The Marathon Myth: Quickest Way to a Heart Attack?

Do marathon runners really drop dead in the middle of a race? And if they do, why does it happen? It doesn’t make sense… shouldn’t they be in great shape?

We’re always told we need to exercise. It’s our best option for strengthening our hearts.

Yet, statistics prove that it’s no myth. Long-distance runners do drop dead. Usually in the middle of a run. And from fatal heart attacks.

So what’s really going on? We investigate the truth behind the headlines. And will give you the best option for losing weight… while helping your heart.

Real Life Tragedies

Just last year, three runners died at the 32nd Detroit Free Press/Flagstar Marathon.

They were:

  • Jon Fenlon – 26
  • Daniel Langdon – 36
  • Rick Brown – 65

Each died within 16 minutes of each other during the run.

All three had trained hard for the race. They all passed the fitness tests required for the marathon. Only Rick Brown had any history of heart problems.

And it’s not just “weekend warriors” affected by heart conditions.

Olympic athletes also drop dead during races.

In 2007, Ryan Shay was running in the Olympic Trials in NYC. He was just 28 years old. And he dropped dead of heart failure in Central Park… just past the five-mile mark.

Even women are at risk from long-distance running.

Take Cynthia Lucero. She collapsed after running the Boston Marathon when she was just 28.

Her heart was fine. For her it was too much fluid intake that diluted her sodium levels.

This happens when your brain swells as it tries to balance cellular and blood sodium levels.

Your muscles swell to keep this balance. But your brain has limited space. This happens when runners drink too much water.

Most runners know to stay hydrated during a race. Not many know that too much water can dilute their sodium to dangerous levels.

And there’s a sad irony here. Just the week before the marathon, she completed her doctoral dissertation. It was on the ways marathons help runners grieve.

Statistics Discredit Myth

The US Registry of Sudden Death in Athletes has plenty of statistics like this. It says about 14 percent of athlete deaths are linked to heart problems.

So why are we told exercise helps your heart?

“Exercise reduces cardiovascular risk by a factor three,” says researcher Eric Larose, an expert on exercise and cardio health. He heads research at the Institute Universitaire de Cardiologie et de Pneumologie de Quebec and Universite Laval in Quebec City. He headed up the leading study on the subject.

“But vigorous exercise such as marathon running [increases] our cardiac risk by seven.”

His study shows marathon runners suffer temporary heart damage because of the level of exertion when running such a long distance.

That’s because the further you run, the more stress you put on your body.

And people in the field back this up.

Dr. Arthur Siege is director of Internal Medicine at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. He used to run the Boston Marathon and he says cardiac arrest is not uncommon in such long races.

“Your body doesn’t know whether you’ve run a marathon… or been hit by a truck,” says Dr. Siege.

He cites one reason why this is the case. He says long duration exercise releases chemicals that flood your body. And that leads to inflammation.

When running a marathon your body kicks into survival mode. That releases a chemical cascade inside you. Your adrenal glands release stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin. Your muscles release a protein called cytokines. And that makes your liver produce C-reactive protein. This triggers an inflammatory response to protect you from all the havoc raging in your body.

If you have hidden heart problems, this can be seriously risky.

Dr. Siege says as you go deeper into the 26.2-mile race, your muscles take on the brunt of the stress. And that includes your heart.

He and his colleagues conducted a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology. They analyzed the blood of marathon runners less than 24 hours after racing. What they found confirmed their suspicions. Long distance running can lead to high levels of inflammation and coagulation markers associated with heart attacks.

A later study in the American Heart Association’s Circulation journal found even more disturbing news. This study found abnormalities in how the blood was pumped into the heart after running a marathon.

Some runners had difficulty refilling heart chambers.

Duration training is serious business. It takes dedication and commitment. But it can be deadly to your heart.

Of course, exercise is important to weight loss. In fact, the right kind of exercise can help you improve your heart health.

On Friday we’ll look at the kind of exercise you should be doing. It’s a new way of exercising for the new year. It will also strengthen your cardiovascular system. Without hours in the gym. Or unneeded stress on your heart.

Related Articles:

Health Topic: Heart and Cardiovascular | Heart Attacks


  1. Bennett Cohen says:

    In December 2007, the British Medical Journal published the largest study of deaths during marathons. The survey consisted of 750 separate marathon days that were taken from 26 marathons over 30 years. Out of 3,292,268 runners, there were 26 deaths from heart attack, a ratio of one death in 126,000 runners — hardly battlefields strewn with casualties.

    Deaths from cardiac arrest during marathons are cuased by undiagnosed congenital heart defects (as in case of Ryan Shay) or advanced cardiac disease, usually undiagnosed. The marathon did not cause the heart attack but acted as a trigger, just as shovelling snow can trigger a heart attack.

    Clearly, one does not have to run a marathon to stay in shape. Runners run marathons for other physical, emotional or psychological reasons and benefits.

  2. Dr Holly says:

    While I agree with your article and have said this for years…I believe you are missing some vital points. Too much water is as dangerous as too little water. AND the type of water is hugely important – if is is acidic, pH less than 5, the molecules becomes larger, ie., ph=5 molecular structure is about 15-18 H20s – too big to cross cellular membranes and it carries all kinds of toxic chemicals. Of course, the more acidic, the more it draws out chemicals from the plastic containers. All contributes to diluting the system, toxifying the system, and making it hard on the kidneys to function.

  3. charlene Richards says:

    This is sooooo depressing. I’ve been training, lost a lot of weight, feel great (I started training for a marathon) I feel great (I’m 64). But I don’t want to drop dead. I finally found a way to eat everything and not gain weight. I was inspired by watching a documentary about a 74 y.o. man who ran a marathon. This was my goal for Jan 2011-run my first marathon. So, now what? Will I drop dead with my finally, great looking bod?

  4. Matthew says:

    Excellent article. I know you have mentioned him elsewhere, but Dr. Al Sears has done studies on the benefits of exercise and heart (and lung) health. It seems counterintuitive but short duration, progressively accelerating cardiovascular exercise turns out to be the most beneficial to overall health and fitness.

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