Saturday, August 25, 2012

Marathon Running and the 50+ Year Old Heart

"There was no evidence of permanent heart damage from repeated marathon running in individuals over the age of 50".
Dr. Davinder Jassal, associate professor of medicine, radiology and physiology in the Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba, principal investigator at St. Boniface General Hospital Research Centre, primary author of The impact of repeated marathon running on cardiovascular function in the aging population published in The Journal of Cardiovascular MRI on August 20, 2012.

The right ventricle becomes enlarged and weakens over the course of a marathon.
It repairs itself within one week following the marathon. 

I am one of 25 runners (21 males and 4 females) that participated in this 2010 study. The volunteers are all healthy, non-smokers, and had completed at least three marathons in the previous two years leading up to the study. The report refers to us as "elite elderly marathoners".  I like the sound of elite marathoner, but my bubble quickly popped with the elderly modifier.  Kidding aside, this is heartening news (no pun intended) as my odometer creeps over to 56 next month or, if you prefer, if 50 is the new 30, I'll be 36 in a few short weeks.  

I blogged the 2010 experience here.  The study involved a series of tests including electrocardiograms, MRI's, blood samples,  cardiac tomography, and nutritional analysis. The tests were scheduled several weeks before the marathon, again immediately following the marathon (both at the finish line and then later in the day at the hospital), one week after the marathon, and finally a follow up six months after the marathon.  I can't recall precisely, but I believe we received a minimum of 3 MRI's, 3 electrocardiograms, and a number of blood samples were drawn. We were told that if an abnormality was detected they were duty bound to inform us, but otherwise the results of the testing was not shared with us.  

The exact same test was conducted on marathon runners in the 18 to 40 year old age group. I presume this was the control group to which they compared the results of the 50+ year old runners.  

The conclusions are summarized below:
  • Elite elderly marathoners over the age of 50 had a transient increase in blood markers and temporary swelling and weakness of the right side of the heart immediately following the 26.2 mile marathon. The good news is that all of the changes returned to normal one week later.
  • Studies on young endurance athletes (18-40 years of age) following marathon running have demonstrated evidence of temporary heart injury using blood markers and have linked these findings with a transient, yet reversible decrease in the ability of the right side of the heart to pump blood effectively. Both the blood markers and heart function returned to normal one week following the marathon. In other words, the same results as the 50+ year old group.
  • Repeated endurance stress does not seem to result in permanent myocardial injury in elderly marathoners.
  • The tests found no evidence of permanent heart damage, and the older runners recovered as quickly and fully as younger marathoners.
  • Dr. Jassal is quoted "What our study shows is that if you've trained well and you've done your homework in terms of keeping yourself hydrated, things will be OK."

The full report is posted in the Journal of Cardiovascular Magnetic Resonance and can be found here.

The CBC report, Older Runners Face No Greater Health Risk, is here.

The U of M media release, Study Finds Running Marathons Is Not Harmful To Older Adults,  is here.  

Weekend Warriors take note... It takes more than a healthy heart to run a marathon!  

To successfully complete a marathon you gotta log the miles and stick to the drill. You're looking at about 4 months of regimented, often boring, frequently lonely training. You need to run a minimum of four times a week. You need to run hills, cross train, do speed work, tempo runs, and one long run every week. You have to watch your diet, limit the trashy food and drink, monitor your weight, and run, run, run. You need the support of your partner and you need to talk to your children. You need to want it bad, really, really bad. There are no shortcuts.  No one can run a marathon unless you're mentally and physically prepared regardless of your excellent heart-health. If you do all this I guarantee you a rush that will last a lifetime. 

The choice is yours. You can seek truth, justice, wisdom, and the proper way to train for a marathon, or you can go the 99 cent burger route.

So friends, the next time that sedentary friend of yours warns you of the dangers of running marathons refer him to Dr. Jassal's report and invite him along on your next 20 miler. 

As my ultra-marathoner friend Melissa says, when will you run today?

It's a good day to be alive.

Mike :~)