The Athlete’s Heart Risks: Fact or Fiction?

Your clients may be wondering: is it possible to damage our hearts through exercise?

There have been many headlines over the years about the supposed dangers of endurance sports. Stories of marathon runners dropping dead…professional athletes falling down with a heart attack in the middle of practice.  We’ve been taught throughout our lives to believe that exercise is good. Do these cases suggest that exercise can actually damage our hearts? These concerns may come up in your conversations with coaching clients, and while you’re not going to give medical advice, the insights from our recent interview with Colorado State University researchers Dr. Barry Braun and Nate Bachman may be helpful in addressing any client concerns. 

Starting back in 1984 when Jim Fixx, the author of “The Complete Book of Running” died of a heart attack in his mid-50s, the suspicions about the potential dangers of endurance sports have made for great headlines. What often doesn’t make news is the rest of the story; in the example of Fixx, for instance, besides being an endurance athlete, he was also a lifelong smoker whose father died of a heart attack at a relatively young age. Other athletes who have died have later been discovered to have issues with blood pressure, cholesterol and family history. 

That said, these stories are frightening and the fears are legitimate. It’s not uncommon to hear of accomplished middle-aged athletes who are incredible competitors and have also experienced heart issues. The dramatic headlines continue, and physicians, without exact answers to the question “what should I do?” often defer to the understandably conservative answer of “slow down” or “stop.”

Fortunately, the research community is beginning to take a deeper dive into this issue by looking at individual cases and determining whether these heart issues are simply anomalies of someone already at risk or if they can be cause-and-effect by athletes putting too much strain upon themselves. Colorado State University researchers Dr. Barry Braun and Nate Bachman took a deep dive into examining, measuring and comparing the behaviors, hearts and health of competitive endurance athletes. They discuss their study in detail with Catalyst Coaching institute in a recent podcast. Their findings may surprise you – and they’re likely to add a critical piece to this puzzle around the athlete’s heart risk. Interested in hearing more? Listen here.