Here’s the inevitable problem with citing research studies: you can almost always find a study that will “prove”, “indicate”, or “suggest” the exact opposite of the point you’re trying to make. And thus it was with great chagrin that I read the recent NY Times Blog “When exercise is too much of a good thing”. The gist of the article is that there is research suggesting that endurance athlete who train and compete at a high level for three or four decades may be more likely than young athletes or non-athletes to exhibit fibrosis (or scarring) within the heart muscle. Fibrosis can lead to stiffening of various areas of the heart, contributing to irregular heart rhythm, and potentially heart failure. The next logical question, and the question my coaches and I have been getting ever since is: How should this information impact the way I train?
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Now, I’m not a cardiologist, so it would be inappropriate for me to tell you to just ignore these new findings and go on training as you always have. There may indeed be some truth the idea that long-term exposure to high training intensities and high training volumes may lead to damage within the heart, but let’s put this information into context. What’s the alternative? You’re going to quit exercising and sit on the couch for fear that training could damage your heart? Let’s follow that one down its logical path:
Sedentary lifestyles are a major contributing factor to weight gain, and more specifically to increased fat weight and increased Body Mass Index (BMI). Being overweight, obese, and sedentary increases the likelihood that you’ll develop Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, high levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and problems with your joints. High blood pressure and plaques within your arteries dramatically increase the risk of a stroke or heart attack. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg; the list of ways that a lack of exercise can and will eventually kill you is staggering. And in one way or another we all foot the bill for the medical expenses required to treat this enormous list of maladies.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take the remote chance that high-intensity, high-volume endurance training might damage my heart; and I’m one of the people who could be at greater risk than most endurance athletes. For a significant period of my life I was a professional athlete. I pushed my body as hard as I could, raced some of the world’s hardest races, and accumulated tremendous amounts of training volume. I’m 50 years old and I’ve been an endurance athlete since I was 9. And although I’m not competing at an elite level anymore, in the past six years I’ve raced the Leadville 100 six times and the La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain bike stage race. My cardiologist says my heart is fine. This is the lifestyle I’ve chosen, and will continue to choose, because the rewards for being fit and competitive have been so great throughout my life.
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And I’m not alone. Many of you out there have been athletes all your lives. Some of you have more than 10 Ironman triathlons to your credit, a dozen or more marathons, or some other wide-ranging combination of endurance competitions. Being an athlete is not what you do but who you are. The research cited in the NY Times blog is something you should certainly consider, but I’d encourage you to keep it in perspective. First of all, the subjects who had fibrosis damage to their hearts were athletes who had run at least 100 marathons. The population of athletes who are in a similar demographic is pretty small. I’d venture to say – although I have no empirical evidence to back this up – that the majority of triathletes, cyclists, and runners have not achieved an overall workload similar to that of the subject pool from the cited study.
The truly unfortunate consequence of blog articles like the one above is that people use them as excuses to justify bad decisions, or innocently make bad decisions based on insufficient information. Remember the study a few years ago that showed that a significant number of marathoners finished their race with symptoms of hyponatremia (water intoxication)? It got a lot of press and led some runners to stop drinking on training runs or during marathons. Dehydration and heat stress are a lot more common than hyponatremia, and the study’s unintended consequence was that it caused more confusion about proper hydration. In some ways, it caused more problems than it solved. This new study has a similar potential.
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That’s not to say that the study shouldn’t have been done, or that the results shouldn’t have been released. It’s good information and it adds to the overall understanding we have of the impact of exercise on human health and performance. But how should it affect your training? In my view, it shouldn’t affect it at all. Would a visit to a cardiologist for a check of your heart health be a good idea? Sure, especially if you have heart disease in your family or you’re getting up there in years like I am. But for me the health, performance, social, and psychological benefits of being a life-long athlete far outweigh the risk described in the NY Times blog. Case in point: When I hit “send” on this, I’m off for a 5+ hour training ride on the Queen K Highway!
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