Is There a Link Between Distance Running and Heart Problems?

March 28, 2014 by NYRR staff

When Dave McGillivray learned six months ago that he’d contracted coronary artery disease, he was shocked and embarrassed.

The surprise was because the 59-year-old Boston Marathon race director assumed that he had a healthy lifestyle. He’s finished 130 marathons and several Ironman-level triathlons, and he still runs 10 miles a day.

McGillivray was embarrassed because he always figured distance runners can eat whatever they want, as he told the Wall Street Journal, and he even included a recipe for chocolate-chip cookies in a recent book about endurance athletes.

His diagnosis supports the results of two recent studies suggesting that high-endurance exercise might lead to—not simply fail to prevent—heart problems.

The most recent study, published in the latest Missouri Medicine, found that 50 men who’d finished at least one marathon per year over the last quarter-century had high levels of coronary-artery plaque relative to their non-running peers. Earlier this year, the British Medical Journal published a report that found 42 Boston Marathon qualifiers did not have healthier tickers than their spouses.

"We hypothesized that the runners would have a more favourable atherosclerotic risk profile," reads the British Medical Journal article, according to the Journal. But this was not the case.

"Studies support a potential increased risk of coronary artery disease, myocardial fibrosis and sudden cardiac death in marathoners," said Peter McCullough, a Baylor University cardiologist who served as lead author on a recent editorial in Missouri Medicine.

Does that mean runners should throw away their sneakers and hunker down on the couch with bacon double cheeseburgers? Not according to Massachusetts General Hospital cardiologist Aaron Baggish, who told the Journal that the link between coronary disease and strenuous exercise is “shaky at best.”

One thing heart docs do agree on: Running long distances doesn’t mean you can eat whatever you want. And many recommend that patients like McGillivray continue running, though some advocate cutting back on mileage.

That’s good news for people like Amby Burfoot. The 67-year-old Runner’s World editor-at-large and 1968 Boston Marathon winner recently learned that he has high levels of coronary calcium and a condition that may be similar to McGillivray’s.

"I subscribe to the old saw,” Burfoot told the Journal. “‘Exercise—it might not add years to your life, but it adds life to your years.’”

Categories: Human Interest

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