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More Than Just A Race: The Top 3 Unseen Risks of Marathon Running

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Image: AFG Fitness

On Saturday March 15th, two runners, in two separate races, lost their lives right near the finish line. After running the Shamrock Half-Marathon in Virginia Beach, 16-year-old Cameron Gallagher collapsed right after she completed the race. Brian Hicks, 48-years-old, suffered a cardiac arrest at the end of the Fleet Half-Marathon in London.

We take chances — a lot of them; every moment of every day. And while we can’t predict the outcome, we can do our best to prepare. While fatalities among half- and full-marathon runners are rare — estimated at one death for every 150,000 marathoners1, and one incidence of cardiac arrest for every 185,185 runners2 — becoming well-informed and educated can help you and those around you stay safe.

To help you be more prepared for any race you might be running, we’ve laid out the top three unseen risks of half- and full marathon running.

(Note: These are not directly linked to the recent, unfortunate deaths mentioned above.)

 

1. Over-Hydration (Yes…It’s a Thing)


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Image: GamerFitNation

It’s common for runners to view dehydration as the top (and only) concern. And while keeping up your fluid intake is super important, it’s also possible to go overboard with it. When training for a marathon, runners can drink so much fluid that they create an entirely new problem for themselves.

Hyponatremia, a condition where sodium levels in the blood are too low,3 can occur due to over-hydration from the intake of too many fluids. This dilutes the sodium content in your body. In the case of endurance training, it can lead to fainting, confusion, muscle spasms, or even seizures.

If you’re running long distances and training rigorously — make sure to balance water consumption with electrolyte-based drinks (e.g. coconut water, Gatorade, Propel, etc), and always eat something with carbs post-training.


 

2. Unintended Weight Gain


Many people train and run in endurance-type events to lose weight. Whether that is a marathon, triathlon, or Ironman, you may see adverse effects on your workout regimen.

According to exercise psychologist Susan Paul, runners tend to overestimate their caloric needs, meaning they often eat more than they probably need to after a long run. That overeating can occasionally lead to unintended weight gain. An app like RunKeeper can help you gauge exactly how many calories you’re burning during your runs, that way you can more accurately figure out how much you should be eating.

Additionally, running — and training in general — increases the capacity of muscle glycogen stores; the fuel tanks where we store glucose in our bodies. While this is critical and allows the body to fuel a long run, it can also come with extra water weight, which often moves scale weight. Relying on a (better) metric like body fat % provides a better picture of what’s really happening with your body over time.

 

3. Damaging Cardiac Events


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Image: Athlete Culture

It’s no mystery that long distance running really works your heart. But over time, it may also greatly increase your risk for a damaging cardiac event, such as cardiac arrest or a heart attack. In a study by the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers concluded that many view the completion of a marathon as a “rite of passage” but the risks extend beyond ordinary shin sprints.

In addition, researchers at the Mayo Clinic collected data on the cardiovascular effects that may potentially result from long-term endurance training:4

“A routine of regular exercise is highly effective for prevention and treatment of many common chronic diseases and improves cardiovascular (CV) health and longevity. However, long-term excessive endurance exercise may induce pathologic structural remodeling of the heart and large arteries. Emerging data suggest that chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as marathons, ultramarathons, ironman distance triathlons, and very long distance bicycle races, can cause transient acute volume overload of the atria and right ventricle… Additionally, long-term excessive sustained exercise may be associated with coronary artery calcification, diastolic dysfunction, and large-artery wall stiffening.” — Mayo Clinic Proceedings

While more research is merited, early evidence suggests that long distance events like marathons, ultramarathons, and ironman triathlons may have adverse effects on heart health.

 

Does This Mean I Shouldn’t Run a Marathon?


Not at all. These are simply risks that many do not see when planning and training for a marathon. Before jumping into a marathon, consider having a physical with your primary physician.

A proper training schedule, solid support system, sound nutrition, and an attentiveness to how your body is feeling can all help you have a successful marathon experience.

Julie Fine

Julie Fine

Content Specialist at Lean It Up
Julie Fine is an AFAA-CGF, Beachbody INSANITY Coach, former chunky gal, 110% pure fitness junkie and an SEC-lovin' sorority girl at the University of Missouri.

When she isn't spending her extra time as a campus tour guide (Go Tigers!), she's probably scrounging around the aisles of Barnes & Noble or doing some impulse online shopping.
Julie Fine
Follow Lean It UP on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest for real-time fitness/nutrition tips, advice, info and updates.

 
 

References, Notes, Links

  1. Runner’s World — Two Deaths Reported at Half-Marathons Sunday []
  2. New England Journal of Medicine []
  3. Mayo Clinic Proceedings []
  4. Mayo Clinic Proceedings []