Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Phidippides and Endurance Sports

You probably remember the story of the Battle of Marathon.
In the fifth century BC the Persians were the superpower of their day and Ionia in what is now western Turkey was one of many subjugated territories under the Persian Empire. When the Ionians rebelled the Athenians came to the aid of their fellow Greeks. The Ionian rebellion was crushed, but the Persians were not satisfied. Out of revenge and a determination to expand their domain, the Persian fleet landed in the bay of Marathon with the goal of subduing the impudent Greeks.

During a five-day stalemate the Athenian General Miltiades dispatched a professional runner named Phidippides to Sparta for reinforcements. Phidippides ran the 150 mile distance in two days. The superstitious Spartans, however, would not leave their homes during a full moon. The Athenians, however, could not wait and, although far outnumbered, they attacked the Persians anyway. Amazingly, the Greeks defeated the Persian infantry and forced the fleet to return to Asia.

Legend has it that forty-year-old Phidippides ran from Marathon to Athens, 25 miles, to announce the victory over the Persians and then collapsed and died.
(Underline added). It is the death of Phidippides that is of interest to me here. The Wall Street Journal reports:
A fast-emerging body of scientific evidence points to a conclusion that’s unsettling, to say the least, for a lot of older athletes: Running can take a toll on the heart that essentially eliminates the benefits of exercise.

“Running too fast, too far and for too many years may speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life,” concludes an editorial to be published next month in the British journal Heart.

. . . What the new research suggests is that the benefits of running may come to a hard stop later in life. In a study involving 52,600 people followed for three decades, the runners in the group had a 19% lower death rate than nonrunners, according to the Heart editorial. But among the running cohort, those who ran a lot—more than 20 to 25 miles a week—lost that mortality advantage.

Meanwhile, according to the Heart editorial, another large study found no mortality benefit for those who ran faster than 8 miles per hour, while those who ran slower reaped significant mortality benefits.

Those two studies—presented at recent medical conferences—follow the publication in recent months and years of several other articles finding cardiac abnormalities in extreme athletes, including coronary artery calcification of a degree typically found in the utterly sedentary.

Opinion is nearly unanimous among cardiologists that endurance athletics significantly increases the risk of atrial fibrillation, an arrhythmia that is estimated to be the cause of one third of all strokes. “Chronic extreme exercise appears to cause excessive ‘wear-and-tear’ on the heart,” the editorial says.
The article goes on to note that not everyone agrees with the conclusions of these studies. But, poor Phidippides may beg to differ.

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