Running a Marathon Comes With Risks

Although hundreds of thousands more people completed grueling 26.2 mile marathons in the United States in 2009 compared to a decade earlier, a runner's risk of death during or shortly after a race has remained at a very low rate - about .75 per 100,000, according to Johns Hopkins research. Men however, were twice as likely to die as women.

Study leader, Dr. Julius Pham, claims, “It’s very dramatic when someone dies on the course, but it’s not common. There are clearly many health benefits associated with running. It doesn't make you immune, but your risk of dying from running a marathon is very, very low."

Pham and his colleagues found that between 2000 and 2009, 28 people died during or in the 24 hours following a marathon. Half of those who died were above age 45, and all but one in the over-45 group died of heart disease. For younger runners, the cause of death varied greatly and included cardiac arrhythmia and hyponatremia, the latter caused by drinking excessive water.

Marathons have long been considered the apex of endurance competition. However, in recent years they have become wildly popular. Pham and colleagues looked at statistics from approximately 300 marathons per year and discovered that the number of finishers increased greatly between 2000 and 2009, from nearly 300,000 to over 470,000. The researchers claim that the recent increase in marathon popularity is due to the increasing awareness of the health benefits that are a result of regular exercise.

Numerous studies have linked exercise to better physical and mental health, and to longevity. Similarly, marathon running has been associated with decreased risks of hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. People who run regularly have been found to have lower rates of all-cause mortality and disability.

With more and more people participating, Pham says he expected to find that the pace of marathons would have decreased over time, however the average finishing time has remained steady at roughly four hours and 35 minutes.  A limitation of the study however, is that there is no available access to data on the number who dropped out mid-race. This omission might have artificially kept the average finishing times higher.

Pham warns that people should not assume that marathon training or running is free of risks. He claims that studies have shown the yearly incidence of injury in people training for marathons to be as high as 90 percent, with the great majority of injuries being related to the musculoskeletal system.


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