance our health and longevity, but it doesn’t suggest that ultimate levels of fitness correlate with better health. In many cases, very high levels of fitness have been associated with negative health outcomes, although this must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Even more recent research suggests that it is entirely possible for elite athletes to be even healthier than the general population or moderately fit individuals. My opinion is that it may be the pursuit of ultimate fitness, and not the conditioning level itself, that can compromise health. In other words, highly motivated athletes may train and recover inappropriately, and thus downgrade health, as they pursue peak performance. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.

Ok, so we know that runners like to race a mile and use it as a test of fitness. And we accept that running a decent mile now and again may have some health benefits. But what about this whole “born to run” topic? This is a hotly debated issue and one in which I have taken a decidedly middle ground concerning the running of middle distances. I want to address this issue from the concept of genetics, and also from evolutionary biology and medical anthropology. I also want to preface my comments so that they can be perceived as respectful and sensitive to any human.

We actually were born to run…some. When you look at human design, we are known as bipedal (on two legs) locomotors. Once we exited the birth canal and got through those first couple years, we developed the mechanical linkages and neuromuscular patterning to be capable of running. Kids on a playground give us a very good glimpse at our intended design. They can run at will, and will typically sprint short distances frequently during play. Also, we humans have the capacity and programming to do quite a bit of walking, as it was our primary mode of transportation prior to the horse and ultimately, the buggy (combustion, electronic, avionic, etc.). Soooo, most of us agree that we are born into a body (recognizing certain congenital issues and injuries) that can sprint a little and walk a lot, but we are talking about running the mile here. We possess the ability to deliver blood and oxygen to our bodies, and dissipate heat quite effectively. We have the capability to run for several minutes, or a mile or so, and this probably came in handy in certain instances in history. An example would be crossing the savannah from a gathering foray and needing to hustle home to the forest shelter as storm clouds threatened. Other examples might include certain aspects of communication, hunting, and warfare which varied quite a bit from one geographic region to another. So we are probably made to be able to occasionally run a mile when we want or need to, and this is a totally natural part of our genetic profile.

Now I think we can get to the “could ya” portion of our inquiry. First of all, we have to recognize that there will be some members of our population, due to congenital issues, obesity, severe deconditioning, and various systemic diseases and lifestyle disorders who currently cannot, and at least temporarily, should not, attempt to run a mile. Some of these individuals can be carefully and safely brought back to ideal locomotive functional capacity through appropriate diet, lifestyle, and exercise habits. For others this may not be possible and we/they must accept that this component of functionality is permanently unattainable. That is unfortunate but it is reality.

“Could Ya” in regards to running a mile really asks this question: “Are you capable of running (not walking, but at whatever speed/effort is comfortable for you) without stopping and not being destroyed/exhausted and so sore you can’t move for several days?” This doesn’t mean you have to go out and do it every day, or even ever. It just means “Are you capable of locomoting for 1 mile under your own power without collapse?” Of course if a person can’t run, we can probably get them most of the health benefits of running that mile via cycling, swimming, or an equivalent output on a rower or elliptical machine. But they might not have the ambulatory function on their own feet which could come in handy in a survival situation (make your own illustration here).

I’m all for cross-training and safe fitness for everyone, but for those who are able-bodied and capable of running, I encourage them to maintain this genetically programmed component of human physiology. And this is even more important if they are of procreating age. We want to express, not suppress, the genes of locomotive function and pass this necessary trait onto our offspring. Sedentarism isn’t cool and it doesn’t do our society any favors. Each generation deserves the best we can give it; no less. Ok…so if you wanted to run a mile, for any reason, could ya?

