For the most part, runners are a healthy bunch. A rigorous training schedule and a balanced and nutritious diet are all part of training for any race, and it helps that they can also help prevent a long list of health problems. But could runners be putting their hearts at risk with too much exercise? Recent research suggests that there is such a thing as pushing yourself too far.
In a 2013 study published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, researchers found that half of amateur long-distance runners they observed experienced decreased function in the left and right ventricles, as well as heart muscle swelling and reduced blood flow.
“What this study tells us is that, at least for some beginner runners or runners who are getting ready to run their first long-distance race, there is some risk for heart problems,” says Tarun Mathur, MD, cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital.
And amateurs aren’t the only ones at risk. Ultra-marathoners, or runners who are constantly training and competing in long-distance bike and running races, Ironman races, and triathlons, can also be putting too much stress on their hearts. Over a few months or years, these races can lead to heart problems, include myocardial fibrosis, a condition in which the heart’s muscle cells are impaired, as well as an increase in plaque volume.
“As long as you train appropriately and in moderation, you can help minimize long-term risks,” says Dr. Mathur.
Obstacle races on the rise
Running marathons used to mean 26.2 miles of road, and the worst obstacle you could encounter was a hill. But now, thanks to a rise in novelty races and fun runs, obstacles range from muddy courses to swinging ropes and rock climbing walls. If your heart isn’t up to the challenge, it can be difficult to keep up.
So what’s a runner to do? After all, exercise is supposed to improve your heart health, not impair.
“The take home message for most people is to be smart about your running routine. Instead of completing back-to-back marathons, it may be better to just do one and then get back to decreasing your weekly mileage to under 20 miles per week,” explains Dr. Mathur. “And if you’re just beginning to run, don’t push yourself to run too far or too fast. Listen to your body.”