There has been a lot of discussion over the past weeks/months over the growing concern about risks to heart health for endurance athletes. The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association published a study that identified that “chronic” endurance exercise, (i.e. marathoning) is linked to surprising levels of arterial plaque even more so than compared to a sedentary control group. Another article on Active.com emphasizes how it is the volume beyond a normal one hour effort that puts us at risk. More specifically, “your body is designed to deal with oxidative stress that comes from exercise for the first hour… but prolonged intense exercise causes excessive oxidative stress, which basically burns through the antioxidants in your system and predisposes you to problems.”
In response to the Missouri State study, Amby Burfoot of Runner’s World, pointed out some potential flaws in the research. In particular, Andy points out that the study only looked for one specific marker for arterial plaque without considering mortality rates, life span or whether the participants, men around 59 having completed a marathon or more every year for 25 years, had developed wider arterial pipes that can handle the additional plaque build up. Although, Laurent Vidal, a 30-year old French professional triathlete, suffering a heart attack while training in France earlier this year doesn’t help Amby’s position.
Participation in endurance sports, which I define as efforts of greater than one hour in any discipline, are now starting to reach record levels of participation. There was a time when people thought I was crazy for the number of events we participated in and now all I hear is everyone signing up for their first or next long course race. It’s not uncommon anymore to hear the response of “how many” when answering the question of if you have ever participated in a marathon or Ironman race. I, for one, love the that so many people are getting into endurance sports.
However, I am not at all pleased with how many people make the leap from getting started in short distances to leaping up to long course racing (i.e. 5K to Marathon) so quickly. I am, myself, guilty of this mistake. I got so into running when I started that I rapidly accelerated up the distance charts without properly building up my body to handle that level of stress. Knowing what I know now, I believe the key is to master each distance (finish in the top half or better in most races) before moving up to the next level. Moreover, overweight participants, should work on weight management, before tackling long distance events. Combined with healthy diet and lifestyle choices, I believe most people can handle the rigors of training for one or more endurance races per year.
I constantly wrestle with the balancing act that is the desire to train hard and often with the need to recover and rest regularly. A smart training plan, regular check-ins with a doctor, listening to your body and capturing heart data regularly, are all important to knowing where the fine line is in that balance. We invested in multiple Withings health products to help us properly gauge stress on our bodies. We also limit our races to between 6 and 8 a year. We believe in a true off-season of engaging in different sports and relaxation. I believe the jury is still out on what the potential damage is caused by endurance sports for the average person. Regardless, smart training is probably the best way to prevent any potential issues and keep you participating for a long time.