Cardiac risks associated with marathon running

Sports Health. 2010 Jul;2(4):301-6. doi: 10.1177/1941738110373066.


Context: A recent cluster of sudden cardiac deaths in marathon runners has attracted considerable media attention and evoked concern over the safety of long-distance running and competition. This review discusses the acute and potential long-term risks associated with marathon running and puts these into perspective with the many health benefits afforded by habitual vigorous exercise.

Evidence acquisition: Data sources included peer-reviewed publications from 1979 to January 2010 as identified via PubMed and popular media.

Results: Marathon running is associated with a transient and low risk of sudden cardiac death. This risk appears to be even lower in women and is independent of marathon experience or the presence of previously reported symptoms. Most deaths are due to underlying coronary artery disease. The value of preparticipation screening is limited by its insensitivity and impracticality of widespread implementation. Appropriate preparation and deployment of trained medical personnel and availability of automatic external defibrillators are expected to have a major impact on survival from cardiac arrests during marathons. Cardiac biochemical and functional abnormalities are commonly observed transiently following completion of a marathon, although their clinical significance is unknown.

Conclusions: Sudden cardiac deaths associated with marathon running are exceedingly rare events. Prevention should focus on recognition and investigation of prodromal symptoms, if present, and access to rapid defibrillation and trained medical personnel. The robust association of endurance running with improved quality of life and longevity underscores the importance of putting risks into perspective with other well-established health benefits of regular vigorous exercise.

Keywords: cardiac arrest; exercise; marathon; preparticipation screening; running; sudden cardiac death.