Endurance Sports Linked to Heart Problems

Here we are… It’s the beginning of 2016 and your resolution likely included a fitness goal. You may have decided to start running, or maybe you signed up for endurance training, a marathon, or a triathlon. Unfortunately, many novice athletes aren’t aware of the health risks and dangers associated with endurance training and races.

While the “26.2” or “I tri” sticker might look great on your car, optimal health is NOT always best achieved by participating in endurance-related sports or exercise programs.

I was an elite endurance sponsored athlete who participated in innumerable running races and triathlons. I was like most of the 2.5 million triathletes and marathoners who mistakenly thought this type of exercise was conducive to great heart health and top physical conditioning.

Unfortunately, I was not aware that extensive, distance-based training and racing can be detrimental to heart health. Your body and heart are simply not designed for running, biking, swimming or exercising for hours at a time. For me, endurance sports led to an irregular heartbeat, called atrial fibrillation (AF). AF makes you five times more susceptible to suffering a stroke!

If that’s not enough to scare you, numerous studies have discovered other heart-related issues that can be brought on by endurance-related sports, such as tissue breakdown, excess cortisol release, muscle fiber tears, weakened immune systems, insomnia, structural changes to the heart, and abnormal ECGs. The most serious potential issue, of course, is sudden cardiac death. Look no further than the infamous Pheidippides, who dropped dead after running for hours from Marathon to Athens, Greece, to deliver the news of victory.

Why it took us centuries to come up with research that supported the obvious from the beginning is quite puzzling. As proven from the start, the heart is not designed to have its pace spiked for hours. This poor guy died, and yet, we decided it was a good idea to call races “marathons” in his honor, and entice millions to sign up each year. You must admit, that’s a little twisted.

The secret is to stick with exercises that increase your heart rate for short periods of time — not hours on end. Ideal programs include interval training, body weight exercises, some forms of weight training, or a combination of those three. These programs will help you burn excess fat, increase muscle growth, and won’t force your heart rate to stay spiked for hours at a time. Another benefit of these types of programs is the significantly shortened time requirement. For non-elite athletes, many of the endurance programs, races, or marathons require training for 15 or more hours a week, and many, many miles. This is too much cardiac output and stress on the human heart.

You don’t need to work out five, six, or seven days a week. For optimal health and weight management, “rest” days are just as important for proper recovery.

I realize the endurance sports and the events associated with them appear glamorous — but I’m here to say, a well-functioning heart is more important than the bumper sticker that brags about what race you did or the distance you’ve covered! And, really… though proudly placed — the stickers may not actually represent optimal health or fitness after all.

Keep after your resolution! And next December call your friends and family to deliver the news of victory over weight loss and your achievement of optimal health!

About the author: Stephen Agren is a former sponsored distance runner and endurance triathlete. He now has atrial fibrillation (AF) as a result of his years of endurance training and has spent most of his career in cardiac surgical sales. Steve’s website, AFstrokeRISK.com, provides insight on managing atrial fibrillation and reducing risk of stroke.