The Link Between Marathon Running and Heart Damage: Making the Case for Moderation not Marathon

As we approach the L.A. Marathon, the 26.2 mile race signifies the feat of mind over body – the ability to mentally overcome the pain or discomfort of the long distance run.  But if you were a compulsive marathoner, would you change your behavior if you knew too much training could put you at risk for heart problems like higher blood pressure and heart attack?

It’s logical to think that if regular moderate cardiovascular exercise is good for you heart then loads of it must be great for you.  Herein lies a most ironic dichotomy.  It’s already been proven that not enough exercise puts you at higher risk of cardiovascular disease.  But now a new study suggests that too much exercise may lead to increased stiffness of the large arteries, which in turn, can lead to high blood pressure, which can impair the heart, possibly even causing a heart attack and death.  Wow.

The study, led by Despina Kardara from the Athens Medical School and Hippokration Hospital in Athens, found that the intense training people do for marathons may be causing too much stress on the heart.  He explained that, “the cardiovascular system is like a sports car engine.  If you do not use it, it will decay, but if you run it too fast for too long, you might burn it out.”

Despina says, “our data suggest that exercise may have an inverted U-shape relation with arterial stiffness.  In other words, when you do not exercise you have higher risk of cardiovascular events, but the same also happens when you exercise too much.” The findings were presented a week ago at the American College of Cardiology’s annual scientific session, in Atlanta and the researchers said this was the first study that examined the long-term effect of intense, protracted endurance training on the elastic properties of the large arteries.

The test conducted by scientists evaluated the blood pressure levels and flexibility of the arteries in 49 people who were marathoners (mostly men).  These runners trained about 10 to 19 hours a week over a span of about two years to 20 years.  They were compared to a group of 46 people of similar age, height and cardiovascular risk factors but who were not endurance athletes.  The results showed the runners had higher blood pressure and reduced heart rate.  And, of those runners, the ones who trained more intensely were the ones who showed more stiffness in their arteries.  Only seven of the runners were women.

One explanation offered by a co-investigator for the study is that the extreme exercise done by marathon runners may place repeated and excessive stress on the artery wall, leading to its fatigue and causing the arteries to stiffen. 

I suspect the surprising results of this study will lead to further research.

In the meantime, take the not to subtle hint from this study.  If you’re an endurance junkie training like a wild banshee, tone it down turbo!  Okay, maybe that’s my advice, but Kadara advises endurance athletes to be cautious about the amount and volume of their training programs, not to wear yourself out and to work closely with your physician especially if you’re doing an event like a marathon.

So much for the Nietzschean running club.  Looks like that which does not kill you could maybe give you a heart attack

Jill Brown
Jill Brown
Hi, I'm JillI am a Los Angeles based Fitness + Nutrition Coach. With 20+ years of experience in teaching, training and continuing my education, I have transformed thousands of lives through fitness and healthy lifestyle changes.