Endurance Sports and Atrial Fibrillation – WHY?

Endurance Sports and Atrial Fibrillation – WHY?

starting a long run on the local PCT. We saw a bear that day – fun.

Exercise is supposed to be good for you, good for your heart, right? Then why is that endurance athletes have two to ten times the rate of developing atrial fibrillation compared to “normal” people? Is a little or moderate exercise good but excessive exercise bad? As an endurance athlete (marathons, trail running, long distance mountain and road biking) who has permanent atrial fibrillation (AF) I would certainly like to understand “WHY?”

There is a terrific article on Europace entitled Endurance Sport Practice as a Risk Factor for Atrial Fibrillation and Atrial Flutter . By internet standards it’s a long read but I will review it here.

The studies aren’t large, and male athletes predominate – but it is clear that endurance athletes have, as mentioned above – 2 to 10 times the likelihood of developing AF. It is not actually known why but it is thought that ectopic atrial beats, chronic inflammation, and larger atrial size are all risk factors.

Personally – the story checks out – I started having runs of “premature atrial contractions” years before ever going into AF, and because endurance athletes train more frequently and tend to avoid rest the atria are chronically inflamed, which leads to fibrosis (scarring) of the atrial muscle. And of course my left atrium has been severely enlarged for decades – not as much because of sports but because I had previously had mitral regurgitation (repaired surgically 1994 but the atrium never shrunk back to normal).

But even without the mitral valve issues endurance athletes tend to have enlarged atria. And we don’t rest enough leading to inflammation and scarring. The Europace article cites several studies that link long term endurance sports with AF, compared to sedentary individuals.

Moderate exercise may actually protect against AF.

Ringo after a long run – Fremont Trail

The Europace article also cites studies that show a correlation with “occupational physical activity” and AF – meaning people that have difficult, physically demanding jobs are also in the same boat as endurance athletes.

I didn’t know this – there is also a higher rate of AF related to how tall a person is – damn! I’m 6’3” (or 6’4” – depending on what year was measured.)

The article discusses, speculates, as to the mechanism of AF in the athlete’s heart but much of this is a bit technical for this blog. Feel free to explore the article if you are curious.

The typical clinical profile of sport-related AF or atrial flutter is a middle-aged man (in his forties or fifties) who has been involved in regular endurance sport practice since his youth (soccer, cycling, jogging, and swimming), and is still active. This physical activity is his favourite leisure time activity and he is psychologically very dependent on it. 

Interestingly the AF rarely occurs during running:

They almost never occur during exercise. This makes the patient reluctant to accept a relationship between the arrhythmia and sport practice, particularly since his physical condition is usually very good. The crises typically become more frequent and prolonged over the years and AF becomes persistent. Progression to permanent AF has been described by Hoogsteen et al .

Again, for me, the story checks out. I certainly recall long episodes of palpitations at rest that I now can identify as AF – until the day when it became (dreaded) permanent AF!

The article suggests that abstinence from sports is helpful for athletes having episodes of AF, although it isn’t curative. The problem, as any endureance athletes knows, is that it is nearly impossible to get us to give up our long runs, bike rides, etc.

Other therapeutic measures are also discussed – but that is a talk that is best left to the runner and the cardiologist.

Although ablation seems to be quite effective, endurance sport cessation associated with drug therapy seems to us a more suitable approach as an initial therapy, particularly in non-professional, veteran athletes.

To conclude I’m just going to quote their conclusions right here:

Vigorous physical activity, whether related to long-term endurance sport practice or to occupational activities, seems to increase the risk for recurrent AF. The underlying mechanisms remain to be elucidated, although structural atrial changes (dilatation and fibrosis) are probably present. There is a relationship between accumulated hours of practice and AF risk. Further studies are needed to clarify whether a threshold limit for the intensity and duration of physical activity may prevent AF, without limiting the cardiovascular benefits of exercise.

I’d be interested in others opinions and experiences with these issues. Reading this article was a little emotional for me – like I said – the story checks out! I guess that if I knew what I know now I might have cut down a little on the endurance sports before I was forced to do so by permanent AF. Truly, for me, a day long run with my dog, on a trail, in a local wilderness area was the most enjoyable thing I can imagine. And at this point it isn’t even the AF preventing me from still doing it – it’s the  high dose of beta blocker I take for rate control – really takes the wind out of my sails.

 

 

“C’mon Boss, let’s go for a trail run!”

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SOB Trail Run 15K Race Report: Atrial Fibrillation, Running, Beta Blockers – My First Impression

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SOB Trail Run

I have been in permanent atrial fibrillation for a couple of years now, but only been taking an anticoagulant (Pradaxa). But things have changed and for the past month I have been on a beta blocker, carvedilol.

