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Home » Cycling » Endurance Athletics, Cycling, Running and the Heart: How Much is too Hard on the Heart? The Answer I Like is Balanced.

Endurance Athletics, Cycling, Running and the Heart: How Much is too Hard on the Heart? The Answer I Like is Balanced.

August 2015
« Jul   Sep »

Everyone knows that exercise does a body good.  Humans are meant to move and all too often we find lack of movement to be a main culprit in obesity or worse.  Having watched my grandfather slowly waste away and die after a broken hip, I’ve seen firsthand what an absolutely sedentary lifestyle can do to someone.  There’s another side to that equation though, a balance…

I recently read an article in the August, 2015 Velo Magazine that looks at the incidence of heart disease amongst those who regularly push their bodies past the limits.  This post will not be an attempt at taking down the science used to come to the conclusion that too much of a good thing is bad.  That makes enough sense to me, and because I’m okay with being honest I don’t mind writing that I only want to go so far with my fitness anyway because I’m already fast enough in my humble opinion.  I don’t like pushing myself hard enough to ride with the racers.  In fact, to me, pushing that hard takes a lot of the joy out of it.  While I do ride a lot and put in some fairly decent mileage, I manage an excellent balance in life.  Enough cycling, enough family time and enough work, but not too much of the first and last on the list (except on occasion).

The article, entitled Cycling to Extremes looks at heart arrhythmia in those in the upper echelon of endurance athletes.  The gist is this:  Those who cycle or run hard in their youth and follow their career in professional sports with rest and leisurely activity exhibit excellent longevity in terms of overall and heart health.  Those who continue to push well into their late 40’s, 50’s and 60’s show obvious signs of stress and the degeneration of the heart muscle.  That’s all well and good, and certainly makes sense, but they stop short of actually defining what is too much and what is safe, largely because the science is unclear and there is a large “gray area”. If that wasn’t confusing enough, one must factor in that while we’re all supposed to be equal in the eyes of the government, we’re not in terms of generics. What is good for me could eventually kill someone else with a weaker heart, and conversely, what could be a Sunday ride for someone else could lead to dysarhythmia for me.

The only thing I like when it comes decision time for someone to find the proper balance is personal honesty in conjunction with a good medical opinion.  No one can determine for us what is or is not acceptable because one extreme will use the fact that too much exertion can lead to heart problems to justify doing nothing while the other either won’t care or is often in utter denial.  While denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it isn’t a mountain in the Himalayas that can only be summited by a chosen few, either.  Finally, it must be accepted that some people are willing to die to continue to perform in their chosen sport.  It’s just the way some people are wired, though I can’t see requiring someone else to pay for that choice…  As with so many things in life, the knee-jerk reaction is to point to others and accuse.  He’s too active, she’s not active enough, he’s lazy, she’s too fanatical…  These charges are all too common and normally based on utter ignorance of the full reality or on only a sliver of what really is.  The problem inherent there is that if you require someone else to pay for your choice (say taxpayers), you invite their opinion as well, as ignorant as that may be…  And because we all can’t vote on the right thing to do for each individual, these things require a corruptible, often contemptible bureaucracy.

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For example, and completely off topic, I was accused the other day of being uncaring to the working class, simply because I ride a very nice bicycle.  I am the working class!  The person making the accusation knows about me, only that I ride every Tuesday with our local club and that I ride an expensive bicycle.  From that he was able to determine my wealth, how much I pay in taxes and that it should be more because I ride that nice bike. After all, his son graduated with “college debt” and “only makes $35,000 a year” coming out of school.  The word “ignorance” is far too kind for that level of prejudice, he has absolutely no idea the sacrifices I chose to make to own the bicycle that I do, he has no clue as to the simplicity with which I live my life in all areas except that bike…  He knew, based solely on the bike I ride that I should pay more tax, presumably so his son wouldn’t have to pay for college.  That same lack of logic and ignorance can, and will, be applied to fitness by armchair quarterbacking bureaucrats the world over under the guise of intelligence.  If you think this is foil hat territory, just look at school lunches that are too small to properly nourish high school athletes.  It happens every day and in dealing with far less debatable topics.  To that end, I thought it important to begin the discussion of the boundaries of that gray area.

