While some people still question the sanity of people leaving their couch cushions to lace up running shoes, dust off bikes, or snap on goggles, no one can deny that endurance sports are growing—and fast. Perhaps it’s in response to the obesity epidemic, increasing sedentary lifestyle, or just because it’s fun. Whatever the reason, people are leaving the weekend T.V. marathons in droves for the weekend marathon race, Ironman triathlon, or ultra-endurance 100-plus mile ultra races.
I’m guilty of this. While I was always a runner, I didn’t run my first marathon until I was 31 years old. That began my love affair with endurance racing. I am now in training for my first Ironman triathlon, so the relationship has grown stronger over the years.
So what are the benefits of endurance training? Why the appeal? What would make a presumably sane person want to spend hours running, swimming, or biking? While this list is not all-inclusive, here are the top ten benefits I enjoy as an endurance athlete.
Endurance sports create a stronger, healthier body. Muscles, cardiovascular system, bones, joints, and lungs all learn to adapt to the new task of sustaining a strong pace for hours. Endurance athletes also enjoy faster metabolisms due to more lean muscle mass, so we can indulge our sweet tooth more without the guilt. Sustained exercise also reduces the risk of most debilitating diseases. I lost several immediate family members to cancer, so this was one of the primary reasons I began running.
While ramping up the mileage too fast or overtraining can cause mental and physical fatigue, exercise done properly has been shown by researchers to actually help with cognitive function. It was also found to be a preventative to Alzheimer’s in older people. For anyone who has done endurance sports, the best thinking time may be on the road on in the water. Exercise improves circulation throughout the body, and the brain benefits from this.
When I don’t exercise, I struggle with my weight and self image. When I train and participate in endurance races, a very nice side effect is that my clothes fit better. This improves my confidence and interactions with others. After being both fit and overweight at different periods in my life, I certainly would choose the amazing results of endurance training any day over sitting on the couch eating ice cream.
There is something to be said for surprising yourself and surpassing your perceived limitations. The great thing about endurance training is that you get back what you put in. When you train, you learn your body can do things you never believed possible. You also learn to push past pain and exhaustion to a whole new level of power. When I completed my first marathon, I felt I was invincible. That feeling spills into other areas of life. You learn that hard work and dedication pay off. So, you continue to push against all of life’s limits, not just the physical or fitness barriers.
Runners often joke that running is cheaper than therapy. There is truth to that. Many psychologists believe exercise works at the same level or better than antidepressants, and the studies back this up. It must be all those endorphin surges!
During my dark times, I turned to running and found mental relief from pain and depression. Even if you aren’t sad, running is also a great stress relief from the every-day emotional impacts of life.
Endurance training helps with better sleep. On days I don’t train, I often have trouble sleeping. However, when I’m on a daily training schedule, running, biking, and swimming hard in all that fresh air and sunshine, World War III couldn’t wake me up at night. I also start my morning refreshed and energized.
If you can train your body to propel you forward for hours on end through all types of terrain and weather, getting through the day is easy. Your body becomes efficient, and you get more done, in less time, with more energy.
Exercise increases production of HGH or Human Growth Hormone. HGH has been tied to many benefits, specifically anti-aging. All exercise increases HGH, but anaerobic exercise is especially helpful. Most endurance athletes also hit the weight room to remain competitive and keep their core strong to reduce injury.
I’m not proud of this, but I can’t tell you how many times I have been beaten by people well into their 60s. When I speak to these racing veterans, I can’t believe it when they volunteer their age. They always look and act decades younger. I can only hope that I age as gracefully!
Endurance sports draw a quality crowd. You meet the type of people who encourage you to pull out the inward athlete and readily share knowledge to help you get there. Some of my best friendships have been forged under the hot sun and glued together with blood, sweat, and tears. Pushing yourself past physical limitations rips away the layers you carefully construct for the world. You become raw and real, and that forms the best foundation for strong relationships. Also, no matter where you travel, when fellow athletes meet you, you often find yourself joining them in a workout. It’s a passionate commonality that connects us.
No one can deny that regular exercise increases the quality and quantity of life. You reduce the risk of systemic disease and increase life expectancy when you begin endurance training. You enjoy better health, improved self image, clearer thinking, increased energy, mental toughness, better relationships, better sleep, stay younger longer, are happier, and enjoy amazing relationships. This translates into a better over-all existence on this planet.
So, what are you waiting for? It’s time to ditch the T.V. marathons for some real marathon training! Chose a race, find a club, and hit the road, gym, or pool to enjoy these benefits today.
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