Do Endurance Sports Damage Your Heart?

Dec 12 / Build Muscle

Pay attention, endurance athletes: You may be working your heart ragged, according to new research from Belgian and Australian researchers.

The study authors recruited 39 experienced endurance athletes, and employed echocardiograms, MRIs, and several other tests to examine the athletes’ hearts both before and after a race.

After roughly one week of recovery time, the researchers found evidence of damage or scarring in the area of the heart’s right ventricle in about 13 percent of the athletes—or five of the 39 study participants. Although those five were roughly the same age as the other participants, they had competed in endurance sports for an average of 20 years, compared to just 8 years for the rest of the study group.

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The postrace examinations also revealed elevations in blood markers, which normally indicate the heart is damaged or strained, explains study author (and marathoner) Andre La Gerche, Ph.D., a cardiologist at the University of Melbourne.

The study team also found chronic structural changes and reduced right ventricle function among the five affected athletes. The right ventricle is responsible for pumping blood into your lungs, and appears to work harder during exercise than any other chamber of the heart, La Gerche says, referring to the right ventricle as the heart’s “Achilles heel.”

What does all this mean? That’s difficult to say without more research, La Gerche warns. Like your biceps or quads, your heart is a muscle that can tolerate some damage—and can even become stronger—if given adequate time to recover. And although several studies have shown that endurance athletes are at greater risk for some heart rhythm problems like arterial fibrillation, there is still scant evidence that endurance sports cause permanent damage to an athlete’s heart, La Gerche says.

That said, allowing ample recovery time after high-intensity workouts is essential to safeguarding your heart. Although specific recovery guidelines are difficult to prescribe, La Gerche advises against more than one high-intensity workout each week. What’s a high-intensity workout? Anything that pushes you above 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for more than a few minutes. If you find that your performance is inexplicably weakening, that’s also a clear sign that your heart is fatigued, and you need to back off your training, Le Gerche says.

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