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A Troubled Heart for all Your Trouble

Marathon runners on the run in city

The message has been well-publicised in all media channels with increasing regularity  that exercise is good for you. Move your body, whether that be in the gym pushing weights or playing football or hockey on a Saturday morning with your local team and you will most likely get fitter, lose a few pounds and reduce the likelihood of getting some type of metabolic disease and even some forms of cancer. For many, including a number of our personal training clients exercising a few times a week is the most that their busy schedules allows. However, there is a small but growing band of exercisers for whom anything less than extreme levels of exercise training, signing up to marathons, 
triathlons and the like is where it’s at and anything less than this type of training is not going to cut it. The popularity of endurance sports has increased with more than 850 triathlon events and hundreds more marathons and cycle races staged last year.  However, whilst all this is to be applauded and encouraged, like a lot of things in life can you get too much of a good thing? Are excessive amounts of endurance exercise potentially doing more harm than good? We already know of the potential catabolic effects on skeletal muscle tissue that results in excessive amounts of cardio training but some new research is beginning to look at the possible effects on the heart(muscle) of doing too much endurance exercise which may cause problems later in life. Some scientific research is beginning to show that placing huge loads on the heart over years of prolonged endurance exercise can alter its structure and workings.

Published in the Journal of Sports Medicine the research conducted at Liverpool John Moores University the paper states that “Lifelong repetitive bouts of arduous endurance exercise may result in fibrotic replacement of the myocardium (heart muscle) in susceptible individuals, resulting in….the development of arrythmias (uneven heartbeat). Obviously, the key phrase here is ‘susceptible individuals’ and this post isn’t intended to halt all runners, triathletes et al. in their tracks and have them rush off to the nearest cardiac unit for testing. However, it is intended to bring forth current research and make those who participate in long bouts of endurance training aware of the potential risks. Some of the research using MRI’s compared veteran marathon runners hearts to older non-runners hearts and also younger male endurance athletes. The research showed that half the veteran marathon runners had fibrosis of the heart. Earlier research in a separate study on triathletes demonstrated that the heart muscles are stretched after long endurance training events and that although most of the subjects heart muscles recovered the study warned “Chronic structural changes and reduced right ventricular function are evident in some of the most practised athletes”.

Less is More

So, should all the would-be first-time marathon runners, seasoned endurance athletes, and middle-aged triathletes cease their training and opt for something shorter and more intense? Well no, but it does perhaps highlight the possible risks that are involved in these types of events and hopefully will make would-be runners ensure they are fully-tested before embarking on a training programme that does place a lot of stress on the heart. Testing, in the forms of exercise stress tests and their like can be useful and advisable in this instance. Should we therefore as a personal training company be encouraging other forms of exercise to an increasingly health-conscious and receptive public? For many a marathon is a one-off event, a chance to challenge oneself, an opportunity to raise money for a good cause or to kick-start a personal fitness programme. But, it’s time consuming and not everyone has the mental strength to continue with this type of training. For many years now the less is more movement or to be more specific the interval based training approach has been gathering momentum. The recent TV programme featuring Michael Mosley BBC iPlayer – Horizon: 2011-2012: The Truth About Exercise showed what could be achieved in short bursts of training – helping to reduce blood sugar levels, improve insulin function and offset Type 2 diabetes. A similar study in Canada compared the effect of cycling at a moderate pace for 90-120 minutes with a workout comprising 20 seconds of gut-busting pedalling followed by four minutes’ rest, repeated 4-6times. After two weeks, both groups of subjects displayed almost identical improvements in aerobic fitness, despite the fact that one set of subjects had actually been pedalling for only 15 minutes, whilst the other over 10 hours!

The rise and rise of the HIIT ( high-intensity interval training) and Tabata style methods have been adopted by many personal trainers in London and no doubt will be the preferred exercise training method of the time-poor. The scientific evidence certainly points to a productive and efficient training approach suitable for today’s busy lifestyles. Even modified Tabata style training programmes have been shown to be effective in improving overall health even after only a few weeks of training. More impressive is the enhanced functioning of blood vessels and heart among people with established cardiovascular disease.

Of the many methods and approaches that are available to condition and train to improve one’s fitness the overriding factor that should always be borne in mind is to find an activity that captivates the interest and keeps us coming back for more. Essentially an activity we enjoy. Once we’ve found something we actually like doing then we’re more likely to stick to it. If this is long endurance events, triathlons etc then so be it  (full check up beforehand highly-recommended!). 

 
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One Response to A Troubled Heart for all Your Trouble

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