This Is Your Heart on Endurance Sports

We’ve all read stories about the guy who dropped dead while running his first marathon, or the athlete who almost crossed the finish line of his triathlon—but had a heart attack instead. Sounds alarming, but the number of fatalities in endurance sports is still relatively low, according to new research by the American Heart Association.

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“The 50-year-old former college athlete with known or hidden heart disease who’s been sedentary for years and decides to do a triathlon is at the greatest risk,” says lead study author Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D. Some more facts: Almost half the people who have a heart attack during a triathlon are first-timers. Men are four to six times more likely to have a heart attack (and die from it) during an endurance event than women, possibly because, on average, they may be older and running at a faster pace, stressing their hearts more, suggests Franklin. And half of all exercise-related cardiac events occur during the last mile of the marathon.

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“There’s a huge temptation to think, ‘I’m almost done, let me sprint as hard as I can and beat my best time,’ ” he notes. This major increase in heart rate and blood pressure increases the likelihood of a heart attack either because the heart isn’t getting adequate blood flow, or plaque in the arteries can rupture.

Franklin’s advice: Train progressively and don’t sprint to the finish.

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