Prior to starting the carvedilol, while in permanent atrial fibrillation, I had been able to run two marathons and one ultramarathon (50K) without any more trouble than the normal marathon type suffering, but over the past six months I have noticed things have been changing. I’ve slowed down, even for me, and distances are getting harder. My last half marathon was a joke and I was at the end of the pack within the first two miles. After a run or mountain bike ride of an hour or more I would have problems afterwards – my blood pressure would drop and my pulse would stay high. After a long run, especially if it was a hot day (which they all are, recently) I would get so light-headed after standing up I sometimes had to grip onto something to remain standing.

A visit to the cardiologist, and a subsequent echocardiogram, revealed that my heart rate was increasing and my ejection fraction was decreasing, and for that reason the cardiologist wanted me to start on a beta blocker.

A beta blocker, in this case carvedilol, is a drug that reduces stress on the heart by slowing the heart rate, decreasing the force with which the heart beats, and reduces the tone of the arteries throughout the body. The end result is that blood pressure is reduced, as is heart rate. The heart needn’t work so hard.

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SOB 50 Mile Course – tough!

Some non-endurance athletes actually use beta blockers as performance enhancing drugs – it is said that it calms a person, reduces performance anxiety, and is commonly used in less endurance specific sports such as golf, target shooting, archery, and even in music performance.

Clearly these drugs are performance diminishing for endurance sports like distance running and mountain biking. We like to stress the heart, raise the heart rate, and we don’t have very much stress – we’re long distance runners after all – the mellowest people around.

I generally am in at least half marathon shape year round. Even if I’m not training for anything my weekend long run is going to be between nine and twelve trail miles. Prior to starting the beta blocker I had signed up for the 15K at the SOB Trail Run at Mount Ashland (Oregon) – one of my favorite races. This relatively high altitude run is basically all up and down trails and fire roads (zero flat sections) and I have done it at least six times in the past, including completing it twice in atrial fibrillation. I was curious to see how being on the beta blocker would affect my race.

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DNF

The answer was I DNFed (did not finish) and dropped out fairly early in the race. That was terrible – most of my friends were running the 50K or the 50 mile and I DNFed the little 15K???

The course at the SOB is brilliant, really. A lot of trail races start out right away on singletrack, but the SOB has about a mile(?) of fire road at the start so everybody has plenty of time to figure out whether they are going to be running with the fast people or the slow people before they hit narrow Pacific Crest Trail. I ended up at the very back of the group that was running, but I was still in front of the few people who were walking the 15K.

I found that as soon as the course headed up hill I was unable to run. My chest felt funny – not chest pain, just felt weak, not right, and my legs felt dead. I wasn’t short of breath, I was just unable to do it. I decided, in my typical OCD mode, to continue running for five more songs on my iPod shuffle, and then turn around and drop out, thinking that I should at least get a little bit of a work out in, and that I could justify keeping the T-shirt I had paid extra for. I knew I could have walked the course, but that is not what I went there to do.

I was delighted that the fifth song on my iPod turned out to be an oldie from my high school days: Yours is No Disgrace by Yes. Not actually I song I still like very much, but in this context it seemed like a cosmic pat on the back.

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A Cosmic Pat on the Back

On the way back I met a woman who was also DNFing (sprained ankle) and we walked the last section of the race together, commiserated, and removed our numbers so they wouldn’t mistake us for the top finishers. At the finish line we informed the race officials that we had dropped out so they didn’t need to send a search and rescue team to find us.

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DNFing and commiserating together as we remove our race numbers

So this article is, basically, my first impression of being on a beta blocker, in addition to the atrial fibrillation, and trying to remain an endurance athlete.

So far I feel that the beta blocker is more of a hindrance to my running and cycling than the atrial fibrillation alone had been – but then again, because of the atrial fibrillation my heart function is gradually diminishing.

I should say, on a positive note, that the beta blocker is working, and is doing what it is supposed to do. I check my heart rate and blood pressure at least once per day and since I started the carvedilol I am right where the cardiologist wants me to be. And I can understand why people who aren’t trying to be athletes might like the med – it seems to have a mild calming effect. Furthermore I no longer feel like my heart is a fish flopping around in my chest, and my post work out blood pressure and heart rate has stabilized.

I am optimistic that the carvedilol will be worthwhile and will help me preserve and regain my ejection fraction. But really, what choice do I have?

So here is how things have changed so far (compared to just permanent a fib without the beta blocker):

1.) As far as mountain and road biking is concerned I have been able to ride all the hills that I used to be able to ride, although I am much slower. My wife now has to wait for me at the top of a climb, and that’s fine. I am delighted I can still ride and don’t have to get off and walk my bike.

