Heart Problems in Runners – Endurance Athletes Plagued with AHS

Need Another Reason Not to Long Distance Run for Fitness?

endurance athletes and athletic heart syndrome

Those of you who know me know I am not a big fan of long distance running and steady state cardio and just posted an article recently on why women shouldn’t run. Studies have shown it to slow your metabolism and encourage your body to store fat instead of burning it.

Beyond these negative factors a greater awareness is arising of a heart condition called Athletic Heart Syndrome or AHS which is plaguing endurance athletes. Studies are showing long time endurance athletes have a 5 times greater risk of atrial fibrillation, a condition causing an incredibly high heart rate and symptoms such as palpitations, fainting, chest pain, or congestive heart failure and an increased risk of stroke.

I came across an article about it on the New Zealand Herald and wanted to share it with you…

Hamish Carter is the latest in a series of elite endurance athletes to have encountered heart problems. An electrical charge was recently used to shock it back into normal rhythm.

The appearance of his condition comes as scientists are finding a possible link between extreme endurance sport and dangerous heart arrhythmias.

Carter, who won the triathlon at the 2004 Athens Olympics, was last year diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia estimated to cause 15 per cent of all strokes. Abnormal electrical impulses cause the upper chambers to beat chaotically and out of sync with the lower chambers, causing poor blood flow to the body. His heart rhythm has been consistent since it was restarted but he was told to expect it to return.

If it re-occurs often he may need an operation, called ablation, to cauterise the heart tissue that triggers the irregular heartbeat.

Rower Rob Waddell, Tour de France cyclist Hayden Roulston and triple Olympic champion Sir Peter Snell are other star Kiwi athletes to have developed heart issues.

World champion Australian triathletes Greg Welch and Emma Carney both ended their careers suddenly and had defibrillator pacemakers implanted following repeated severe arrhythmias of the right ventricle – a condition associated with sudden death. Welch raised a possible link with his extreme training regime commenting in a 2006 interview: “I could have pushed myself too hard.”

Now emerging scientific studies are finding evidence that appears to support that. “Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress towards the finish line of life,” concluded a December editorial in British journal, Heart.

Until recently, the cardiac risk of exercise was measured by the incidence of deaths during races. In marathons, that rate was one in 100,000 – a figure that didn’t give cause for alarm. But the Heart article authors, citing recent studies, say there is now evidence that years of asking the heart to pump “massive” volumes of blood for hours at a time can lead to long-term damage and reverse the huge health and life expectancy advantages of moderate aerobic exercise.

These include over-stretching heart chambers, thickening of its walls and changes to electrical signalling, which can trigger dangerous heart rhythm problems. Studies have found scarring in the right ventricle of 13 per cent of endurance athletes and estimated veteran athletes may be five times more at risk of atrial fibrillation, Carter’s arrhythmia.

Carter, who retired from professional triathlons in 2006, went to the doctor last spring after returning from a light bike ride which became a struggle as he turned off Auckland’s Tamaki Drive uphill towards home. “I was just knackered. I felt something was seriously not right.”

He had noticed the evening before that his heart felt “jumpy” but said the ride confirmed it. A specialist put Carter on blood thinners to guard against stroke until his heart was shocked back into normal rhythm a month later.

Click here if you want to read the rest of the article.

Click here if you would like to discuss in more detail what is the best approach for you in your personal pursuit for fitness or here to see some of the personal training and fitness coaching services I offer.

Coach Weiss

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