Running a marathon? Two studies have conclusions you need to read

This may be from the  news of the “duh,” but a recent report from The Associated Press tells us something we probably should have already guessed: Incidents of cardiac arrest among endurance athletes are rare, maybe one in every 184,000. Deaths are even more rare: 1 in every 254,000.

The figures come from a study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study comes in the wake of a reported increase in the number of deaths that occur during endurance events like marathons. It seems like there is a report of a death every year at the New York Marathon or the Pikes Peak Marathon.

And then there was another report about how marathon runners typically experience a weakening of the heart muscle after a race.

In some ways, these seem to be disparate reports – one saying endurance athletes suffer less from cardiac arrest, but the other reporting heart weakening/damage from running endurance events. But in truth, they are linked.

Endurance sports such as marathons are becoming increasingly popular. But they are also attracting racers who may not be in top condition yet still able to gut out the 26.2 miles – even if it takes 6, 7 or more hours.

So the truth is, there are people who are running such races who may not have any business putting their bodies through the punishment that a marathon brings.

The second study I mentioned, from the Heart and Stroke Foundation, offers even more startling conclusions.

The study says that those who try such races but who aren’t in top condition can damage their hearts for up to three months.

Why risk this?

Most people do not run marathons or compete in other races with the intent of winning. The elite racers are just too good, too gifted and too well-trained for the everyman/woman to compete with. Instead, most people race for the sense of personal accomplishment.

Finishing a 5K is pretty cool. A half marathon is a feat. A marathon is a huge task requiring discipline, time, planning and hard work, and the fact is that only a miniscule fraction of the population can do it. It’s one of the few athletic activities in which merely completing the task is noteworthy.

This can be transformational for people personally. But then I go back to these two studies.

The New England Journal of Medicine study notes in increase in fatalities because of an increase of participants – and more importantly, an increase in participants who had prior heart conditions.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation study notes that the temporary heart damage it discovered was mostly for people who were “less fit” than they should be. The damage is reversible, the study says, but it dovetails nicely with the darker side of the NEJM report.

What I take from this is that if you want to take up endurance sports – and then compete in the most rigorous of them – a few things need to be taken into consideration. First, you need to work up to it. Try shorter races first. Build up to it over time. Change your diet. Listen to your body.

But in light of these two studies, I also think it’s wise to get a physical before your marathon training begins in earnest. No race is worth a heart attack, and certainly not worth dying for.

It’s cliché by now, but the original marathon tells the tale of a Greek warrior who ran 26.2 miles to deliver news of war. And then he died from the effort.

Our marathons are not so serious.  So be wise, train up, and get yourself checked out.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


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