There is a growing population of veteran endurance athletes, regularly participating in training and competition. Although the graded benefit of exercise on cardiovascular health and mortality is well established, recent studies have raised concern that prolonged and strenuous endurance exercise may predispose to atrial and ventricular arrhythmias. Atrial fibrillation (AF) and atrial flutter are facilitated by atrial remodelling, atrial ectopy, and an imbalance of the autonomic nervous system. Endurance sports practice has an impact on all of these factors and may therefore act as a promoter of these arrhythmias. In an animal model, long-term intensive exercise training induced fibrosis in both atria and increased susceptibility to AF. While the prevalence of AF is low in young competitive athletes, it increases substantially in the aging athlete, which is possibly associated with an accumulation of lifetime training hours and participation in competitions. A recent meta-analysis revealed a 5-fold increased risk of AF in middle-aged endurance athletes with a striking male predominance. Beside physical activity, height and absolute left atrial size are independent risk factors for lone AF and the stature of men per se may explain part of their higher risk of AF. Furthermore, for a comparable amount of training volume and performance, male non-elite athletes exhibit a higher blood pressure at rest and peak exercise, a more concentric type of left ventricular remodelling, and an altered diastolic function, possibly contributing to a more pronounced atrial remodelling. The sports cardiologist should be aware of the distinctive features of AF in athletes. Therapeutic recommendations should be given in close cooperation with an electrophysiologist. Reduction of training volume is often not desired and drug therapy not well tolerated. An early ablation strategy may be appropriate for some athletes with an impaired physical performance, especially when continuation of competitive activity is intended. This review focuses on the prevalence, risk factors, and mechanisms of AF in endurance athletes, and possible therapeutic options.
Keywords: Atrial arrhythmias; atrial remodelling; autonomic tone; endurance athlete.
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