When famous ultramarathoner Micah True, 58, died in May of this year, general trust in the safety of marathon and long distance running waned a bit. The near-legendary “Caballo Blanco,” as he was known, died during a routine solo run near his home in Mexico.
The case of Mr. True is only the most popularized of several reports of death during or shortly after marathon-distanced runs in the US, and so some popular suspicion of long distance running has emerged as of late. While it is non-debatable that long distance running puts a strain on the body, and that there have been several documented deaths related to marathon running, it is not exactly true that more people running longer distances equals more running-related deaths.
Let me explain what I mean:
According to the New York Times, research done by Johns Hopkins and other medical research facilities has demonstrated that even with the sharp peak of interest in marathons over the past decade, the numbers of documented deaths has not increased. A total of 28 deaths occurred over the course of that time, making for an incredibly low percentage of runners. Most of these cases were heart-related, while others were simple, although tragic, cases of dehydration and dangerously low counts of sodium in the bloodstream. Both of these conditions are rooted more in how the runner nourishes their body for the race, than in the race itself. The heart conditions are more enigmatic, although physicians point out that training for marathons probably prevents more heart issues than it causes.
Since our knowledge of all of the factors that go into dangerous heart complications is still incomplete, the number of variables linking the cases of death during marathons is still beyond complete certainty. Many heart issues are hereditary, the result of substance abuse, or simply unexplainable. Plus, as Dr. Pham in the aforementioned article makes clear, the relationships between running and the cases of death is indeterminable, since physicians are not required to report that kind of information.
So the jury’s still out with recent data, but what we do know is that strenuous activity always increases the chances of heart complications. This should go without saying. Any time the heart has to work harder than normal, it is under duress. This is why the goal of cardiovascular exercise is to cause the heart to do more than it normally world, knowing that stress creates strength. The same is true with weightlifting in the gym.
Keeping all that in mind, there are certainly some things that runners should do to keep safe when running long distances. First of all, try to always run long distances with a partner, especially in remote areas. The case of Mr. True teaches us that running alone can make assistance in the case of emergency very difficult. Second, runners should stay hydrated, and in doing so, ensure that their hydration contains the recommended amounts of vitamins and electrolytes. Hyponatremia and dehydration, as mentioned above, are known causes of death and sickness during intense physical activity. Finally, runners should take care of their hearts. If you have any family or personal history of heart-related illness, please, please, consult a doctor before trying to run a race as long as a half or full marathon. Get regular check-ups and pay attention to your body’s natural signals to ensure that everything is working smoothly.
So, we have concluded that long-distance running and sudden death or heart attacks are not necessarily connected in any absolute way. In fact, the cases themselves are very low in number, and usually involve persons who are forty and older. But that doesn’t mean that long distance runs cannot be very dangerous for a person who is not properly taking care of his or her body. Stay safe by regularly checking in with a doctor and getting the most recent health information about staying hydrated and nourished during a long run. Happy trails!
Photo credit: Robin McConnell