Men face a potential problem if they train as dedicated runners: The risk of diminished testosterone levels.
The sustained stress of endurance running is enough to have grown a movement cutting down distance running and other aerobic exercise (typically lumped together under the term “cardio”) as detrimental to adults’ health, especially to men’s health. Many recommend that men restrict their running and other “cardio” to more brief, high-intensity, interval training.
It’s not just the Manosphere who has taken issue with running. Former US-marathon record holder Ryan Hall retired at 33, and cited low testosterone levels as a prime motivator for his retirement.
Personally, I haven’t worried about it as much: I had practiced a less than stellar diet and lifestyle in previous adult years, and that would probably hurt my T levels more than running 30-50 miles a week as a healthier adult has today.
And of course my health, strength, vitality(, and yes, libido) have honestly gotten better as I’ve continued my training. Whenever I have felt… let’s say, diminished in a fashion typical with low T levels… it’s often a combination of particular heavy training, and some other stressor like my work situation, a lack of sleep, bad diet, or a number of other things that themselves would be T problems whether or not I was running.
There are a lot of reasons distance running contributes to lower testosterone, and I believe a lot of them are preventable.
First of all, many people do most of their running harder than they should. This is slightly counter-intuitive, as manhood is often associated with doing things strong, hard, fast. It makes sense that they would gravitate to sprints and other Tabata workouts over longer runs.
The conventional Man Approach to exercise (hard/fast/strong) works just fine with the most conventional form of male exercise: Weightlifting. All your work is done in very brief, high intensity bursts. Literally no aerobic capacity is required to successfully push weight, whether or not you choose to incorporate extra aerobic or anaerobic effort.
However, when you bring that modus operandi to running where hard, fast, high-exertion running is all you ever do when running, it doesn’t work as well.
While higher intensity running can be successfully done one to three times per week, most of your running should be easier, dialed back to where every step is strong, yet comfortable. A lot of men, however, run too hard on their regular, easy runs.
Often, form is a key reason men run too hard too often. If you’re straining to reach your legs forward, you are pushing too hard. And pushing too hard too often leads to a sustained overdose of cortisol, the stress hormone that is the bane of testosterone. That, not the running in itself, is what’s reducing T levels in men who run a lot.
Slow down on your regular runs. Jog at a pace where you feel in full control of every inch you move, where you know you have the strength and control to stop on a dime if necessary, where you know you can run like that for another hour, tall and strong, not hunched forward squeezing out extra effort. Save that effort for your speed intervals… though to be honest you should be tall and strong and in control for those too.
Running can and should be a strength exercise, whether you do it for 45 seconds in a rep or 60 minutes in a 6-7 mile run. The power of your glutes and core muscles should be carrying your every step, without undue strain to your tendons, bones and ligaments.
Secondly, the classically slight body of a typical runner is in some part a function of actively minimizing weight to maximize pace. I certainly am not slight at 5’10”, 162 pounds, and while I always look to shed a bit of fat here and there, I also value maintaining my muscle… especially having reached 40 years of age.
But a lot of it is also the conventional diet habits of a runner. Many don’t take in anywhere close to enough protein to maintain their muscle. Despite their emphasis on carbs, many don’t eat enough carbs before or after most workouts, underestimating how much glycogen they burn.
The end result is muscle gets broken down over time. While that helps get them leaner, it also can compromise not just overall strength and health… but for men, their T levels. The hormones respond in kind to the incredible shrinking distance runner’s body, and decrease overall production of various hormones including testosterone.
It can be counter-intuitive for a runner to try and preserve mass. But muscle does aid in performance, not to mention represent a key component of overall health. A greater emphasis on protein intake and muscle preservation can help counteract other elements of training that can compromise T levels. There are other ways to burn extra fat without sacrificing valuable muscle.
I’m not going to go as far as to say running’s negative relationship to testosterone is a myth. There are true factors that can contribute to diminished T level over time.
But distance running should not be considered a death sentence for manhood. By changing a few paradigms of how men approach training and lifestyle, men can easily maintain healthy T levels and enjoy the better health and rewards that running can bring.