Marathon Man

I've never run a marathon. Wait, let me rephrase that: I probably couldn't run a marathon.

Don't get me a wrong, I think I could manage a few miles — before collapsing in a gasping heap. On the plus side, I'd most likely be in last place, so I wouldn't have to worry about getting trampled by any runners behind me.

Lacking the stamina to participate in a marathon, I've always admired the runners who could trudge on mile after mile, fighting through exhaustion and the elements. But after reading a recent study on the risks of marathon running, I wonder if that admiration is misplaced.

In the October edition of the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers from McLean Hospital (Belmont, Mass.) reported that running a marathon — a challenge worthy of the strongest of heart — could actually cause a cardiac disaster.

To be fair, the research didn't exactly examine shorter marathons, such as the 5Ks that could knock yours truly unconscious. No, the doctors were interested in the effects of long-distance running. We're talking 20 or more miles here — the kind of distance that makes me woozy just thinking about it.

As a fitness professional, you are already familiar with diminishing returns and overtraining. Simply put, more exercise doesn't necessarily equal more results. In fact, too much intensity and duration can be detrimental to an exerciser's health.

The researchers sought to put these principles to the test in a marathon setting. They followed a group of 80 physicians through the grueling Boston Marathon. An average of 47 years old, these physicians belonged to the American Medical Athletic Association. They didn't smoke. They had no history of coronary disease. They had even participated in other marathons. In short, these runners were in shape and ready for Boston.

As part of their studies, the researchers drew blood from the 80 entrants the day before the marathon, a few hours after finishing, and the morning after. The purpose was to measure the participants' blood-thickening (inflammatory and clotting) and blood-thinning (fibrinolytic) factors. According to the researchers, the body normally maintains a balance of both, with exercising raising their levels.

The doctors discovered that the thickeners and thinners remained balanced before the race and directly after. However, trouble arose the next morning: While the fibrinolytic activity returned to normal, the blood showed an elevation of clotting and inflammatory factors.

In and of itself, this wouldn't be a problem. But when combined with a second event — cardiac arrhythmia, for example — an elevation of blood thickeners could trigger a heart attack.

Does this mean that you should discourage trainers from working with members who want to get ready for a marathon? Not necessarily. Some people see a marathon as a rite of passage, and, one way or another, they will lace up their running shoes. So better to prepare them than to let them go out on their own.

What I do suggest is that you ask members their reasons for entering a marathon. Undoubtedly, many will explain that they see a marathon as the ultimate fitness test, presenting a challenge which will force them to get into the best shape of their lives.

When you hear this answer, take the opportunity to explain the risks associated with marathons. Point out that people can get into great shape without running races, especially with the help of your trainers. Then leave them with these thoughts from Susan Kalish, executive director of the American Medical Athletic Association, who had this to say after reading the study from the McLean researchers: “If your goal is to improve your health, go for a run…but perhaps don't train for a marathon.”

Best regards,

Jerry Janda