Most people think when they run a marathon they’re doing something good for their heart. It’s certainly true that an active lifestyle that includes moderate to high intensity exercise is heart-healthy, but if you try to run a marathon when you’re not trained, you could do short-term damage to your heart.
Marathon Running Risks: Is Marathon Running Really Heart-Healthy?
Researchers used MRI imaging to look at how marathon running affects a marathoner’s heart – especially runners who aren’t conditioned to run marathons. To look at a runner’s cardiovascular fitness, they measured a parameter called V02 max. V02 max is a measure of the body’s ability to use oxygen during exercise and is the best measure of aerobic fitness. It’s determined by having a person exercise at a high intensity.
When they looked at MRI heart studies on marathon runners both six to eight weeks before and after a marathon, they made some interesting observations. Marathon runners who were less physically fit, as measured by V02 max, had segments on their MRI where their heart had sustained damage after running a marathon. Fortunately, this damage seems to be reversible over several months, but it’s possible that it plays a role in some of the cases of sudden death that are occasionally seen in marathon runners during a race.
Marathon Running Risks: It May Not Be So Healthy After All
This isn’t the only research to question the benefits of marathon running. In one study, researchers checked the blood of marathon runners after a race and found elevated levels of an enzyme called troponin that goes up when the heart is damaged. This same enzyme is also elevated in people who are having a heart attack. Fortunately, most evidence suggests that this damage is temporary, but could it increase the risk of sudden death while it’s still there? No one knows the answer.
Another indication that hard-core marathon running may not be heart-healthy stems from research published in the European Heart Journal. When researchers scanned the hearts of marathon runners over the age of fifty who ran several marathons each year, they found over 30% of them had calcification or plaque in their coronary arteries ‘” a precursor to a heart attack. Although these marathon runners were older, it still raises questions about whether marathon running is heart-healthy for everyone.
Is Running a Marathon Heart-Healthy: The Bottom Line?
These studies raise questions about just how heart-healthy marathon running really is. The take-home message? If you run a marathon, get a thorough heart evaluation first – and train properly by gradually increasing your mileage over time to build up cardiovascular fitness. Consider running a half-marathon, and then tackling a full one – to make sure you’re in top form. Running is still good for you, but running a marathon without training isn’t. Moderation is key – even when it comes to exercise.
Eurekalert.org. “Marathons damage the hearts of less fit runners for up to 3 months”
New York Times. “Phys Ed: How Do Marathons Affect Your Heart?”