We’ve all read stories about the guy who dropped dead while running his first marathon, or the athlete who almost crossed the finish line of his triathlon—but had a heart attack instead. Sounds alarming, but the number of fatalities in endurance sports is still relatively low, according to new research by the American Heart Association.
“The 50-year-old former college athlete with known or hidden heart disease who’s been sedentary for years and decides to do a triathlon is at the greatest risk,” says lead study author Barry A. Franklin, Ph.D. Some more facts: Almost half the people who have a heart attack during a triathlon are first-timers. Men are four to six times more likely to have a heart attack (and die from it) during an endurance event than women, possibly because, on average, they may be older and running at a faster pace, stressing their hearts more, suggests Franklin. And half of all exercise-related cardiac events occur during the last mile of the marathon.
“There’s a huge temptation to think, ‘I’m almost done, let me sprint as hard as I can and beat my best time,’ ” he notes. This major increase in heart rate and blood pressure increases the likelihood of a heart attack either because the heart isn’t getting adequate blood flow, or plaque in the arteries can rupture.
Franklin’s advice: Train progressively and don’t sprint to the finish.