• Training for your first marathon can help reduce the stiffness in your arteries, lowering your risk of high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
  • The heart-healthy benefits appeared greatest in those who were older and slower.
  • First-time marathon runners saw a reduction of vascular age by an average of four years.

At first, the relationship between between running and heart health seemed simple: The more you exercise, the healthier your heart will be. Then, studies came out showing that running may actually harden your arteries. Follow that with research discovering that the plaque in runners’ arteries was actually more stable—meaning less likely to break off, cause a blockage, and lead to a heart attack—than the plaque in people who did not exercise.

Now, there is more evidence in favor of the heart-protective benefits of going long. Researchers have now discovered that training for your first marathon can benefit your blood vessel health, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.

In the study, researchers recruited 138 runners to train for the London Marathon, pointing them to a suggested 16-week training plan for first-timers provided by the race. Before they began training, the researchers measured their blood pressure and aortic stiffness, or the flexibility of their blood vessels. Over the course of training, runners averaged six to 13 miles a week. Then, after participants completed the marathon—with an average time of 4.5 hours for men and 5.4 hours for women—the researchers measured these signs again.

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The researchers discovered that first-time marathon training decreased the stiffness in their arteries, equivalent to a reversal in the age of their vascular system of an average of about four years. The training also lowered their systolic blood pressure by 4 mmHg—something which can lower your risk of stroke by approximately 10 percent over the course of your life.

“You don’t have to be an elite athlete to gain the benefits from marathon running,”Anish Bhuva, Ph.D. a British Heart Foundation Fellow at University College London, told Runner’s World. “In fact, the benefits appeared greatest in those who were older and slower. By completing training, and getting to the finish line, it is possible to rejuvenate the cardiovascular system of first-time marathon runners.”

Reducing arterial stiffness is important, since as you age, blood vessel stiffening can increase your chances of issues like high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. Stiffening of the aorta—the main blood vessel supplying blood from the heart to the rest of the body—is one hallmark of aging, which can cause increased pressure on the heart and damage to other organs, Bhuva said.

Running is known to help lower blood pressure, which may be why exercise—in particular marathon training—may help reduce stiffening. High blood pressure can stretch the arteries, making the surface become more rigid. Think of a balloon when it is blown up versus when it is deflated, Bhuva explained. What’s more, combine higher blood pressure with stiffer arteries, your risk of heart attack and stroke rises.

The researchers believe that the benefits were greater in the older and slower runners, since because they had higher levels of aortic stiffness at baseline, they had the most to gain from starting training, Bhuva explained.

Researchers do know that aortic stiffening tends to be lower in people who have been performing aerobic exercise throughout the course of their lives, but the exact amount or duration of exercise needed to slow or even reverse it is not yet known, Bhuva said.

[Want to run your first marathon? The Marathon Training Plan for Beginners will take you through everything you need to know to get started, step by step]

While these benefits were seen in first-time marathoners, the heart-healthy advantages likely hold true for runners with more than one 26.2 under their belts and who continue to run. In fact, a recent study in the Journal of Applied Physiology found that 75-year-olds who participated in around seven hours a week of aerobic exercise like running, swimming, or cycling, per week over the course of their lives actually had similar cardiovascular health to that of someone who is 45.

So continuing to pound the pavement long after your first marathon can help boost your overall cardio health over your lifetime—and help you stick around for longer, too.

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