Science Summary: Running and Your Heart

Long Distance Running and Heart Problems

by Jonathan Towne

Whether you are an avid athlete, occasional mover, or fitness fantasizer, the thought has probably crossed your mind,  “should I sign up for that charity 5k?” Regardless of your current physical condition, it’s crucial to make sure you are training well for running any distance. There are many different plans to prepare for everything up to marathons and even ultra-marathons, but you still hear the occasional story of the endurance athlete in his/her prime dying from a heart attack mid-race.


Long-distance runners may have told you stories of shin-splints, bursitis, dehydration, or a myriad of other ailments that stem from improper preparation. Even if you avoid these, how can you be sure you aren’t damaging your heart? Running is awesome, but can you have too much of a good thing?

This question has been somewhat controversial over the past few decades as some evidence surfaced in the 90’s about heart injury after 100k ultra-marathons and increasing anecdotal evidence (Musha et al). However, most of the studies that suggested hazards associated with endurance running included elderly and injury prone people while not controlling for training intensity. As further research was conducted, scientists acknowledged acute effects of marathon running but emphasized that, in general, proper training seemed to be sufficient protection from apparent negative cardiovascular consequences. (Laslett et al.Trivax et al.)

Lacking extensive long term studies, Lucia et al. put out a piece that could lead to such research by first examining the effects of marathon running on the heart. After studying healthy runners from a wide selection of training backgrounds, they found there to be no negative changes in the hearts of participants, backing up a smaller studies (O’Brien et al.Perrault et al).

So what does this mean for the fitness enthusiast and the aspiring long distance runners? In a nutshell, endurance running is not something meant to be intimidating but it should also not be taken lightly. Training is crucial so as to avoid heart issues.  But, if done properly, it can be enjoyable and rewarding both physically and emotionally. Running for a few hours may seem daunting but your heart can be set at ease of any bad effects, as long as you work up to it.  Here are some tips to make sure you ease into things.

#1 – Eating Well

There’s a lot of information out there on how to eat before a race.  It all comes down to making sure you’re getting enough of the essential nutrients. Running burns a lot of calories. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, drastic caloric deficits will greatly hinder recovery which can lead to injury and forced down time.  Eat nutrient dense foods, good amounts of protein, and stay hydrated.

#2 – Diversify Your Workouts

Even though a marathon is a 26.2 mile run, training involves much more than distance running.  Try to include interval run training and cross training, on top of your your long distance runs.  Don’t do more than two long (12-15+ mile) runs per week and aim for two other workouts as well. The distance helps train your joints and endurance while the resistance and sprint training will build muscle and make you less injury prone.

#3 – Rest

This is the most crucial piece of training advice, no matter the sport.  Push yourself, but only in a safe and controlled manner. Don’t try to run 6 days a week after being out of the gym for over a year, it won’t work well.  Allow you body the time to recover between workouts/runs so that you come back stronger for the next one.