To cope with high aerobic stress, the human heart tends to grow. The condition, called Athlete’s Heart Syndrome, is common among elite endurance athletes across a variety of disciplines, including running and cross country skiing, and may be associated with an increased risk for heart problems.
In a recent study published in the European Heart Journal, researchers in Uppsala and Stockholm, Sweden, studied whether elite athletes are at an even higher risk for heart complications.
The team evaluated a group of 53,000 cross-country skiers (made up of mostly male athletes) who completed the Vasaloppet—the longest cross country ski race in the world—between 1989 and 1998. Participants were divided into quartiles depending on the number of races completed and finishing times. Athletes with a history of cardiovascular disease were excluded from the study and researchers controlled for age and other variables. Using information from the national health registry data, scientists tracked athletes’ health through 2005.
Athletes who completed five or more races over 10 years or who finished in the top 25 percent of competitors were at a 30 percent higher risk for developing a cardiac arrhythmia—an irregular, abnormally fast or abnormally slow heartbeat. And between each quartile of ranked by number of races completed, the risk for an arrhythmia increased by 10 percent.
While the researchers showed that the most elite endurance athletes are more likely to have heart irregularities, the study did not suggest the participants were at a higher risk for more serious problems such as cardiac arrest. The researchers also did not recommend that athletes cut back on their number of races.