Paleo Diet News: Marathon Runners Die of Heart Attacks Too

A Marathon

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A Marathon. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Every now and then, a marathon runner makes it into the news. Most runners would love to become a news headline by breaking records, or winning important races etc, but I don’t think that any runners want to ultimately end up in the news after dying of a heart attack. Obviously no-one wants to die of a heart attack….I know I don’t…..but I think that marathon runners are generally regarded as a group of people that are highly unlikely to die of anything heart related. After all, running makes people healthy and disease proof, right?

A New York Times online article dated Wednesday May 23rd 2012, entitled “Is Marathon Running Bad For The Heart?“, reports on running’s latest heart attack victim, and reminds us that Marathon runners die of Heart Attacks too.

“When word circulates that a runner has died of a heart attack, as the inexhaustible ultramarathoner Micah True did last month during a solo wilderness trail run, many people begin to wonder about the healthiness of prolonged strenuous activity. Could marathon training and racing perhaps have damaged the heart muscle of the 58-year-old Mr. True, a lead character in the book “Born to Run”? And, conversely, shouldn’t marathon training have made him — and, by extension, all runners — immune to heart disease?”

“What the researchers found was that, even as participation in marathon racing almost doubled during the past decade, to more than 473,000 finishers in 2009 from about 299,000 in 2000, the death rate remained unchanged, and vanishingly small. A total of 28 people died during or in the 24 hours immediately after a marathon, most of them men, and primarily from heart problems. (A few of the deaths were due to hyponatremia, or low blood sodium, in those who drank excessive amounts of fluid.) Those numbers translate into less than one death per 100,000 racers.”

“A similar epidemiological study, , reached the same conclusion as Dr.

Pham’s report, even as its authors looked more widely at data involving fatal and nonfatal cardiac arrests in half and full marathons over the past decade. The researchers found 59 cases of cardiac arrest during a half or full marathon, 51 of them in men, and 42 of them fatal. The average age of the affected racers was 42, and an overwhelming majority of them were approaching the finish line — within the last six miles for the marathon and the final three for the half — when they fell.”

“But, Dr. Thompson continues, running does not absolutely inoculate anyone against heart disease. “Genetics, viruses, bad habits from the past, bad diet or plain bad luck” can contribute to the development of plaques within the arteries or of heart damage like cardiomyopathy, an unnatural enlargement of the heart muscle, which running simply cannot prevent.”

Well no, obviously running doesn’t inoculate anyone against Heart Disease. Realistically, considering the massive amount of people who partake in regularly running marathons, the amount of them who die of heart attacks is proportionately very small. However, many runners think that running essentially makes them bulletproof, and it doesn’t.

The thing about endurance running, is that it doesn’t really fit in with the Paleolithic lifestyle. Now obviously, we’re not all trying to live like cavemen and cavewomen, but as usual, we can learn from ancestral cues. In this case, endurance running wouldn’t have been practical for multiple reasons.

  1. Long-distance running burns precious calories, which would not have been feasible for a Paleolithic hunter.
  2. Long-distance running causes accelerated, unnecessary wear and tear on joints.
  3. Long-distance running cause catabolism of muscles, therefore reducing overall muscle mass.
  4. Long-distance running can lower the immune system because of the systemic stress and often chronic inflammation caused by the physical demands of endurance running.

In my opinion, it’s mostly just a waste of time. As far as weight-loss is concerned, the calories that are burned from running are basically meaningless, because if running keeps the weight off, then the weight will eventually come back if a person gives it up. It’s like everything in life, in that the extremes are usually not beneficial to our health. Being completely sedentary is bad, and running super-long-distances is bad, so the most healthy approach should be somewhere in the middle.

I very much doubt that traditional hunter gatherer people would have been seen to be out jogging, just for the fun of it.

Ultimately, regardless of the amount or quality of physical exercise that a person does, it can’t un-do the effects of a poor diet. It might help lessen the effects, but a crappy diet can still produce clogged arteries and eventually, a heart attack. If you really feel the need to run, stick with eating according to the Paleo Template, and you’ll already be way ahead

of the pack.


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Barry Cripps is a Paleo-based, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, who operates out of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

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2 Responses to Paleo Diet News: Marathon Runners Die of Heart Attacks Too

  1. Paul R May 24, 2012 at 3:17 pm

    I’m going to take issue with a couple of your points there Barry.
    “Long-distance running burns precious calories, which would not have been feasible for a Paleolithic hunter.” Studies of modern hunter gatherers indicate that the adults spend only 10-12 hours a week supplying the nutrient requirements of the ‘tribe’, so calories weren’t as precious as you might at first assume. The rest of the time was presumably spent working out how to make a wheel work. Long distance running is not a paleolithic pursuit because there would have been nearly no need. However the ability to hold a good pace over long distances (a walk / jog for a number of hours) was almost certainly well developed, because we see it in nearly every other HG tribe.
    “Long-distance running causes accelerated, unnecessary wear and tear on joints.”
    As practised by modern day humans running in running shoes, on concrete, in running shoes causes some accelerated wear and tear in some humans. Archaeological evidence shows wear and tear of shoulder joints and malformed entheses (probably from chucking spears, or rolling experimental wheels around) so paleolithic man wasn’t immune to (or didn’t avoid) activities that led to joint wear and tear.
    “Long-distance running cause catabolism of muscles, therefore reducing overall muscle mass.” On what basis do you make this claim? Extreme exercise may result in catabolism of muscle, especially in severe caloric restriction, but normal training for any athletic endeavour involves some breakdown of muscle, and ultra marathons may during the event result in some muscle catabolism, but on a very minor scale, but it is arguable that this is a normal body process and enables and mimics hormone messengers that Grok would have experienced in famine that we are missing today. Your assertion seems misguided, and your assumption that it’s bad for us seems unsupported.
    Any repeated endeavour that stresses the endocrine system may compromise the immune system due to chronic inflammation and systemic stress. This does not necessarily describe a good marathon or ultramarathon campaign.
    Your statement “as far as weight-loss is concerned, the calories that are burned from running are basically meaningless, because if running keeps the weight off, then the weight will eventually come back if a person gives it up.” makes no sense at all. If you do activity to lose weight, keep eating the same, and then stop doing that activity then the weight will come back on. That’s a pointless argument! Running is a very successful way to lose weight for a great many people. Evidence shows that if they maintain that lifestyle change for more than 3 years, they have a very good chance of achieving a new ‘set point’ leading to permanent weight loss.
    Marathon running if practised badly may lead to problems, but the same is true of any exercise endeavour. Marathon runners become lean because of changing the structure of their muscles (predominance of type 1 fibres). They achieve an admirable CV fitness which reduces their heart attack risk to less than 25% of the standard population (but obviously doesn’t eliminate it). It has stress reduction effects (as does most types of exercise) and leads in nearly all cases to reversal of osteoporitic changes (an increase in bone density) due to SAD diet.
    To select marathon running as ‘bad’ ignores the tremendous upside, and the fact that most exercise practised to extreme is bad. Jogging marathons is almost certainly, on balance, good. Elite marathon running like any elite sport is decidedly un-paleo. I agree with you that the mythical Grok is unlikely to have run to pass the time… but it is very likely that the capability was an entrenched part of his lifestyle.

    • Shaun June 1, 2012 at 5:31 pm