Streak Running: No Need To Fear

Meet Jon Sutherland:

jon sutherland streaker
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This guy is my hero. He has the longest current running streak in America. As of February 25, 2016, the United States Running Streak Association reports the length of Sutherland’s running streak as 17077 days (46.75 years). In addition to his amazing running streak, Jon has had a pretty colorful life. According to this article on ESPN, after running in college (at which time he began his running streak), Sutherland has worked in the rock and roll music industry, he’s been a writer, and he’s been a high school track coach. He has kept his running streak going through hectic schedules, broke bones, and torn muscles. Throughout all these 17077 days, Jon has run at least a mile a day, every day.

One reason I love to read about Jon Sutherland is that the success of his running streak defies all the conventional, overly cautious running wisdom. Unlike a great number of American runners, Sutherland runs without fear. Runners are told by doctors, physical therapists, and all manner of medical and running experts that rest days are imperative for runners. If we don’t rest our bodies, we’re told, we will suffer injuries. We will over-train, and we will under-perform, especially on race day. Most runners I know take these warnings seriously; as a result, they often run fewer miles and spend less time running than they would like to. The reason I’ve always dismissed the notion that one can run “too much,” and that running “too much” is somehow dangerous, is that some really amazing runners have proven otherwise. Runners who regularly finish ultramarathons in the top of their fields run hundreds of miles to prepare for these races, without injury. Elite road runners run high volume miles, and a cursory look at some of their online running logs shows “easy” or “rest” days entail only one run, often of marathon distance. As a novice runner, I poured over articles and blog posts of experienced, skilled runners, and I was puzzled by the disparity between the way skilled runners train and the expert training recommendations for runners. I intuitively felt that rather than running fewer miles and taking rest days as a way to avoid injury, runners needed to log higher mileage and incorporate active, instead of inactive, rest days in order to improve endurance, strength, and over-all conditioning. Improvement in these areas, I believed, is the best way to reduce a runner’s chance of injury.

The first running documentary I watched after I started running, Dean Karnazes’ Ultramarathon Man, affirmed my

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theory. Karnazes (albeit a controversial figure in the world of ultra runners) didn’t injure himself during that fifty days of streak marathon running; in fact, his fiftieth marathon was his fastest. Moreover, upon finishing his 50th marathon in as many days, an uninjured Karnazes ran from New York to St Charles, Missouri. When Dean Karnazes decided to run his 2006 marathon streak of fifty marathons in fifty days, Chris Carmichael and Jason Koop of Carmichael Training Systems wondered about the physiological effects the marathon streak may have on Karnazes. They researched medical literature to see if anyone had studied the effects of athletes participating in any activity for fifty consecutive days. They found no such research.

Carmichael and Koop decided to fill that research gap by studying Karnazes as he pursued his goal. As they monitored Karnazes through his fifty day marathon streak, Carmichael and Koop took regular urine and blood samples to measure the impact of his effort on his muscles. They also tracked his hemoglobin and hematocrit, to monitor anemia, dehydration, and malnourishment. At one point, Koop (who was on the road with Karnazes) had to treat Karnazes for dehydration, but Karnazes recovered quickly. In a 2007 article that details their study of Karnazes on his marathon streak, Carmichael and Koop conclude that “over the course of 50 marathons, his [Karnazes] body had adapted to his running schedule to the point that pounding out 183.4 miles a week caused no more muscle damage than walking the halls at an office job.”  Futhermore, Carmichael affirms the safety of high volume training:

It [the study of Karnazes] confirmed the value of high-volume training for endurance athletes. I’m not talking about volume in terms of months, or even years, but decades. Karnazes’s ultramarathon habit has, over the last 13 years, built up his bone-density, joints, and running muscles and blood transport system to the point where he can motor along forever at a 7:00- to 10:00-mile pace is only limited by his supply of food and fluids not muscle damage or joint pain.

This conclusion of Carmichael and Koop’s study of Karnazes supports, I believe, the idea that streak running can be safely managed, if runners run more, rather than less. For the general runner, who is unlikely to run Badwater or attempt to run fifty marathons in fifty days, a few miles a day is probably all he needs to run to build the endurance and strength he needs to prevent injury as he practices streak running.

