Chris Carmichael Blog: Too Much of Good Thing? Hardly.

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?

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. 

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.

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!

Chris Carmichael
Founder/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

9 Responses to “Chris Carmichael Blog: Too Much of Good Thing? Hardly.”

  1. DEB COY-CIRILLO on

    Chris,
    let me tell you what my cardiologist said when I first told him that I was training for and IM…..”That’s a good way to give yourself an M.I.!” I said “Well, it’s either that or a cheeseburger!”
    Two years later, he said “I don’t need to see you any more. You give yourself a stress test everyday with what you do in training. If you have any symptoms, come see me.”

    Reply
  2. Tim Trissler on

    Great response Chris! As someone who has spent 20+ years looking at clinical trials, you can make statistics “prove” whatever you want them to prove. As a 55yr old “athlete,” I’ll take my chances with continuing to train as often as possible v. a sedentary lifestyle.

    Reply
  3. Tony Matthews on

    Hi Chris, you make some good points here but isn’t it true that you are looking at 2 extremes? You are comparing a sedentary lifestyle to that of an athlete who does high intensity , long duration aerobic training as a lifestyle. Of course it is healthier to be the athlete. But I do think there is enough evidence to prove that long duration aerobic training causes some negative effects. Somewhere in between the 2 extremes there is an optimum level of training that will produce maximum health benefits without the problems of either extreme. I am a Personal Trainer and i believe we can gain these optimum results with only one or two hours training per week!

    Reply
  4. Ron on

    First off, Endurance training doesn’t have to be intense, at least not the biggest volume.
    Yeah, if you go out and train yourself into the ground, damage will be done. But if you follow a proper periodization program and train correctly, then no.

    The problem with most athletes is that they train hard too often. Most of their workouts are done in a fatigued state. Many cyclists don’t really train, they just ride.
    Good riders train smart, they don’t go out a grind away 22 MPH for 5 hours. They either go 28+ and are really moving, or they are chilling holding a conversational pace. Most of the time the latter. Higher highs and lower lows.

    Reply
  5. Randy Sookoo on

    I personally believe that everyone’s philology is different. There is a vast gene pool out there and, depending on what the good lord gives each of us, heart scarring is a potential if you exercise or not. I think Chris and Tony both bring up great points in response to the NY Times blog. Yes, there is a balance that is needed for optimal results, and I think individuality is the KEY. There is certainly more of a risk of health problems with sedentary people than with athletes.
    Take me for example, I am 36 years old, and I started competing since I was 12 years old with track, cross country, and martial arts in Jr. High School. However, my first real race was a “Turkey Trot” when I was 7 years old. My Elementary School in the Virgin Islands had a running race to complete one lap around the school for Thanksgiving every year. First place prize was a Turkey. The year I did that race, I noticed I was able to outrun almost everyone not because I was fast but, because I had ALOT of endurance. I did not win the race but, I did finish in the top 10!!
    Needless to say, that experience did open my eyes up to my potential. I did a Vo2 max and LT test last year with my CTS coach in Tucson, and learned that my V02 max was 51.7 ml/kg/min. Pro athletes have their V02 in the 60s. An average male between the ages of 30-39 has an average V02 max of 40-42 ml/kg/min. I am the ONLY athlete in my 8 member family, including my parents. High cholesterol also runs in my family. Since I have started training with my CTS coach almost 2 years ago, I am in the BEST shape of my life, and I feel like I am in my teens! My body fat is around 8% and I am about 150lbs now. I am the same weight I was during freshman year of college. I also see my doctor once a year for a physical where cholesterol and uric acid levels are checked. Several years ago before I started training with a CTS coach, my doctor had put me on Lipitor to lower the LDL cholesterol levels in my blood. Now, with controlled high endurance training and great nutritional changes again, I AM IN THE BEST SHAPE OF MY LIFE. My doctor took me off cholesterol drugs and my LDL levels have significantly been reduced to normal levels. I think I would have been at a higher risk of having a heart attack in my 40s had I not changed my lifestyle. I hope that I can continue with cycling for the rest of my life for a lifelong commitment to a healthy lifestyle.
    I certainly believe exercising is important weather it is moderately or at a high level for competition. The health benefits are tremendous when compared to a sedentary lifestyle and as Chris pointed out, certainly lowers your risk of health problems like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and also certain types of cancers. Weather we are blessed with a high V02 max or not, exercising regularly is the key to a LONG healthy life!!

    Reply
  6. Michael James on

    I have to agree, here is a link to what I looked like in my first year of cycling and last year, my fourth in the game. As a former Amateur motocross racer I was fit, until I decided to become a bicycle racer, cardio is now through the roof and at a recent 50, my max HR is not 171 as per formula, but a shrieking 185 bpm. In the beginning, 150 bpm had me gasping for air, now I can cruise eat 159 bpm all day. When i see 7 year old kids so fat it looks like their skin is about to burst, I cringe for the kid who will lead a sorry unhealthy life. Unfortunately Americans have gotten soft, they disrespect the bicycle at every turn but spend billions of “5 minute abs” and wonder pills that “you don’t even need to exercise to lose the weight” pills. This is one respect Europe’s got us beat. Keep riding, keep running, every time one of these unfortunate souls sees us out there hammering away, it easts at their own security…maybe if they see us often enough, it will spur them on to help themselves into a better life.
    http://www.dbmnutrition.com/blog/2010/08/10/cyclist-reviews-world-championship-pro-on-mxnewsfeed-com/

    Reply
  7. Michael James on

    I have to agree, here is a link to what I looked like in my first year of cycling and last year, my fourth in the game. As a former Amateur motocross racer I was fit, until I decided to become a bicycle racer, cardio is now through the roof and at a recent 50, my max HR is not 171 as per formula, but a shrieking 185 bpm. In the beginning, 150 bpm had me gasping for air, now I can cruise at 159 bpm all day. When I see 7 year old kids so fat it looks like their skin is about to burst, I cringe for the kid who will lead a sorry unhealthy life.
    Unfortunately Americans have gotten soft, they disrespect the bicycle at every turn but spend billions of “5 minute abs” and wonder pills that “you don’t even need to exercise to lose the weight” pills. This is one respect Europe’s got us beat.
    Keep riding, keep running, every time one of these unfortunate souls sees us out there hammering away, it eats at their own security…maybe if they see us often enough, it will spur them on to help themselves into a better life.
    http://www.dbmnutrition.com/blog/2010/08/10/cyclist-reviews-world-championship-pro-on-mxnewsfeed-com/

    Reply

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