It turns out atrial fibrillation is pretty common in middle-aged endurance athletes. About a year ago, when I first went into persistent atrial fibrillation I was surprised to find out how common it was in athletes, but also surprised to find out there weren’t a lot of resources on the web. I am writing this blog in order to provide information about atrial fibrillation in athletes from an athlete’s point of view only.
My purpose is not to give medical advice. I am a podiatrist employed at Klamath Orthopedics and Sports Medicine and my practice is limited to the treatment of the foot and ankle – not the heart. Cardiology is not in my scope of practice.
Also – before you ask – I don’t plan to give podiatry advice in this blog, either.
I’m a 53-year-old distance runner and mountain biker who is in persistent atrial fibrillation. Persistent atrial fibrillation means that I do not go in and out of atrial fibrillation, like some athletes, I am always in atrial fibrillation and I am not expected to ever be out of atrial fibrillation. I am more or less asymptomatic, except for palpitations and, of course, a slower pace, and do not take any specific treatment except for a blood thinner (Pradaxa).
I continue to enjoy marathoning, trail running, mountain biking, hiking, and any other outdoor activity for that matter. I am not sure how many marathons I have completed, but probably around fifteen. I have trained for two 50K runs, but was only able to run one of them. I was discouraged to participate in my first 50K by my electrophysiologist (more on that later). That was before he actually saw me as a patient.
My most recent event was the Peterson Ridge Rumble, a 20 mile trail run in Sisters, Oregon. Upcoming events include Lake of the Woods 15K, Siskiyou Outback 15K, and then the Bizz Johnson 50K in October.
I have done at least one marathon and one 50K while in atrial fibrillation, but I suspect that I have been in atrial fibrillation for at least one other previous marathon. It’s likely that I’ve been going in and out of atrial fibrillation for the past several years, and that explains a lot.
In 1994 I had open heart surgery to repair my mitral valve. At that time I was mountain biking six days per week and had severe mitral valve regurgitation and severe left atrial hypertrophy and I had a repair – no artificial valve or a pig valve – I have all the original equipment. Unfortunately the left atrial hypertrophy never resolved and as a result I eventually ended up developing arrhythmias, including a lot of PVCs and PACs, and have ultimately go on into persistent atrial fibrillation. PVCs and PACs, otherwise known as premature ventricular contractions and premature atrial contractions, are generally benign, but quite annoying arrhythmias that everybody experiences from time to time.
I am not happy (or proud) to be in atrial fibrillation, but this is what I have to deal with. I was told that in my specific case an ablation procedure would likely have less than 30% chance of being successful, and even if it were successful it would probably not be successful for more than five years.
I was never a fast runner, even in my youth and I’ve always been a big, slow runner (6′ 3”, just under 200 pounds), but now I’m ridiculously slow. But running still brings me the same joy that it always has and I plan to continue.