Is Marathon Training Too Hard on Your Heart?

Endurance training can change heart – for the better

man jogging

Marathons push the envelope of a human’s physical limitations. But can the strenuous training for this ultimate endurance test push a runner’s heart too hard? Outwardly healthy runners do on rare occasion collapse with unforeseen heart issues.  Should a middle-aged recreational runner worry about straining his heart when ramping up training for the big race?

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Probably not, according to a recent study published in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Imaging.  The study tracked runners who had prior marathon experience, as they bumped up their average weekly mileage from 13 to 24 miles.

Training Boosts Heart Health

Based on this outcome, healthy recreational runners could help their hearts by ramping up their mileage. In fact, marathon training was shown to positively alter the structure and function of the heart over just 18 weeks time. Tracked in 45 middle-aged men, these changes were similar in nature to those observed in elite distance runners.  Additionally, the runners’ fitness levels and lipid profiles showed improvements over this short period.

“Based on this study, healthy active runners can adapt to increased levels of exercise in a fashion that improves performance and cardiovascular risk profile,” comments Gordon Blackburn, PhD, exercise physiologist, Preventive Cardiology and Rehabilitation, Cleveland Clinic Sydell and Arnold Miller Family Heart & Vascular Institute.

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Dr. Blackburn did not participate in the research and cautions not to assume that marathon training translates into long-term cardiovascular benefits, which he says merits further study.

Peak Cardiac Health vs. Peak Performance

Additionally, Dr. Blackburn suggests that the optimal exercise regimen to improve cardiovascular health and function is not yet clearly defined. While marathon training showed heart benefits in one study, another recent running study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiologists found that light and moderate joggers had a lower mortality than sedentary non-joggers, while strenuous joggers’ mortality was comparable to the sedentary group.

“It is important to appreciate that the activity required to optimize cardiovascular health may differ or even diverge from the activity level required to optimize performance,” Dr. Blackburn says.

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Ready to run? Share your training plan with your physician and discuss how to cross the finish line with a healthy heart.

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