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Matt Fitzgerald speaks more directly to daily running in his answer to a question about the lack of weekly rest days in his 5k training program. He points out that “runners do not spontaneously combust on their seventh consecutive day of exercise. Nor do they necessarily become overwhelmed by fatigue or suffer an injury. In fact, there are lots and lots of runners who routinely train seven days a week without negative consequence.” Fitzgerald also points out that the idea that a weekly rest day is based on tradition, rather than on “scientific or real-world assessment of the actual effects of exercising six versus seven days a week.” He does, however, offer the same caveat to the lack of danger in daily running that John Strumsky offers in an article on the United States Running Streak Association website, which is that people who want to start running every day need to work up to it, if they are new runners, or are accustomed to taking rest days.

Strumsky offers some additional tips for safe streaking; he notes the importance of using various types of running work outs, incorporating cross- training, and mixing hard days with easy days. Having stated ways to start and streak safely, Strumsky points out that many of the United States Running Streak Association members are in their 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, and have been streaking non-stop for 10, 20, 30, or more years. These runners, states Strumsky, prove that daily running is possible without causing debilitating running injury. He also makes a statement about daily running that is applicable to most things in life:

Throughout my running career I have listened to many in the running community who disparaged running streaks for their inherent danger only to learn that the running programs most of these protestors followed were one-dimensional; that while they ran, they did little else. Yet, they felt morally compelled to weigh in on the issue of running every day without rest days. They raised their voices in putting down the efforts of streak runners based on their personal viewpoints—often misinformed or uninformed—as to what should constitute a proper running program. Most gave little true thought to the current realities of running. They did not consider the advances achieved in sports medicine or the constant improvements in running shoe technology. They simply parroted the old saw that “everyone knows you need to take days off.” So to those folks who felt, and still feel, the need to weigh in on the issue, let me say that yes, streak running can be dangerous. And yes, occasionally running can be dangerous. And yes again, even getting out of bed can be dangerous. In its broadest sense living is a dangerous activity.

Interestingly, all but a few of my running buddies believe I’m going to injure myself by running every day. I am currently on day 429 of my running streak, 99.9% of my miles in bare feet (I’ve worn my Leadville huaraches on a handful of trail runs). I remain uninjured by my daily running streak. I am, in fact, able to run longer without tiring. and to run faster when I am tired, than I could before I began my streak. Furthermore, I have found that benefits from my running streak have flowed into other areas of my life. I know I’m going to run every day, so I have to plan my days accordingly. As a business owner, I have to remain flexible in my daily schedule. I never know what the day will bring. I find myself prioritizing my time better, knowing that I will have to run at least 1.5 miles before the end of the day (a mile a day is considered sufficient to count as streaking, but I like to run a little more to keep my streak going on days too busy for a longer run ). Some crazy busy days, some days when the weather is super unpleasant, and some days when I am just totally exhausted, the last thing I want to do is to get myself out the door to run. The streak, though, is broken by just missing one single day. I know I’ll regret having broken my streak as soon as I’ve broken it, so I make myself get out the door. The discipline of running when I would rather get into comfy clothes and drink a cup of coffee has helped me to be more disciplined in general.

The beautiful girl I saw because I ran this particular day. (Leon Creek Greenway, San Antonio)
The beautiful girl I saw because I ran this particular day. (Leon Creek Greenway, San Antonio)

Even though streak running has worked well for me, I only recommend it as a safe and beneficial practice to people who are interested in it. Individual runners have individual needs and preferences. Just as I don’t recommend barefoot running for every runner, I don’t recommend streak running for every runner. Whatever brings joy to person from his running life is what that person should do. My husband Phillip, for example, is 110% supportive of my streak running. He even helps me schedule runs into our travel schedule. He is not, however, interested in streak running for himself. He runs more by feel, so if he has a day or two where running seems more a chore than a pleasure, he reads, gardens, etc when he gets home from work, instead. He would definitely grow to resent running if he felt he had to run every day. For those runners who want to run every day, but who worry too much about the danger we’re told is inherent in daily running, I encourage you to go with your hearts and try it. It won’t hurt, and to do what you love to do every day will bring you much joy!



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