Endurance Exercise and Cardiomyopathy

I recently chatted with my friend Steve Stowers, PhD.  Steve is a professor of Neurobiology at Montana State University, and a national-level competitor in ultramarathon running.  He shared with me an article from Velo News entitled “Cycling to Extremes – Are endurance athletes hurting their hearts by repeatedly pushing beyond what is normal?”.  The link for the article is http://velonews.competitor.com/cycling-extremes and I encourage you to take the time to read this interesting piece.

The article centered around two aging athletes and their experience with atrial fibrillation, a form of cardiac arrhythmia.  This was a very well-written article with clear graphics and some key comments from a physician specializing in this disorder.  I won’t recap the entire article because it is a fairly quick read, but I think you will find it intriguing.

As a proponent of healthy living and vigorous training throughout the lifespan, I have worked with people like those profiled in the article for three decades.  In fact, I actually have a lot in common with those individuals.  However, I’ve altered my exercise patterns over the past 7-8 years in such a manner that now I do more strength training and high-intensity intervals, and less sustained submaximal endurance activity.  This is due largely to some orthopedic injuries I have incurred and it is not because I don’t love running and cycling (which I have done for all of my adult life).  My skeletal system simply cannot tolerate performing those activities for hours on end like it did so readily when I was younger.  After reading the aforementioned article it may indeed be serendipitous that I’ve evolved into a new philosophy of training, but it may also be related to the data that I have collected as well as that mentioned in the article.

We all get so many things from our exercise.  We improve our endurance, strength, and the ability to perform in many aspects of life.  We solve problems.  We maintain ideal (hopefully) bodyweight. We strengthen relationships.  We have FUN!  And this is probably a short list.  But I think we all need to take a look at this article and ask some questions.  How much is too much?  What roles do stress and denial play in our workouts?  Was this article just profiling two unique people or is the hard training master athlete at greater risk as suggested?

I am certainly not ready to suggest that exercise is harmful.  Especially since I have graduate training in both exercise science (including cardiac rehab) and physical therapy, and I have made my living by working full-time in this industry.  I’ve worked with over 10,000 people in these areas and I feel this gives me a little credibility to pontificate.  I think America is too quick to try to rationalize and justify its largely sedentary ways.  We need to be active and athletic.  But I wonder about how much hard endurance training each of us can tolerate as we mature.  In our small statewide running group in Montana, I can name 4 runners, all friends, all lifetime athletes, all now in their 50’s, who have had very similar issues to those highlighted in the VeloNews article.  I’d like to use this short blog as a request for commentary.  Let me know your opinions on this topic.  Make a comment.  Let’s have an intellectual discourse on this very perplexing subject.

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