2.) Running is more negatively influenced. My previous slow pace is even worse, and hills are quite difficult. Not surprisingly I do not like this one bit. A slow jog feels like a 5K effort. But I am still able to run – Yay!

3.) Long runs in heat are not possible. I am just not able to do a long run in heat, and lately every day has been warm. Understand that I am a big red-faced Irish-American who considers anything over sixty degrees to be hot running weather; plus I live in a very sunny place, a high desert climate without a lot of shade. It is not surprising that this is happening. A normal person running in heat will have a higher heart rate for a given pace, and will need to slow down. If you are on a beta blocker that reduces the maximum heart rate by a significant amount, well: “game over.”

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My goal is to continue running and mountain biking on trails like this: Brown Mountain Trail

4.) I suspect that the beta blocker might be making me lazy. I don’t know if that is the right word, but I had a full day off in the middle of the week a while ago and I had planned on, among other things, writing this article and going for a trail run, and next thing I knew it was late afternoon and I hadn’t done a thing. What? By that time there was a thunderstorm so I was not going out for a run – but the article still hadn’t been started. I hope this is not going to be the case from now on. Being lazy and depressed is far from my idea of fun.

I am going to wait until I have had more experience with the beta blocker and write a better informed article. I’m going to sign up for a relatively flat (downhill, actually) trail half marathon and try to redeem myself.

In the meantime I would love hear about other people’s experiences with the dreaded beta blockers. Please post a comment below.

Runner’s High – a Gift?

Is distance running therapeutic? Is mountain biking addictive? Is there such thing as a good addiction? If my atrial fibrillation worsens and I could no longer do long runs or bike rides – how hard would it be to kick the habit?

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High Lakes Trail – Southern Oregon

Today in the hospital lounge, while I was eating some potato chips, somebody was telling me how bad potato chips are for me. Whatever – I have given up almost everything in the world that is bad for me. I haven’t drank alcohol in several years, haven’t smoked a cigarette in decades, gave up meat and eggs a couple of years ago, I’m almost dairy free, and I haven’t taken recreational drugs since high school in the seventies. Potato chips, which I feel are good enough to be “worth it,” are about it for me. Well, that and diet soda, which is also an unhealthy habit that I have.

But what about “runner’s high?” Is that my addiction?

And what exactly is runner’s high? Does it even exist? I’ve been hearing about it for a long time, even before I started running in the early 80s.

Allegedly the athlete’s brain is “flooded with endorphins, more powerful than any street drugs!”

Many distance runners claim to experience euphoria during or after running, and some claim they’ve never had it happen – not even once.

The endorphin theory is the oldest, but more recently I’ve read about how endocannabinoids (naturally occurring neurochemicals related, in a way, to the active ingredient in cannabis) might be the cause of runner’s high.

Another article I recently read attributes runner’s high to “dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins.”

Whatever the cause, it certainly appears to be real.

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Pacific Crest Trail via Brown Mountain Trail – Klamath County, Oregon

Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes describes the role that running has in his life: “Some seek the comfort of their therapist’s office, other head to the corner pub and dive into a pint, but I chose running as my therapy”

“I’m convinced that a lot of people run ultramarathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don’t mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement, and closeness to nature that I’ve received in my running carer. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind – a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus.”
― Scott Jurek, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

Actually, a recent New York Times article states that on good experimental evidence it has been finally determined that exercise does indeed produce a flood of endorphins in the brain. Lucky us!

Researchers in Germany, using advances in neuroscience, report in the current issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex that the folk belief is true: Running does elicit a flood of endorphins in the brain. The endorphins are associated with mood changes, and the more endorphins a runner’s body pumps out, the greater the effect.

I won’t review the article here, but please read it – an elegant experiment, and solid conclusions.

But irrespective of the cause, what is runner’s high and what does it mean to endurance athletes? Can a person become addicted to it?

Personally I feel that the term runner’s “high” is a misnomer. I would describe it better as an altered state of consciousness rather than a high. Maybe I’m splitting hairs but I have never felt intoxicated by endurance sports.

Euphoria might even be too strong of a term – but maybe not. There are times during and after running when everything appears exceptionally crisp and beautiful. That’s why I love trail running, in Oregon, in the wilderness – does that happen to people in health clubs running on treadmills?

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After an hour or so even carb gels seem remarkably delicious!

