The Upside Down of Running

By Wendy Winn, PT, OCS

We all love running; running is awesome! However, we would be only telling half the story if we only talked about its benefits. Running has some skeletons in the closet. Running has a dark side. 

The Good and Bad Truths: 

Running is stress-relieving and also stress-inducing.. Running helps modulate mood by helping neurotransmitters to fire and by releasing positive chemicals into the nervous system (BDNF, serotonin). However, running also induces stress on the nervous and musculoskeletal system. It is a stressful event for the body. Usually the result is a net good, but when the scales tip, the balance is stress-biased. Too much load on the nervous system decreases immunity, increases pain sensitivity, and increases fatigue. Too much load on the musculoskeletal system increases the workload on muscles and tendons and can result in tendonitis and muscle strains/fatigue. Bones incur stress as part of this system as well. If bones do not have the ability to regenerate themselves, they will break. 


Running is both hard to start and addictive. Many runners will tell you that starting a run is often the hardest part. Getting out the door and starting going takes effort. But, for the reasons listed above (neurotransmitters!), stopping your run can also be challenging. Your brain gets used to the feel-good chemicals, and begins to crave them. This can be very hard to overcome. Running produces a craving in the brain similar to that of drug and alcohol addiction. Not getting this “high” can be detrimental to some. 


Running can help you push your limits beyond what you thought was possible! Being competitive with yourself can be healthy, but being too hard on yourself can result in negative feelings and depression. Competition with others can be good if it’s supportive, but in the running community, it is far too easy to compare yourself to others, particularly on social media, and to feel like you’re not good enough.

Running can burn calories. Running too often without proper recovery, fueling, and restoration can lead to detrimental metabolic syndromes (such as RED-S) that completely destroy many systems of your body. Becoming overly focused on weight and body image is detrimental to anyone, and seemingly unavoidable when you are practicing in sports bras and spandex shorts. Weighing less often makes running less effortful, but maintaining a sustainable weight for your body is crucial. Ending up in the cycle of RED-S leads to stress fractures, heart disturbances, reproductive and bone damage, mental struggles, and ultimately leads to what the runner does not want to do: stopping running.

I feel very strongly that we need to acknowledge both sides of the coin when it comes to running. Otherwise, we are doing the sport, community, and ourselves a disservice.