Skip to main content

Endurance Athletes: No Immunity from Heart Disease

By April 30, 2015June 1st, 2020Exercise, Lifestyle & Stress, Nutrition

Heart disease is preventable. It even occurs in runners. In the 2008 U.S. Olympic marathon trials, Ryan Shay collapsed and died about five miles into the race. There have been many others—some survived, like Alberto Salazar, and some didn’t, like James Fixx.

Inflammation is a major problem in the hearts of some athletes competing in long events. It’s another factor that raises the risk of bodily damage or even death. Last year, Laval University’s Dr. Eric Larose presented his frightful research findings at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2010 in Montreal. He followed a group of 20 marathoners, 14 men and 6 women, ages 21-55, before and after their race. He showed that racing was associated with an inflammatory condition that raised the risk of death seven times that of normal. Most of these runners had significant inflammation that reduced heart function, with dehydration contributing to the problem. While these runners all recovered by their three-month follow up evaluation, this appears to be an indication that many runners have serious inflammatory problems under the stress of competition.

Chronic inflammation is a problem I’ve seen too often in endurance athletes when I was coaching. In addition to avoiding the stress of overtraining, balancing the intake of different types of fats can prevent abnormal inflammation.

Sometimes the chronic inflammation is subtle, and other times more obvious. In addition to being associated with physical imbalances and injuries, it can affect the rest of the body too, including the heart. Not all endurance athletes have this risk. In Larose’s study, only one runner did not have the inflammatory problem. This appears to be the same ratio in athletes I initially examined—the vast majority had some level of abnormal inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is commonly caused by dietary imbalance, which comes from two areas:

  • Consuming an imbalance of dietary fat: too much omega-6 (especially vegetable oils) and too little omega-3 fats can cause chronic inflammation.
  • Consuming refined carbohydrates, including sucrose, maltose and most other sugars, which are high glycemic, increase insulin. Elevated insulin levels cause many omega-6 fats to convert to chemicals that produce inflammation. (This does not include carbohydrates consumed during races as this does not produce high levels of insulin.)

Larose’s study did not factor in how aspirin and other NSAIDs affected the heart and inflammation. Unfortunately, many endurance athletes consume these drugs, especially before and after a race, despite the damage they do and the lack of clinical effectiveness.

An important indication that your fats may be out of balance and your risk of inflammation is high has to do with how aspirin or other NSAIDS affect you. These drugs often provide many people with symptomatic relief of pain—but not everyone. If you do get relief from these drugs, it may indicate your fats are not balanced and chronic inflammation exists. That’s because the primary action of these drugs is to artificially balance fats for you.

While the media usually won’t publish stories about balancing dietary fats, they often write about studies that show certain anti-inflammatory drugs can reduce the risk of heart disease, and other conditions including cancer. But drugs such as aspirin can be a double-edged sword—helping a part of you while hurting another. Consider these examples:

  • Patients with heart disease are often prescribed daily aspirin after a heart attack. The reason for this is that aspirin “thins” the blood; it reduces the aggregation of platelets contained in blood vessels. Studies show this can lower the risk of a heart attack or stroke by 22 percent compared to those not taking aspirin. However, studies also clearly show that many patients taking aspirin can have a four-fold increased risk of having a second heart attack.
  • In the case of asthma, a condition associated with chronically inflamed airways, taking aspirin (and other NSAIDS) may not help. In fact, studies show that up to 70 percent of these patients may not tolerate aspirin. Moreover, aspirin can actually cause asthma in some people. Studies show that aspirin-induced asthma is due to an alteration in the balance of fats.
  • The use of aspirin in preventing colorectal cancer has been highlighted by the media for years. But a recent study by Alaa Rostom, M.D., and colleagues from the University of Ottawa in Canada showed that, while some studies demonstrate reduced risk of cancer, others do not. So the results are not conclusive.
  • An overlooked factor in aspirin use in relation to preventing disease is cost effectiveness. This has to do with the drug’s side effects. Studies show that the use of aspirin in colon cancer, for example, is not cost-effective. This is due to the high expense from complications of the drug’s side effects. These side effects include internal bleeding and ulcers.

Balancing dietary fats not only can reduce chronic inflammation, but reduce the risk of disease, and control pain. In addition, it can help with recovery from training and racing, prevent and correct many injuries, and improve athletic potential.