Turkey trot or not? The pros and cons of running a Thanksgiving 5k

A professor of human physiology explains.

Hours before they tuck into turkey and pie, roughly a million Americans this Thursday will don sneakers and sweats and head to their local Turkey Trot, the increasingly popular (and virtuous) Thanksgiving Day road races held in cities and towns across the country.

The inaugural Turkey Trot was held more than 100 years ago in 1896, when six men participated in an 8k race held in Buffalo, New York. The race took place a year before the first Boston Marathon, and proponents claim Buffalo’s Turkey Trot is “the oldest consecutively run footrace in the world.”

For novice runners, Turkey Trots offer a chance to be active with family but can also stir concerns about being “in shape” enough to run a 5k or a 10k race — not to mention avoiding the aches and pains that can accompany running too hard without enough training.

To discuss the promise and challenge of recreational running, Grid turned to Mike Hahn, professor of human physiology at the University of Oregon and director of the Bowerman Sports Science Clinic, located in the running hub of Eugene, Oregon.

Those who can’t bring themselves to lace up for a jog can take solace: Hahn said Turkey Trots are not a tradition in his family. And while running is great exercise, he isn’t a consistent runner: Bike commuting and swimming are his favorite means of being active.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mike Hahn: My default would be to say that exercise is good for everybody. But — it’s good for someone to do a Turkey Trot if they didn’t decide to do it just two weeks ago or the day of.

I think it’s great to include some sport activity as part of the celebration. Is it for everybody? Probably not. If you’re in shape and ready for a 5k, do it. If you aren’t in shape but want to have exercise with family, find out what the options are. Not every runner has to be a marathoner, and not every human has to be a runner.

Those “Couch to 5k” plans are decent, and they usually build in some sort of “stress cycle to rest cycle” strategy. The ideal situation is someone slowly building in their distance or intensity, but not every day. You have to run or walk a day, take a day off, then progress.

If you run for 30 minutes, you are getting your heart up more than cycling, swimming or other exercise during that amount of time. But I think people just go a little to the excess sometimes, because we like to have goals. Instead of running three or four times a week, because it can be good to get a little exercise, people tend to say, “Well maybe I need something to train for, a 5k or 10k,” [or] “I’m going to run the Turkey Trot because I want to run a 10k or train for a marathon.”

There are people who are apparently made to run marathons. [Olympic marathon champion] Eliud Kipchoge is put on this earth to run marathons. The people that are doing it repeatedly have figured out a balance in their own body in how much they can train and prepare and how much repair they do after damaging themselves, because the marathon causes a lot of damage to the tissue. It’s not like they can’t recover from that or that they’ll need surgery, it’s just not a healthy event for the tissue.

[A 10k race] involves a sustainable training load that you can run often. The recovery from a marathon — we’re talking weeks and weeks of recovery. You don’t consider other sporting events as causing damage like that.

So my conclusion is that a marathon itself is not a healthy thing — but there’s a lot of things we do once.

Everyone’s calf is between their knee and ankle. But if you look at elite distance runners, they don’t have bulky soccer legs, they have thin legs, right? There tends to be a habituation or training effect of running that much over that time. The muscles tend to become shorter muscles with long tendons. The Achilles becomes longer and, because of that, there’s more mass close to the knee.

What happens is that it becomes much easier for the lower leg to spin forward because there’s less mass closer to the foot. In the leg, the more mass you have closer to the body, it’s easier to get moving and easier to slow down. So it takes less energy to move.

The people who can perform at world-record setting paces, they all tend to look the same. In track and field, you can almost pick out what event a person is doing by the ratio of their legs to their trunk.

The other thing I’d say about humans and their ability to run something like a marathon is not just a mechanical challenge. Some people have greater lung capacity, so they can deliver more oxygen to the muscles. You can see some body-type things that jump out, where someone looks like they might play rugby and they’re running a marathon. They’re not the willowy runner we think about — but they might be more robust than an average person.

So for the cartilage — the compressive pillow you’re squishing when you put load on your leg — there are benefits to pumping that pillow up and down.

The resting is the most critical part of R.I.C.E., and the part which most people are the worst at. We have a hard time slowing down enough.

For me, running is an intriguing idea for maintaining exercise, but it’s boring. So I prefer biking or swimming. I do think the habit of running is good; my wife and I both goad each other into it at times.

This is something that comes up a lot with running — is there a body type or shaming aspect to running? This is one of the topics we keep coming back to especially with female athletes. There’s a body typing that is assumed, which is that if you’re thin and lightweight you are going to run better. There’s some mechanical justification for that — but it’s taken to an extreme. So, if a little bit lighter is better, then you should be a lot lighter. That’s what leads to malnutrition in elite athletes. And generally, you will benefit greatly from running regardless of your weight.

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