Whether you’re working out for hours or you’re just doing mini workouts, there’s no question that exercise is good for you. But, according to cardiologist, there may actually be a point where too much exercise becomes dangerous—especially for men 40 and older who are competing in triathlons.
The biggest risk is sudden cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops beating. It could be caused by any number of underlying conditions, and the risk rises with age. Men are 2-3 times more likely to suffer a sudden arrest than women. Part of the explanation is that, “The attributes to push through the barriers and push through the pain are common in competitive sport, but that’s also dangerous when it comes to ignoring warning signs,” explains David Prior, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at the University of Melbourne.
One might think that marathons would pose the biggest risk. But according to a 2012 study done at the Mayo clinic, the death rate for triathlons is about double that of marathons. Why? The higher intensity level of the competition and, especially the swimming leg of the event.
“The swim seems to be a particularly dangerous time,” said Andre La Gerche, a cardiologist at Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital and marathoner. “Paradoxically, in the marathon, it’s the opposite: it’s the last mile of the event where the vast majority of fatalities occur.”
According to La Gerche, the swimming leg can be “extraordinarily stressful.” “You have people climbing all over you. Sometimes you’re fighting to breathe, and that’s not something the body is used to.”
According to USA Triathlon, the governing body in the US, the number of race-related fatalities is on the rise, and the age bracket with the highest number of deaths is 40-49. Still, these incidents are pretty rare. Out of 11 million long-distance runners, 59 people suffered cardiac arrest last year. All but 8 were men.
If you’re over 40 and still want to compete, just be careful. To start with, follow the recommendations by race organizers and other governing bodies. For example, the International Marathon Medical Director’s Association recommends that instead of sprinting the last mile or so of the race, stay steady or slow down (something that goes completely against just about every bone in a competitive man’s body).
And in another counterintuitive recommendation, you might want to cut back on your training. According to a study done by researchers at the Ochsner Health System of New Orleans and the University of South Carolina, you’re a lot less likely to die in a race if you don’t log more than 20 miles per week in no more than 5 runs, and you keep your pace below 7 miles per hour (a bit faster than a 9-minute mile).