Are Marathons Dangerous?

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Though the cause of death is still not certain, the two runners who died during this weekend’s Philadelphia Marathon have now been identified. University of Pennsylvania senior Jeffrey Lee, 21, died shortly after crossing the finish line. Clifton, NY, resident G. Chris Gleason, 40, suffered from an apparent heart attack about a quarter mile shy of the end of the 26.2-mile race.

If you’re a runner, it’s natural to wonder if you should worry. But as we’ve previously reported, deaths in athletic events—while unfortunate—are rare. And that’s especially true when you compare them to the risks of inactivity. (musclemorphosis.com)

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William Roberts, M.D., is the Medical Director for the Twin Cities Marathon and a professor at the University of Minnesota Medical school. Below, read a guest post from Dr. Roberts on cardiac arrest during marathons and how you should protect yourself if you’re a runner:

A death always catches attention, especially when it occurs in an athletic event. The number of deaths is a matter of exposure, and it is the rate or incidence that tells the story. There are now about 1.5 million full and half marathon race finishers each year in the USA, so the number of people exposed has risen with the popularity of these races. Roughly half a million of the finishes are at the marathon distance and about one million are at the half marathon distance. Both are stressful events and can trigger cardiac events in the susceptible heart.

I have been tracking two top 10 marathons for 30 years. The current death rate (updated through 2011) across three decades is one in 87,000 finishers with the events occurring mostly in older men. The other statistic that pertains to this group is the rate of cardiac arrest, which is one in 41,000 finishers or about half of the rate for sudden death. So, the risk of having a cardiac arrest during a marathon is low and the chances of survival are 10-15 times great than if you have a cardiac arrest outside the hospital while not in one of these marathons. What we do not know is the number of runners who die in shorter races and while training or running recreationally.

When I worked in the emergency rooms during my training, we always said that the first big snow storm weeded out the weak hearts, because there seemed to be a blip in heart attacks following a “shovelable” snowfall. Most runners stress their hearts regularly and it may be that the conditions surrounding a race stress the cardiovascular system more than training runs (for most runners). So what we do not really understand is the tipping point for cardiac arrest in a generally well-trained runner.

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There are things you can do to prevent or lessen your risk of cardiac arrest during a run:

1.    Discuss your activity level and your personal history with your physician; you can decide what prevention screening or case finding studies will be of benefit to you as you run and race.

2.    Listen to your body and stop for chest pain or pressure; pain or pressure in your arm, neck, or jaw; skipping or irregular heart beat; or unusual breathlessness, loss of energy, or fatigue.

3.    If you have an event, like blacking out or feeling dizzy while exercising or feeling your heart flutter or race, report it to your physician for evaluation. Also be aware that “heartburn” during exercise may not be from your stomach and can be your heart.

Finally, distance running is not a high-risk activity for cardiac events and over a lifetime you will gain more benefit from running than those who are sedentary for fear of having a cardiac arrest while running.

Dr. Roberts’ story was originally published on musclemorphosis.com.