To everyone who thinks that training for a marathon means being able to cram your face with any and as much food you damn well please – we have some unfortunate news for you.
Above: Runners indulge in pizza during the 2011 NYC Pizza Run.
The Wall Street Journal has published a disquieting piece about the health risks associated with distance running. Take this little soundbyte, for instance:
A small body of research suggests that heart problems may arise not in spite of extreme-endurance exercise but because of it. That has led some cardiologists to theorize that, beyond a certain point, exercise stops preventing and starts causing heart disease.
Now, the article hedges the damned-if-you-don't, damned-if-y0u-do-too-much results of this "small body of research" by noting that many cardiologists remain skeptical of the link between vigorous exercise and heart disease. And yet, a study published in the latest issue of Missouri Medicine concludes that "Long-term male marathon runners may have paradoxically increased coronary artery plaque volume," lending credibility to the claim that something about the lifestyle of endurance athletes may, in fact, be detrimental to their heart health. According to the WSJ, the Missouri Medicine study
...found that 50 men who had run at least one marathon a year for 25 years had higher levels of coronary-artery plaque than a control group of sedentary men. A British Medical Journal study published this year compared the carotid arteries of 42 Boston Marathon qualifiers with their much-less active spouses. "We hypothesized that the runners would have a more favourable atherosclerotic risk profile," says the article. As it turned out, that hypothesis was wrong.
So just to reiterate: If you're an endurance athlete, it may not be your training that's doing your heart in, but there's a chance that something in your routine is.
One explanation, cardiologists agree, could be the tendency for endurance athletes to meet their formidable caloric needs with nutritionally barren (or flat-out unhealthy) foods. "I'll burn it off" is the mantra – and, heart doctors say, the excuse – of many an endurance athlete. If you regularly indulge in post-race pizza, or a post-workout milkshake, it might be worth consulting with a cardiologist about the status of your heart.