Countering a common perception, a new study has found no evidence of heart damage from long-term endurance training by elite master athletes.
While the media reports with depressing regularity the sudden cardiac death of endurance athletes, Belgium scientists earlier published a study that concluded that repeated bouts of intensive endurance exercise at the elite level may result in the pathological enlargement of the right ventricle, which, according to the article, is associated with potential health hazards including sudden cardiac death.
The publication of the study in European Heart Journal a few years ago was the cause of considerable debate among experts in the medical and sports communities.
Sports medicine physicians at Saarland University in Germany have now tested the conclusions of that study by examining the hearts of elite master endurance athletes.
The findings of the latest study, published in the journal Circulation, refute the hypothesis proposed by their Belgian colleagues.
The research team could find no evidence that years of elite-level endurance training causes any long-term damage to the right ventricle.
The researchers examined 33 elite master athletes (average age: 47) and compared them to a control group of 33 men who were similar in terms of age, size and weight but who had not done any kind of endurance exercise.
The group of athletes, which included former Olympians as well as previous Ironman participants and champions, have been training at an elite level for around 30 years and still continue to train for an average of about 17 hours a week.
The scientists were able to confirm that the hearts of these athletes, who have been engaged in elite level endurance activities for many years, were, as expected, significantly larger and stronger than those of members of the control group.
“But we found no evidence of lasting damage, pathological enlargement or functional impairment of either the right or left ventricle in the athletes who had been doing long-term intensive elite-level endurance exercise,” explained one of the researchers Philipp Bohm, who is now working at University Hospital Zurich in Switzerland.