There was an intriguing article in The New York Times recently about a study that had found a direct correlation between marathon training and an increased risk of skin cancer. The basic conclusion here is hardly surprising: Marathon runners spend a lot of time outdoors, often squeezing in runs during lunch in the peak sunlight hours, hence they’re more susceptible to melanoma. Fair enough.
But buried farther down in the story was a remark by one of the study’s authors that struck a false note with me.
Sun exposure may not be the only risk factor that distance runners face. The authors write that although there is no question that regular exercise is important to good health, there is good evidence that high-intensity training and excessive exercise can lead to suppressed immune function.
“This is quite well established,” Dr. Cristina M. Ambros-Rudolph said. “Many alterations in immune cell function have been noted at the cellular level in marathon runners. For example, there is the association between excessive exercise and immunosuppression reflected in the increased incidence and severity of upper respiratory tract infections in marathon runners after races.”
Now, I’m no doctor, but I can say that my own training experience and that of the folks I train with on a regular basis is exactly the opposite of what Ambros-Rudolph says is established science. Since I began running seriously about six years ago, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten the flu or a cold or anything more serious than a runny nose. The one time I did get the flu was the direct result of a flu shot, but I’ll even count that just to be a good sport.
I live in New England, where winter can last a solid five months, spring is a rumor and we get paid off for all of that fun with Julys and Augusts that rival anything you’ll find in Virginia or the Carolinas. So I’m not exactly training in a hyperbaric chamber here. And yet, neither I nor 99 percent of the guys I train with get sick on a regular basis. This is despite the fact that most of us have kids who at this time of year are little walking Petri dishes, sneezing, wheezing germ factories on legs.
Why this is, I’m not really sure. But my best guess is that as runners most of us lead very active lifestyles, maintain healthier diets than most of the U.S. population and are generally very health-conscious. We pop multivitamins, gulp down glucosamine and chondroitin and drink water by the gallon. All of which probably helps keep our immune systems humming.
But perhaps the good doctor wasn’t talking about us average folk. Note her characterization of marathon training as “excessive exercise.” (Clearly she’s been talking to my wife.) She may well be referring to elite athletes who log 100-plus miles a week on a regular basis. By even our liberal definitions, that probably qualifies as excessive. Still, I’d be willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that a rigorous study of say 100 or even 50 regular runners would produce results that are more in line with my experience than the doctor’s assumptions.
I’m just sayin’.