Also – music becomes intensely enjoyable. I do run with an iPod and sometimes I feel I am going back to the days back in high school when I smoked pot and would listen, chemically enhanced, to suddenly amazing music on headphones. Except now instead of sitting in a darkened basement I’m moving through the woods. It’s funny – a lot of the music that, for me, is most enjoyable on long runs, is the same type of music that I believe would be most enjoyable to a person who is stoned. Sometimes a song sounds so good I’ll repeat play a song two or three times.

But another reason I don’t like the title “runner’s high” is it isn’t all euphoria, beauty, and music joy. I think the exercise induced altered state of consciousness can involve a certain amount of emotional lability. Here’s an example: once I was on a twenty mile trail run, and at mile sixteen an old song I hadn’t heard in years, Careful With That Axe, Eugene, started playing in my random shuffle. This very early, nine minute long Pink Floyd song is sort of a novelty song; a one chord song that slowly builds on a rising and falling bass line with a mellow organ playing over it. At one point a whispering voice says, “Careful with that axe, Eu-zhene.” And then there is this horrific screaming and dissonant guitar, and finally it evolves back to the mellow bass and organ. Back when I was in high school, if we had somebody over who had never heard the song before, we’d put it on and turn down the lights, and of course when the screaming began it would scare the crap out of the first time listener, and we’d all have a good laugh.

Well I knew all about what was going to happen during that song and wondered if I would start laughing when the “axe” section came up. Imagine my surprise when I burst into blubbering tears when the screaming began. I should state that this was shortly after my ex-wife (with whom I was still friendly) and her family had died in a horrible house fire – but honestly I wasn’t even thinking about that until the screaming in the song. I know I wouldn’t have been anywhere near that emotional if I hadn’t just put in sixteen hilly trail miles.

Other times while running something will strike me as funny I will begin laughing giddily – out there all by myself, or in the back of the pack at a marathon. Or an angry song will play and I’ll feel, like, GRRRRRRR!, become angry – quite a catharsis.

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GRRRRRRRR!

So is exercise induced altered state of consciousness addictive? I’m thinking: yes.

A CAGE questionnaire is commonly used to assess alcoholism.

Try applying it to your running:

C – Have you ever felt you needed to cut down on your running?
A – Has anybody ever annoyed you or criticized your running?
G – Have you ever felt guilty about your running?
E – Have you ever felt you needed a run first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves?

Well – I can honestly say I’ve never felt guilty about my running, but the rest of those questions, well . . . .

And I can state for the record that with my atrial fibrillation, and the likely progression of my a fib, including my upcoming need to be on a beta-blocker, I have been dreading the day when I am no longer able to run. Very depressing.

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Biking in A Fib – like riding through mud

Aside from that I have a theory. I think it is obvious that not everybody will experience anything like a runner’s high. Clearly many people hate the way running makes them feel, and they are the people who think distance runners are completely nuts. And why wouldn’t they? Based on the time they ran two miles and felt nothing but fatigue and pain, and interpolating that up to, say, thirty-one miles, their obvious conclusion would be “WTF?” to use the parlance of our times.

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Lyon’s Trail – Lava Beds National Monument

But as for myself, and I’m guessing most of the people who would be interested in this blog, the so-called runners high can be generally considered to be a gift.

Diversion: How to talk to your children about distance running:

Pacific Crest Trail on Atrial Fibrillation?

I live near the Pacific Crest Trail. The famous, fabled, fabulous PCT. Just about twenty-five miles away. You can look out our back window and stare lovingly at the mountains where it courses through the Sky Lakes Wilderness.

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Heading out to run on the PCT

Although I come off in this blog as a marathoner, or an ultrarunner, what I really enjoy more than anything is trail running (and mountain biking – but mountain biking is forbidden on the PCT so forget about that). I simply love trail running and hiking, especially in the local Sky Lakes Wilderness and Mountain Lakes Wilderness; and the best part of being at my level of fitness and health is being able spend a weekend day doing a ten, fifteen, or even a twenty mile trail run. Although it is a slog now because of the atrial fibrillation I still love it – I love the movement through the wilderness and I love the trail itself.

Usually the only one who goes with me is my little trail dog – Ringo.

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Ringo on the PCT at Brown Mountain

At this time of year – late Summer – all the thru-hikers, or I should say the small percentage that have made it this far, are coming through Southern Oregon. Most thru-hikers are traveling from South to North; they start at the Mexican border and hike through California, Oregon, and Washington with the goal of reaching the Canadian border. There are a lot of hazards along the way that can cause hikers to drop out and fail to finish – including blisters, running out of money, running out of time, deep snow, diarrhea, boredom, and forest fires.

I try to spend time on the PCT this time of year and will often photograph thru-hikers and post the photos on my flickr page.

