Is Long Distance Running Bad For Your Heart?

Time for our Workout Of The Month. Each month we take a look at a different exercise and break it down by movement, how to do it, and discuss some of the positive vs. negative impact that it can have to you and your level of fitness. Some workout’s of the month breakdown how to do a common exercise, others feature a specific exercise. This month we focus on sudden cardiac death from long distance running. In short – does running long distance marathons put you at risk for sudden cardiac arrest?

Marathons and Sudden Cardiac Death Risks

You’ll hear about it in the news every now and again: “Runner drops dead while running marathon.” It affects the young, and the healthy. it was true for a twenty-three year old running in the Brighton Marathon who collapsed dead from a heart attack at the sixteen mile mark (1). The same was true for a Columbia man running in the Savannah Rock n’ Roll Marathon where he collapsed at the finish line and couldn’t be revived. This man was known for being in excellent shape (2).

The marathon isn’t the only distance known for its sudden cardiac death syndrome – half marathons have their fair share of sudden death reported in the media as well. Just as the family of a twenty-three year old man running in the Pittsburgh Half Marathon where he collapsed and went into cardiac arrest around a mile from the finish line without being able to be revived (3). In the Detroit Marathon and Half-Marathon in 2009 three men – ages twenty-six, thirty-five, and sixty-five all died from cardiac arrest (4). So what gives?

Is Long Distance Running Bad For Your Heart?

So is long distance running bad from your heart as reported by studies shown in the media or is it all hype? Likely hype according to the best research out there.

A study out there of events from 1979 to 2010 looked at the risks associated with marathon running. Sudden cardiac death was indeed associated with marathon running. The risks were lower in women. However, most deaths were due to underlying coronary artery disease in place (4). Just how big is the risk? The number of fatal heart attacks in marathon runners climbed up to a whopping thirty-nine…out of a total of four million runners. Your odds of dying from a fatal sudden cardiac death in a marathon was 1:114,000 (4).

Of the people who died, the major causes were related to coronary artery disease. Most of them wouldn’t have even known it either. After all, how often to people in their twenties undergo heart health screenings? Other and far less common risk factors included heat stroke and electrolyte imbalances (4).

An older study (1996) from the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found similar results. They analyzed a total of 215,413 runners and found that sudden cardiac deaths during marathon running were related to underlying coronary heart disease or rare heart structural anomalies. Overall, the risk of dropping dead in a marathon was 1:50,000 (5).

In 2010 the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed 10.9 million runners in full and half marathons in the United States from 2000 to 2010. Of the 10.9 million runners, 59 had sudden cardiac arrests. That statistic brought the risk of dropping dead in a marathon to 0.54 for every 100,000 participants (6).

So, long distance running can cause death. But so can driving your car – and you’re still more likely to die from stepping into your car.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention

So what can be done to prevent sudden cardiac death in long distance running?

1. Health screenings: The only way to really find out if you’re at risk from sudden cardiac death from long distance running is to screen yourself. Blood tests can tell a lot about a person’s health. An EKG can tell a lot about if you have any abnormal heart rhythms. But what about heart structural problems? The only way to find out about that is with a Cardiac Echocardiogram. But are young people who are considered healthy going to have health screenings before running a long distance race? Probably not. I know I never have.

2. AED Devices: Another way to decrease the (rare) likelihood of sudden cardiac death during long distance races is to place medical volunteers or paid medical staff at increments throughout the race trained in CPR and AED administration.

Discussion: So are long-distance running events for you? Or are you likely to avoid the sudden cardiac death syndrome? By the way – you are two and a half more times likely to die of sudden cardiac death if you’re a young athlete between the ages of twelve to thirty-five than a non-athlete (this includes activity outside of marathons) (4). You just can’t win can you?

1. “Man, 23, Dies While Running In Brighton Marathon.” The Independent. 14 April 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
2. “Columbia Man Collapses, Dies In Savannah Marathon.” WISTV. Worldnow. 10 Nov. 2013. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
3. “Runner, 23, Dies Of Cardiac Arrest During Pittsburgh Marathon.” Trib Live. Total Media. 5 May 2013. 25 Feb. 2014.
4. Day, S., Thompson, P. “Cardiac Risks Associated With Marathon Running.” Sports Health Journal. 2 July 2010. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
5. Margon, B., Poliac, L., Roberts, W. “Risk For Sudden Cardiac Death Associated With Marathon Running.” 2 Aug. 1996. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.
6. Baggish, A., Cianca, J., Chiampas, G., d’Hemecourt, P., Kim, J., Malhorta, R., Roberts, W., Smith, R., Troyanos, C., Wang, T. “Cardiac Arrest During Long Distance Running Races.” The New England Journal of Medicine. 12 Jan. 2012. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.