Extreme athletes live longer (phew, that’s a relief)

5 minute read

Running very very fast probably does you no harm, according to a ‘Where are they now?’ of sub-four-minute-milers.

“The key to a long and healthy life” is a popular genre in health media publicity.  

The “key” will be anything from the Mediterranean diet to that crucial third cup of coffee to almond avoidance to blueberry smoothie enemas, depending how reality-based your source is.  

Occasionally it’ll be some old-timer who fought in World War I and swears by a daily cigar and half a pint of whisky.  

Point is, they can be weird but are usually manageable.  

But last week the eminently reality-based Victor Chang Institute sent out a press release headed: “Running under a four-minute mile could be the key to a long and healthy life.” 

Ah yes, that highly achievable and relatable lifestyle factor we can all aspire to.  

One of the Chang’s boffins, Professor André La Gerche, co-authored this paper in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, which itself has the cooler and less funny title “Outrunning the grim reaper: longevity of the first 200 sub-4 min mile male runners”.   

In this study, undertaken for the 70th anniversary of Sir Roger Bannister’s historic time on 6 May 1954, an international team looked at the longevity of runners who have replicated the athletic feat once thought to be an unbreakable barrier in human performance.  

The researchers hypothesised they would find greater than average longevity, while noting that humans have long harboured concerns about the damage that extreme exercise can inflict on the body.  

The marathon, after all, is named for a Greek-Persian dingdong where the only death we remember is that of the runner who conveyed the news of the Greek victory to Athens and died on the spot of exhaustion. (Well actually, according to Herodotus, Pheidippides ran the far more ultra 225km from Athens to Sparta to ask for help, and got there the day after he set out; Plutarch later conflated that with the Greek army’s speedy 40km march back from Marathon to Athens.)  

More recent evidence has associated extreme sporting events with “potentially concerning changes in cardiac structure or function including acute increases in biomarkers of cardiac injury, reduced resting left and right ventricular function and myocardial fibrosis (although in a minority of athletes)”.  

But other studies that focused on elite athletes rather than community participants have found increased rather than decreased longevity.  

So the team took the first 200 of the nearly 2000 runners (all men) who have broken the four-minute barrier and compared their lifespan with a matched population’s life expectancy. (This expands on a 2018  Lancet study that looked at the first 20.)  

All 200 had completed their run by 1974 and 60 have since died. Pretty straightforward to analyse. For the other 140 still living they did some trickier stuff to project the expected lifespan, which … well, we don’t have time to go into it here.  

Suffice it to say they found that the speed freaks showed an average 4.74-year increase on their predicted life expectancy based on sex, age, year of birth, age at sub-four-minute-mile completion and nationality.  

Those who ran in the 50s had 9.2 years of extra life, while for those in subsequent decades the gap decreased. Olympians had no advantage over non-Olympians. 

Showing that extreme runners have extended lifespans also shows that “breaking previously conceived boundaries of running physiology does not come at the cost of a shortened lifespan”, the authors write, challenging the U-shaped-curve hypothesis that too much exercise is as risky as too little.  

While the authors couldn’t determine a cause, previous work in Olympians and Tour de France cyclists suggests the longevity is mainly down to decreased CVD and cancer rates.  

“It is also likely that these populations possess favourable genetics,” they say, noting the 20 sets of brothers and father-son combinations in the cohort.  

Whether the extended lifespan after running a sub-four-minute mile “is due to the features required to achieve success or reflects the clustering of lifelong healthy exercise and lifestyle behaviours remains an important question”. 

No kidding genetics are involved. No one’s pursuing that goal who doesn’t have some starting advantages.  

Professor La Gerche comments: “Five years of extra life compared to average is very significant, especially when we found that many of these runners not only enjoyed long lives but were also healthy too. Not everyone needs to be able to run a sub-four-minute mile to enjoy good health long into old age, but they do need to exercise regularly and push themselves aerobically.” 

The Back Page could tell you our personal best, but then we’d have to kill you because it would be so embarrassing. It’s probably several multiples of four minutes. We remember our sports teachers’ undisguised derision at our efforts on the school oval.  

But we’ll try to pick up the pace now, forgoing the excuse that we’d be running too quickly towards the grave.  

Send elite story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au 

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