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PCT Thru-hikers

In addition to trail running on the PCT I am also an “armchair traveler,” meaning I’ve read a bunch of books about thru-hiking the PCT, including:

Cactus Eaters by Dan White – probably the best written PCT book and my most recent read.
Cascade Summer by Bob Welch – a middle aged Oregon newspaper writer hiked just the Oregon section. This might be more my speed.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed – the most well known and popular PCT book that will undoubtedly get more people on the trail. Also a well written and engaging read.
A Blistered Kind of Love by Angela Ballard – fascinating dual journal by a couple thru-hiking the PCT. It was interesting how the different genders report their trail experience. The male writes about where they went and what they did, and the woman writes about how she feels.
Skywalker – Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail by Bill Walker – the most endearing and charming PCT book ever.
Pacific Crest Trail Hiker’s Handbook by Ray Jardine – groundbreaking and controversial – Ray clearly changed the way people approach long distance hiking.
A Long Walk by Hap Vectorline – a whimsical journal of a partial through hike that started at the Canadian border and made it as far as Oregon.
In addition to the books I read various PCT blogs, and many of the youtube videos as well.

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Hikers

My dream is to someday thru-hike the PCT – but I don’t think it will ever happen for a number of reasons. I’m certainly in good enough shape, and strong enough, but at 53 am I too old? I don’t think so – I’ve met plenty of thru-hikers that were middle-aged. They tell me they are slower and have to leave earlier and hike longer to keep up – but that would be no problem. I think hiking for that long on anticoagulants might be an issue. On Pradaxa falling just isn’t what it used to be! The main problem is, of course, finding the time. I work full time and just don’t have the resources to take six months off from work.

Maybe some day I could just thru-hike the Oregon section. Or maybe just the Sky Lakes Wilderness (fifty-one miles) – that could be done in a weekend. Why not?

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Ringo Dingo

But I still love running in the Sky Lakes Wilderness. As far as falling out on the trail and bleeding out, or having a stroke out there, or being eaten by a bear, or whatever, I like to say that I’d rather die in the Sky Lakes Wilderness than in the Sky Lakes Medical Center.*

*Our local hospital, where I am on the surgical staff, is the Sky Lakes Medical Center. I like our hospital – I’m just saying that I’d prefer to die with my sneakers on, so to speak.

Race Report – SOB Trail Run July 27, 2013 (Siskiyou Outback Trail Run)

The SOB Trail Run has been one of my favorite runs and I think I have five T-shirts from the past ten years.

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Pre Race

Today was my first time running it in persistent atrial fibrillation.

I’ve always been impressed with how well organized the race is, the quality of the course, and the low price. The 15K is still only $25 (that includes a finisher medal but no T-shirt – a T-shirt is extra). There are three events – a 15K, a 50K, and 50 mile race. I’ve only ever done the 15K but several of my local running friends did either the 50K or 50 mile today. The 50 mile has 7000 feet (2133 meters) of elevation change – that’s crazy!

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Along the course on the PCT

I think all the races start with the same nice 1/2 mile or so on a road that allows everybody to get sorted out as far as pace is concerned before getting on the narrow singletrack of the fabled Pacific Crest Trail. This is a good idea – races that start right off the bat on singletrack, like Haulin’ Aspen Marathon and 1/2 Marathon in Bend, Oregon – tend to develop bottlenecks because passing is so difficult. The truth is that passing is a problem on the SOB – I tend to be faster going uphill (as compared to the slow people I run with) and end up passing people who walk up the hills – but I’m relatively slower going downhill, especially on technical terrain like the PCT, and most of the people I passed going up want to pass me going down; and the 15K course is up / down / up / down.

After several miles of this the race transitions to a fire road and then re-enters the PCT for the last few miles.

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Amber and Nathan after the 50K

The race is fairly high elevation – starting at 6500 feet and climbing to about 7000 feet (??). I don’t notice it much because I live at 4200 feet and regularly run at similar elevations, but people coming from coastal cities will definitely notice the rarefied air.

As far as running it in atrial fibrillation was concerned I had the typical slow start – it takes me a mile or two to warm up now, and then I felt my normal self again. I didn’t even look at my time and I didn’t wear my Garmin 305 – why? I walked only a few particularly steep sections and other wise (slow) ran the entire race.

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Along the Course

As usual the start/finish line was great – nice people, good music, lots of post race food. I forgot to pick up my post-race swag bag so I don’t know what I missed there. I wish I would have checked the start time for today’s race because I ended up arriving about an hour and a half early – but I can’t think of a better place to hang out that Mount Ashland on race day.

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Race Hang Out Headquarters