Do long distance runners have a shorter life? Capt Seshadri attempts to explore this theory, based on research and experiments and from dialogues with doctors with experience in accompanying marathon runners in major events.
In the fall season of the year 490 BC, Pheidippides, a Greek messenger, ran a distance of 26 miles non-stop from Marathon to Athens, to announce the defeat of the Persians at the battle of Marathon, in which he himself had just fought. Having shouted out “nenikēkamen”, (we have won), he collapsed and died on the spot.
Centuries later, the death of Jim Fixx, author of “The complete book of running”, probably triggered the debate on the issue of health versus harm. Reports from across the world state that till date, 36 marathon runners have suffered a fate similar to that of the ancient Greek. The age range was between 18 and 70, thus averaging close to 44. Almost half of these deaths occurred either during the run or within 24 hours of the event. So, is there a connection between long distance running and heart attacks? The arguments for and against, both purportedly with solid data to back them, are conflicting but hardly convincing.
Heart + Running
It is a universally established fact that the cause of coronary failure is a build up of plaque in the arteries. So, does distance running help build up plaque, or prevent it? Argument # 1 suggests that extreme distance running can harm rather than protect the heart. This is based on a study of 8 runners over a period of 140 days, running a daily cross country stretch of 42 km, with a one day break each week. After the first 24 hours, the runners were subjected to tests to determine plaque build up. At the end of the race, it was found that their systolic blood pressure, (the number on the top) had decreased and the ‘good cholesterol’ was higher. However, having checked their previous medical records, for those with a history of heart issues, the plaque build up was higher. These findings seem to suggest that distance running is not necessarily protective but could even be harmful in the long run. Conflicting, or confusing?
Marathon runners of all ages around the globe, participate enthusiastically, quite often either ignoring or not being aware of previous cardiovascular deterioration. On the flip side, it would be silly to assume that all marathon runners are physically fit and are therefore immune to cardiac disease.
Understanding the heart
Argument # 2 takes a somewhat different pitch. It says: If we sampled 50 men running 3,510 marathons over the course of three decades, will their heart health suffer or improve? These were experienced runners, most of them with over a quarter of a century of training, with some even having run for half a century. The mix was eclectic, with some having commenced running from school days and others trying to work out the effects of sedentary lifestyles, smoking and indulging in junk food. On an average, they ran around 50 km a week. When these 50 were scanned, 30% had no sign of plaque, 40% had mild amounts and the remaining 20% were the worrisome lot.
The findings were quite chaotic to say the least. More marathons did not mean more plaque, as did less running not indicating any difference. This led to the conclusion that extreme running had little or no impact on heart disease, but reinforced the fact that a history of smoking and cholesterol led to greater plaque deposits even after years of running.
Added to this is a third dimension. According to recent studies, different versions of atherosclerosis, the technical name for plaque build up, could be benign or harmful, and could affect active and sedentary people, thus debunking both negative and positive schools of thought on distance running and heart disease. This ‘halfway home’ theory seems to suggest that long years of distance running neither improves nor deteriorates heart health. There is no clinching evidence to prove that running causes any direct changes in the heart. The conclusion would probably be that all kinds of running would help keep arteries clear of harmful matter. However, running does not provide immunity to those with a history of bad lifestyle, especially smoking and junk food. In the words of Dr Roberts, an experienced researcher, “You can’t just outrun your past”!
So, run to your heart’s content. Run for your lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt Seshadri Sreenivasan is a former armed forces officer with over 30 years experience in marketing. He also a consulting editor with a leading publishing house. He is a co-author of the best selling biography of astronaut Sunita Williams.