I recently re-read the Wall Street Journal article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave”. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to read it, and then I strongly urge you to read Alex Hutchinson’s response to the article on RunnersWorld.com. The gist of the WSJ article is that some scientists believe that too much exercise – particularly higher-intensity exercise – can diminish or eliminate the expected health benefits of aerobic exercise by damaging the heart and increasing your risk for premature death. Their advice, therefore, is for athletes past the age of 50 to cut their mileage to 20 miles a week or less, and/or run at a pace slower than 8mph (7:30 min/mile pace).
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The research cited in the articles above used running as the method of stressing the body, but the scientists and doctors from the WSJ article seem to infer that it’s not running, per se, but rather high-intensity training (high heart rates, high level of metabolic stress) that can damage the heart and potentially lead to cardiac abnormalities, including coronary artery calcification and atrial fibrillation (a type of arrhythmia). That would mean that cyclists and triathletes who utilize high-intensity interval training would also be at increased risk.
Both articles also talk about “agendas” and point out that both sides of this argument – the cardiologists warning against the dangers of too much exercise, and the scientists and endurance athletic community questioning their conclusions – have agendas. I would agree, and I think Alex Hutchinson did a good job of promoting the endurance sports community’s agenda. In the endurance sports community we promote the idea that aerobic conditioning improves health and reduces a person’s risk factors for cardiovascular disease, Type II diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and a host of other chronic illnesses. We also believe that the negative impact of inactivity puts people at a far greater risk of premature death than moderate or even extremely high levels of activity.
Can high-intensity exercise sometimes lead to cardiac events? Both research and anecdotal evidence indicates that it can. In face, over the past 15 years CTS has coached more than 12,000 thousand athletes and a handful of those athletes have developed atrial fibrillation. Was it directly caused by training? I don’t know. The athletes I know of were successfully treated using electrical cardioversion or catheter ablation, and they returned to training and competition. A few other athletes discovered and were treated for cardiac abnormalities that were deemed to be congenital defects. In those cases, the increased workload of training brought their conditions to the attention of their cardiologists, and one could argue that those conditions – if left undiscovered and untreated – could have otherwise led to premature death.
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What does all of this mean for you, especially if you’re my age (54) or older? Well, I’m not a doctor and I’m certainly not going to tell you to just ignore the possibility that high-intensity exercise could lead to a cardiac event. But as an athlete and coach who has been involved in endurance sports for more than 40 years and worked with competitive athletes ranging from teenagers to septuagenarians, I’d urge you to keep articles like the one in the WSJ in perspective. For the vast majority of our increasingly-obese population, more exercise and more intense exercise is a good choice. Even for the majority of athletes, the realistic chance of suffering a cardiac abnormality from high-intensity training is remote. But, if you have a history of heart disease in your family or you had relatives who died from sudden cardiac events (heart attack, stroke) at relatively young ages, then a conversation with your cardiologist about your personal risk factors would be prudent.
I realize I’m biased because I believe in the power of fitness, but neither the evidence cited in the WSJ article nor anything else I’ve read has convinced me that intense training puts healthy athletes at a substantially greater health risk than moderate-intensity training. On the other hand, there’s overwhelming evidence that being inactive (lower training workload, lower caloric expenditure) leads to weight gain, increased risk of Type II diabetes, increased risk of heart attack and stroke, hell – even increased risk of erectile dysfunction!
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But let’s be honest, we can achieve the health benefits of aerobic exercise without training for criteriums, mountain bike stage races, marathons or Ironman triathlons. Athletes set goals and work to achieve them because it’s fun, it makes us feel good, and being an athlete is an important part of our social network and our identity. For many athletes the health benefits are an added bonus, not the primary reason for being active. For me, the bottom line is quality of life, and being an athlete has and will continue to enhance the life I have in the (hopefully many) years I have left.
CEO/Head Coach of CTS