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Can Ultras and Endurance Sports Harm Your Health?

MIKE WARDIAN IS the picture of health. At 45, he’s been a professional ultrarunner for 16 years. He races 50-plus times annually, covering around 200 miles a week. He’s six feet tall, weighs 145 pounds, and has a body-fat percentage of 8.5. His resting heart rate is 38 beats per minute. He has 20/20 vision. And he’s never had a cavity.

Yet every four months, Wardian goes to a cardiologist for diagnostic testing. It’s not for some congenital heart disorder, either. It’s because of his sport.

In the 2008 Olympic Marathon trials held in New York City, fellow runner Ryan Shay collapsed and died; the cause was later attributed to an irregular heartbeat and an oversize heart. The incident spooked Wardian enough to closely monitor the health of his own heart. “It is one of those things where you think, yeah, this may not be that good for you,” he says.

Exercise is healthy, of course. But there can be too much of a good thing. A handful of researchers are now suggesting that participating in ultraendurance sports may be harmful to your long-term health. Cardiologists at the University of Toronto published a study that found highly trained endurance athletes are three to five times likelier to experience an atrial fibrillation, like Shay suffered. And with the entries rising for marathons, triathlons, and ever-gnarlier adventure races, more people may be unknowingly putting themselves at risk.

10 Science-Backed Tips Guaranteed to Make You a Better Runner

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Ultrarunning Magazine reports that in 2016, there were 1,473 ultras. In 2006, there were 369. Running a marathon was once seen as hardcore. Now it is commonplace. So people who want to prove their mettle are taking things up a notch. Ironman triathlons—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon— often sell out in minutes. And “doubling” is a thing now. Marathoners, triathletes, and even Ironman athletes compete in multiple races in one season, sometimes weeks apart. There are even people who do a “Double Boston.” They meet in the wee hours on Boston Marathon morning on Boylston Street at the finish line and run the reverse course to Hopkinton. A few hours later, they line up with the rest of the marathoners and run the course again. By day’s end, they’ll have logged 52.4 miles. And as the distance covered on race day grows, so is the time spent training.

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