New reports suggest people who run endurance races could be damaging their hearts. We weigh up the evidence.
You’d think someone fitenough to run multiplemarathons, completelong-distance cycle races orIronman triathlons would be the epitome ofhealth. Yet emerging evidence suggests theopposite may be true. For while there’s nodispute moderate exercise boosts fitnessand heart health, some scientists believeendurance athletes risk permanent damageto their hearts.Writing in the journal Heart, US cardiologistsDr James O’Keefe and Carl Lavie claim theheart is only designed for ‘short bursts’ ofintense activity. Regularly asking it tooverexert itself for hours at a time, theysay, can cause problems.
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These includeoverstretching of the heart’s chambers,thickening of the chamber walls and changesto electrical signalling, which could causean irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia).Controversially, the scientists claim that,‘Running too fast, too far and for too manyyears may speed one’s progress towards thefinish line of life.’ Instead, vigorous exerciseshould be limited to between 30 and 50minutes a day and, ‘If you really want to do amarathon or full-distance triathlon, it may be best to do just one or a few, then proceed to safer and healthier exercise patterns.’In one study, published in the EuropeanHeart Journal, MRI scans were given to 40people training for endurance events – afortnight before, just after the event anda week later.
Researchers found most ofthe athletes had stretched heart muscles– the right ventricle, responsible forpumping blood around the body, waslarger and weaker than usual – directly after the event. Most made a full recovery after a week but five showed long-term injury– scarring of the heart tissue and impaired right ventricle function. It echoes earlier research, published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which looked at members of the 100 Marathon Club and found over half of those examined had some scarring of the heart muscle.
Could it be that humans really aren’t meantto push themselves to such limits? ‘Thesestudies have looked only at small groupsdoing very high mileage,’ says Professor JohnBrewer, Head of Sport and Exercise Science atthe University of Bedfordshire (who is due torun his 15th marathon at London this year).‘For the vast majority of people, runningprovides far greater protection from heartand other problems than leading a sedentarylifestyle. The heart is the body’s mostimportant muscle and it can deteriorate ifit’s not used.’Four times World Ironman ChampionChrissie Wellington, author of A Life WithoutLimits (Constable, £8.99), can identify withthe studies, however. ‘I don’t have anystatistics but, anecdotally, I’m surprised athow many of my fellow pro Ironmantriathletes have heart problems, particularlyarrhythmia,’ she admits.But as Professor Brewer points out, ‘Mostrecreational athletes only do one or twoendurance events, then use the training toconsolidate and improve their performanceat shorter, more manageable distances.’
‘The studies highlight extreme cases,’ agreesceleb runner Nell McAndrew. ‘I wouldn’t wantto run a marathon every day! But I’m notat all worried about those I’ve done. I’mhealthier now at 39 than when I was 20. Mylove of training and competing adds to myoverall wellbeing. I’m pregnant now so I’mpowerwalking, swimming and doing weights,not running. But I’ll definitely do moremarathons in future.’Neither is Wellington worried enough aboutthe potential risks to stop training. ‘Ironman ismy sport and I love it,’ she says.
The body’snot a machine to be bent to our will; we need to look after it and use our intuition. But there has to be an element of risk in sport,otherwise we wouldn’t push ourselves.Endurance activities undoubtedly causethe body stress, but it doesn’t need tobe detrimental in the long term if youlook after yourself.’So this research shouldn’t put people off?‘No,’ insists the athlete. ‘At the level mostpeople tackle marathons and triathlons, thebenefits far outweigh the risks. And they’renot just physical: sport has great socialbenefits, it boosts mental health, it helpscharities… it’s not always just about themeasurable fitness gains.’Professor Brewer agrees. ‘We’ll all leadhealthier, happier lives for doing what wewant.
The most important factor in choosinga form of exercise is whether or not youenjoy it.’If you want to keep fit, you don’t need to doa marathon – you can stay healthy on much,much less. But if you love running and wantto log 26.2 miles, go ahead but train sensibly.Training for a marathon is a commitment, andfinishing one is an achievement and aconfidence boost – and that’s pretty goodfor you.
H&F reader Heather Martingell 46, has run 30 marathons and completed her first ultramarathon last year – ‘for fun’!
‘I’m not concerned for my long-termhealth as I’m a “sensible” runner. I restif I’m ill. I’ll jog a marathon if I’ve beenunwell in the weeks before it. And, whileI’ll enter several marathons a year, I’llonly race one ofthem. For me, it’smore a chance tovisit different citiesand meet up withrunning friends– with a “longrun” on theSunday! Runningde-stresses me,which is animportanthealth benefit.’
HOW TO TRAİN SAFELY FOR AN ENDURANCE EVENT
Follow this advice from athlete Chrissie Wellington
IF YOU’RE NEW to endurancetraining, get the all-clear to exercisefrom your GP – and always report anyunusual symptoms.
GET A TRAINING PLAN that’s tailored to you, your lifestyle and ability (visit runbritain.com to find a local club who can put you in touch with a coach).
THE BENEFITS of your hard work are only reaped in recovery – rest recovery days and sleep are an often overlooked but vital part of your training programme.
GET ADVICE on nutrition and hydration – and follow it.
IF YOU CAN afford it, have weekly sports massage and regular check-ups with a physiotherapist (check out local colleges as students training in sports massage often need bodies to practise on, for free).
DON’T NEGLECT strength and conditioning – make it part of your weekly programme.
DON’T DO ALL your training on roads – run on grass, trail and track, too.
MIX IT UP – try new sports in your downtime between events, or change your goals to tackle different distances or terrains.
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