At this point we will consider the second of the three possibilities, the “should” part of this equation. Here is where my mid-distance mindset is most mid-range. On the one hand, it matters not one bit whether a person occasionally runs a mile or not. As long as that individual performs the requisite amount of activity and exercise to maintain the equivalent level of health and fitness that running the occasional mile can convey, he or she is probably good to go with respect to the amount of reduction in disease risk that the milers achieve. Also, please recognize that most of this data is based on associative studies — and correlation does not equal causation. You can get your fitness any way you want. While we want all types of fitness for all people (cardiovascular, strength, mobility, etc.) we are mainly talking about cardiorespiratory conditioning in this instance and those mile times correlate to maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). This attribute can be trained equally well on a bike, in a pool, on cross-country skis, or atop many gym machines.

But there is another side (thus the other hand) to this argument which was alluded to in the previous paragraph. That ability to run a mile is a natural, pre-programmed trait with which virtually all of us begin our life journey. Maybe we don’t want to let a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle, with its potential for obesity, metabolic dysregulation, and joint degeneration, steal our innate capacity to trot along for a few minutes. Here is a vivid example of this situation. On a recent fishing trip I came upon a middle-aged couple in great distress along the side of the road. They had been floating down the river on tubes as part of a tourist group, but had drifted too far and inadvertently missed the takeout point. They were overweight and obviously deconditioned — and remember I’m not saying that to be a jerk. What struck me most powerfully was that they were in a sincere panic, as their bus was scheduled to depart and they were completely unable to shuffle the less than one mile distance down the flat road to the boat landing. My companion and I compassionately sensed their desperation, frustration, and absolute helplessness as we prepared to give them a ride. Then the bus came around the corner to pick the couple up. You could palpably feel their relief. The message I felt was deeper. Sure, I’d give them a ride anytime, but I’d rather give them the knowledge and inspiration to jog that mile once in a while and preserve their human locomotion ability in their toolbox of life.

And finally we get to the “would” part of this discussion. Some folks will say “No way, I’ll never run another step as long as I live.” Usually they say they hate running, it doesn’t feel good, or it’s not their “thing.” But many of us might suggest that as human animals, it (the ability to run a mile) is everybody’s (again recognizing and respecting those whose lack of able-bodiedness makes it absolutely medically contraindicated to run) thing. I fully appreciate that not everyone is a lean, marathoner body-type locomotor who is probably a descendent of ancient messengers. Those folks are actually outliers in a statistical sense and don’t represent average, normal, or typical in terms of physical attributes.

And I fully appreciate that if one has the body of an Olympic shot-putter, jogging one mile is just about all they might be able to handle. But there is much benefit in being able to do just that when needed in a functional circumstance. And please keep in mind that I have a fairly deep understanding of the science of biomechanics, exercise physiology, and proper training. I’ve been a human performance professional for 35 years so I have the experience to back up what I’m saying. If your career has been in accounting, law, architecture, or chemistry, I respect what you do and know. But this is my field and I want to share it with you. Almost anyone that wants to be able to run a mile can be safely and progressively trained to do so. Yes, it may take a while and may need to be preceded for a few months by a health reset and weight loss program before they ever jog a step, but it can be done.

And for those that just don’t and won’t ever run a stride, and are obstinate in their position, I’m not going to fight you (I wouldn’t win anyway). But I encourage you to get and stay healthy and fit, and maybe possess the ability to run a tiny bit even if that’s not a regular part of your routine. You aren’t doing it for me. You are giving the gift of health and functionality to yourself. If you can’t figure it out for yourself, hire a fitness professional to help you. Just do what’s necessary to live your best life.

I was going to finish up with that last paragraph but it felt a little heavy to me, so I’ll exit this missive on a lighter note. I’ve got a little mini-project going with this mile running thing. It’s not a book project and will be described in just a couple of blog posts. My interest in health and function has led me to look at more of the data on what I call (and personally do) minimalist running. I’m studying what the research says about the subjects we just reviewed, interviewing a couple of runners and fitness experts, and “guinea-pigging” myself a bit. I hope you find this as intriguing as I do. Thanks so much for reading and stay tuned for an update.

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