Are Marathons Actually Bad for Your Heart?
Marathons are hard for lots of reason. Even just to get to race day takes tons of time, energy and dedication. And then you have to actually make it through the race. Just looking at the sheer difficulty of the event, then, many people never even bother to take on those 26.2 miles.
Adding to the prevalence of the counter-marathon-culture out there, several studies over the past few years have reportedly found marathons to be dangerous for cardiovascular health, even deadly. Jumping on the research, the media started throwing out stunning headlines that proclaimed things like “running bad for the heart‘” and “Drop Dead: Marathons can be bad for your heart.” But is that actually what the studies found? Is it time to spare your heart and give up on those marathons that you’ve worked for hard to be able to run?
Reexamining the Science
As mentioned, a number of studies all popped up around the same time with similar findings so it’s simply not possible to go through them all. Still, by stepping back and looking at all of the separate studies as one larger body of research, some interesting and noteworthy factors appears.
For example, most of the studies used to fuel those sensationalist headlines referenced at the outset never actually said that marathons are intrinsically bad for the heart. What the research did find, however, is that runners who did not train properly showed increased signs of stress on their hearts following the race, which is actually a pretty obvious conclusion.
Other larger, statistical studies compared the number of people who ran marathons with those who died from cardiovascular problems. If marathon running is indeed bad for your heart, this approach should be particularly telling. And what did the numbers show?
When you’re actually out there running a marathon, you’re at a slightly higher risk of suffering a heart attack than you would be dealing with if you were at home on the couch. Over the long-term, though, a regular running habit will decrease your risk of cardiovascular disease. When compared with the fact that a sedentary lifestyle has been clearly linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, back problems, obesity and diabetes, this is significant point.
Some studies, however, did not focus on the risk of heart attack directly. Instead, a few papers suggested that running multiple marathons could actually lead to atherosclerosis – a hardening and thickening of the arterial walls. These studies, however, did not account for other potentially influential factors. Things like total level of fitness, diet, genetics, sleep patterns, smoking and alcohol consumption can all increase an individual’s risk of heart attack and should be considered in any study on the subject.
Ending The Debate
A recent study from the Technical University of Munich in Germany observed the impact of marathons of cardiovascular health in 97 male runners with varying levels of experience. At the beginning of the study, the runners gave a full report of their training and competitive history before undergoing a battery of tests to produce a detailed picture of their overall cardiovascular health.
All together the runners had conquered an average of eight half-marathons, six full marathons and three ultra marathons and ran about 36 miles each week. The runners each logged more than 1,000 hours of training each year. If there were any link between running and heart disease, this study would surely find it in at least on of the subjects. No such connection was found.
There was one factor, though, that did increase a runners risk of heart disease: age. The subjects used in the study were all within 10 year of 45 years old with the oldest runners – who would have been around 55 – being the only ones who showed any cardiovascular abnormalities.
The Bigger Picture
Still, there is a lot of conflicting evidence. And another study could always appear that completely overturns this seemly conclusive report from Germany. For an actual, useful answer, all of the research has to be considered together, rather than as individual and independent studies.
When viewed as a body of research, then, what does the science say? Running, in general, is good for your heart. Just like any other muscle, your heart must be trained to function optimally. And running provides that type of training. However, the heart can also be overtrained and overworked just like any other muscle. And forcing it to pump enough blood and oxygen through your body to haul you through 26.2 miles is a lot to ask of a pretty small muscle. In order to safely and successful run a marathon, then, proper previous training is an absolute must.
But just running is not enough to ensure that your cardiovascular system will be up to the challenge. Your overall lifestyle – including your diet and other habits – will all have an influence on the function of your heart, lungs and blood vessels.
All of this information, then, can be summed up fairly simply: Running marathons is hard. Before you tackle any race of any length, be sure to train properly and make whatever lifestyle changes that are necessary to complement all of that hard work. Keep in mind that as you age, your heart will likely become more susceptible to damage and other abnormalities, unfortunately. Of course, these changes can happen at any point in your life based on genetics and numerous other factors. So, be smart and adapt your training as needed to protect your cardiovascular system