Using myself as an example, I can look at duration for five of the seven days in a week and say that I don’t ride too long, 50 to 90 minutes a day.  I also ride quite slow for most of those.  The trick gets into the weekend where I’ll ride anywhere from a couple of hours all the way up to six, both days and at least one of those is going to be at a fairly aggressive pace.  Going by the two examples used in the article, arrhythmia issues begin with a fairly common feeling of the heart fluttering in the chest as if it were a “flopping fish”, often during periods of rest.  While I have experienced this feeling (only once on a ride and a few times while resting), I discussed it with my doctor and after several tests, including an EKG and an ultrasound, it was determined by him that I was in fine shape and all was well.  The problem, according to the article, that this is fairly common even in fully healthy individuals who exercise a lot.  The problems are apparent when this begins to occur more frequently.  We get into trouble when we continue to repeatedly challenge the limits and we damage the heart…  That said, when my level of training for cycling and the duration at which I train are taken as a whole, I am well below levels of concern.  When my doctor’s involvement is added to the mix, while some may view my cycling habit as extreme, I am, simply stated, just exceptionally fit.

This is, of course, by design.  I enjoy cycling.  I love it.  I love sharing the sport with my wife and daughters and the feeling of relief it brings to an otherwise stressful life.  While I do train hard from time to time, I absolutely slow down long enough to see and smell the proverbial roses.  In other words, my fitness schedule adds to my life’s balance, it doesn’t detract from it and it absolutely cannot be said that I push too far over the edge when I ride.  Finally, I have no desire to be at the top of the food chain when it comes to cycling or any other activity – I have no desire to turn fitness into another job that must be trained for and I have no delusions of grandeur, as if I will be a more validated person if I can win a race.  Dude, I just like to ride.  Maintaining my fitness is exceptionally important to me because I believe in the idea that if I want to be active at 80, I’d better be at 40.

In the end, lest we end up in some dystopia where we have to sneak our pre-GPS trackable bikes out the door for a ride, for fear some bureaucrat might find our desire to sweat a little, unnerving, each of us should take a moment to consider, just how fast is fast, and is damaging the ticker worth being just a little faster.

The science is beginning to show that the results of failing to honestly assess our fitness can be dire.  Thump-thump, thump-thump, thu…

This is my test for knowing whether or not I’m too avid an enthusiast when it comes to cycling:  I love it, yes.  The idea is to love it well into old age – not damage my ticker to be fast.  I’ll leave being ultra-fast to others.  In the end, it always comes down to balance.  Too much of a good thing, or too little, often leads to trouble. Honesty is always the best policy.



  1. James L says:

    I do worry sometimes about training to hard, although 90% of the time I probably am actually training just right or not hard enough. I think when you hear about super fit people suddenly dropping down dead it makes you wonder how much is too much. Oh and that guy at your club sounds like an arsehole! Sounds like part of the privileged generation who expect everything off others hard work.

  2. I think the biggest problem for people who train really hard and who do not have a hidden genetic defect of the hard is that they often love to ignore symptoms of fatigue or a simple cold. Especially, during cold season people do get out of bed too early or they won’t even get rest and heal. They just want to get out there and do what they love but slowly and hidden to them there is inflammation growing and spreading in their heart muscle and suddenly they just drop… I know I am being little Ms Sensible and the killjoy again but sometimes a body needs rest (especially when sick).

    • bgddyjim says:

      I happen to be one of those who rides when sick. Not hard, mind you, but raising my body temp helps me to kick it faster. Of course, come to think of it, I haven’t been sick in more than a year… I have to go back almost three since the last time I had to take a day or two off before I felt good enough to ride again. Interesting, that.

  3. Tracey says:

    Key word: Balance. Too much of anything is not good. That said, I’d ride my bike every day if I had the time and I wouldn’t think twice about it. I’ve learned a lot from you about pacing, cadence and nutrition. Keep ’em coming.

  4. My granny used to say “a little of what you fancy does you good”, seems OK to me, but how much of a little?

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