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Runner alert: Running can damage your heart

Sandy Smith is a food writer, editor, recipe developer, and pastry chef. She lives in New York's Mid-Hudson Valley with her awesome family of painfully honest, unfailingly supportive taste-testers.

Runners at risk of heart damage

When you hear the word "running," the next words that pop into your mind probably aren't "heart damage." On the contrary, we tend to associate running with cardiovascular fitness. Why, then, do recent studies reveal that marathoners – those ultra-fit uber-runners – experience some degree of damage to the heart muscle during the course of the race?

Fatigued woman running

Marathons stress the heart

Placed under the extreme stress of a powering a marathon runner, certain segments of the heart lose functionality. The most likely reason for this is a decrease in blood flow to the heart and an increase in inflammation. Fortunately, the rest of the heart -- providing it's a healthy one -- picks up the slack to keep enough blood pumping. The real trouble arises when a diseased or weak heart is taxed past its ability to compensate.

Is running-induced heart damage reversible?

What, then, should be made of the fact that all but the most fit runner studied showed some damage to the heart muscle? Should we be rethinking mile repeats and shelving our 26.2 dreams? Not quite. The good news is that when the runners were examined three months post-race, their hearts had made a complete rebound. The race-induced damage was temporary and reversible.

Proper physical conditioning is crucial for heart health

Essentially, what we can take away from studies such as these is that training and preparation are key. Runners who were physically prepared for the distance and better hydrated before and during the race suffered less damage to their hearts. The enormous toll that an endurance event takes on the body must be respected: Cutting corners in training, nutrition or hydration will inevitably hurt the body somewhere down the line.

Train smart and listen to your body

The doctors who conducted these studies – many of whom are marathoners themselves – emphasize the importance of regular, even intense physical exercise for improving and maintaining health. But they stress the importance of conscientious training and of listening to the body. No one should undertake a marathon lightly, deciding to participate impulsively without consistent training sessions that build in length and intensity over time.

Train for a marathon with heart health in mind

1Consult your physician

If you have any concerns about your health – or your ability to safely complete a marathon – now is the time to discuss those concerns with your doctor. She may order a stress test to assess your fitness level before you begin training.

2Find a smart training plan and stick with it

There are plenty of plans available on the Internet or through runners' resources that can help you plan your workouts to prepare for the big race.

3Fuel and hydrate

Eat well for the rigors of your training and make sure to adequately hydrate.

4Rest and rest some more

Get plenty of sleep – it's crucial for keeping your immune system strong and for adequate repair and recovery of your body.

5Take time off

Over-running is only going to impair your performance. Take rest days to give your body time to recover. Scheduled days off will also keep your running fresh and keep you motivated.

6Listen to your body

If you're achy, irritable and having a hard time recovering from workouts, you may be overtraining.

More tips for a healthy heart

Heart-healthy eating

Joining Shay Pausa is celebrity chef Gale Gand and Dr. Jennifer Mieres. They discuss how what we eat affects our heart.

More on heart health and exercise

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