THE RUNNER’S HEART
That would change if we could work out, in advance, who is among the 0.1 per cent with a vulnerable heart. We know that rare heart conditions are associated with certain genetic defects, and those with the defect are more likely to develop the disease if they exercise a lot. The same may turn out to be true for fibrosis and atrial fibrillation: exercise raises your risk, but only if you already have a genetic predisposition. ‘ This is a potential game- changer,’ says Thompson of the future prospects of genetic testing. That doesn’t mean people with the wrong genes can’t run, but they’ll understand the risks and perhaps run 10Ks rather than 100-milers.
By the end of the conference, I’m feeling good about my running. With two young kids, I’m lucky to log 30 miles in a week and my racing is limited to 5Ks and 10Ks. But I dream of mountain ultras. This debate reminds me not to assume I’m invincible – to be aware that my arteries could get clogged or my heart could go haywire. Whether or not running raises or lowers the risk, being aware will help me watch for warning signs.
For now, even Lavie is loathe to discourage anyone from running. ‘ I don’t think the data is nearly enough to say, “Stop at 30 miles per week,”’ he told me after his talk. He wants people to understand that running’s health benefits can come from as little as five or 10 minutes a day, that you don’t need to be a marathoner to be healthy, and that pushing to extremes may even whittle away some of those benefits. If you’re older and have other risk factors for heart disease, he might suggest an exercise stress test and coronary artery calcium testing, or statins to lower cholesterol. ‘ If someone is running 40 miles per week, I ask what their purpose is,’ he says. ‘If they love it, I’m not going to try to scare them.’
I’m surprised. Having read the scary headlines, I’d expected to meet an anti-running crusader. But that’s not Lavie. He runs for 45 minutes on most days, logging over 30 miles a week. And once he’s out on the roads, he’s no longer thinking about his heart. ‘ I feel better. I’m able to eat more,’ he says. ‘But mostly, I enjoy it.’