Experience From - Tyler Curiel, Rich Schick, Gordon Chace, Jan Ryerse, Robert Rayburn,

Tyler Curiel

Lynn Newton wrote:

"A non-running friend tells me that he has heard through popular press (a.k.a. unreliable sources) that ultrarunners can prematurely age their cells' mitochondria. I've never heard that theory. It sounds like the sort of objection typically cooked up by those people who, for whatever reason, would like to have us believe that running is bad for a person. On the other hand, there is usually some kind of a scientific premise for such things. Can anyone comment knowledgeably and factually on the question?
" When I'm not hitting the trails, I do medical research at Baylor. Although I'm trained in immunology, medical aspects of running (including effects on immunity) is a hobby of mine. I am unaware of this "aging" of mitochondria you describe. There are, however, many beneficial effects of endurance training on mitochondrial function that are well-described. Some deleterious effects have also been noted, but they are transient, and reversible. Your friend may be referring to tissue and mitochondrial damage caused by buildup of waste products, especially oxidized radicals, that is known to occur during strenuous exercise. That, however, is reversible. If your friend could provide more specifics, maybe we could get to the bottom of this. Finally, I am not aware of how aging of mitochondria is measured. Good luck with your quest for information.

Rich Schick

In a nutshell the argument is based on the concept of the body as a machine the more you use it the faster it wears out. By this theory no exercise would be optimum so that you wouldn't wear out your heart, lungs, bones etc. The mitochondria argument just extends this to the cellular level. Unfortunately the entire premise forgets that the body is not a machine, it is a living organism that responds to stress by attempting to adapt -- the concept we refer to as getting in shape.

In reality if one does no exercise the bones get weaker, we are more prone to heart disease and our mitochondria function less efficiently. When people bring up such arguments I suggest you just look at a group of 40 and over ultra types and compare them to non exercising or even moderate exercising individuals the same age. This isn't rocket science, just good old horse sense -- believe what you see with your own eyes, not someone's theory. remember a theory is nothing more than an opinion until it can be proven.

Gordon Chace

To see what was posted a few months ago on aging of mitochondria, browse the list archives at:

and look for the third week of November 1998, click that, and scroll thru the list of subjects until you see several postings.

Quick summary for those who are in a hurry - there had been article in general news media, ostensibly about how difficult 100's are (duh!) and the article referenced a single example of a relatively young man with evidence of cellular aging. Catch is, that runner was *not* an ultra runner!

Here is a URL for the actual news media article:

Jan Ryerse (Professor of Pathology St. Louis University Medical School)

I think this may have originated with Bryant Gumbel's Extreme Sports program on which they had the 98 Leadville segment last fall. In my opinion it was a well done piece (I was there pacing and saw the last couple of runners get in just before the 10 am cutoff - very exciting and they covered that well, also showed Ann Trason, Ken Choubler et al). Anyway they finished the Leadville piece with a comment on how some exercise physiologist did a study of young distance runners and said that after a 100 mile ultra their mitochondria looked like those in old people ie implication being they were badly torn up etc. A poor way to end the piece, I thought because it left one with the misconception that mitochondria are permanently damaged from running ultras. That's not true.

Exercise increases the size and number of mitochondria (mitos provide the ATP our muscles require to function and to some extent the more ATP the muscles get the better they work) - and those are good responses, one of the way the body becomes more fit. The study probably was saying that mitochondria (as is the muscle tissue) are damaged from the stresses etc of running 100's, which they are. Some damaged mitos are degraded in autophagosomes BUT other (perhaps most) mitos replace themselves by dividing within cells to make more (healthy) mitos. Point being that although mitos undergo some damage (and may at that time look like an older person's mitos) the damage is not permanent and quickly corrects itself.

Robert Rayburn

I think this posting to the list by Ann Trason put the mitochondria story to bed the last time.

Ann Trason wrote:

"For anyone that is interested the reference for the article that was mentioned in the HBO piece is: Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 1998; 8:52-55. One of the authors of the paper is Dr. Timothy Noakes. The above article describes a 28-year-old 10km runner. This individual had never run a marathon let alone an ultra. I was shocked when I heard that the HBO reporter referred to the runner in the study as an ultra runner. The producers of the piece had acquired a copy of the article from a colleague of Tim Noakes. I talked to one of the producers of the show, on three separate occasions, specifically about the article and they were aware the individual studied was not an ultra runner. It was clear to me, talking to the producers, that one of the "themes" in their piece was to document how ultra running was deleterious to ones health. I was interviewed, on tape, on two separate occasions and both times a majority of the questions asked were along the lines of what posses me to participate in a sport that is clearly bad for you. I walked away both times feeling like I had been interrogated rather than interviewed.

The other "theme" that they were interested in was one of gender issues in ultra running. It seemed to me that they were not interested in the fact that my goal at Leadville was to try and win the women's division, which I found disturbing and rather degrading for women. I never made any reference to trying to win the Leadville outright-this was clearly something they came up with. I stated over and over again that I just do posses the strength and speed to win a major hundred-mile race outright. I also reiterated that Western States and Vermont had left me extremely tired and I knew going into the race that I would be very lucky to win the women's race. And as it turned out I was more than lucky I had a stellar crew/pacers---Carl and Suzie Lister. If it was not for them I would not have finished let alone win.

HBO had decided how they were going to cover the race long before they talked to any ultra runners. The good news is that they searched diligently for evidence that running ultras would cause great bodily harm and they could not find anything to corroborate their bias. Their miss representation of Tim Noakes well research study was nothing more than just bad journalism."