Runners with Atrial Fibrillation – Thinking About Having a Cardioversion? “Look Before You Shock”

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This is, so far, the most discouraging article about atrial fibrillation I have ever read:

Left Atrial Appendage Thrombus When Least Expected: Look Before You Shock, Evaluate Before You Ablate | EP Lab Digest

As a distance runner with atrial fibrillation, who never missed a single dose of my anti-coagulant, and who has already had a blood clot in my left atrial appendage, and has already had a “mini-stroke” – this one leaves me feeling a bit hopeless.

Feel free to read the article; but I will go over a few key points here. One of the dreaded consequences of atrial fibrillation is having a stroke. Because the top chambers of the heart, the atria (plural of atrium) are beating so fast that they are basically just sitting there vibrating, the blood pools and becomes sluggish, and is prone to forming blood clots. Combine this with an enlarged left atrium and the likelihood is even higher. The blood clot forms in a little corner of the heart called the “left atrial appendage” (LAA).

appendage

That’s where I formed a clot. If the blood clot, or a piece of the clot, breaks off it can quickly travel to the brain, get caught and cut off the circulation to part of the brain. This is a type of stroke, and is a huge problem for people with atrial fibrillation.

There are people who like to refer to a stroke as a “brain attack” because that’s what it is – like a heart attack in the brain. And like heart attacks there are big ones and small ones. I had a small one (TIA – tangent ischemia episode) that fortunately only lasted a minute or so. A big stroke, of course, can be fatal.

Important point: if a person is in atrial fibrillation and has blood clot in the LAA, it might be very stable. It might be just sitting there, hanging out, because the atria isn’t doing any beating. Everything is pretty tranquil in there. But then the person has a cardioversion (shock to reset the beating heart) or an ablation and the atrium begins to beat again, the blood starts moving through more quickly – well – now there’s a problem. Now the clot can break loose and BLAM!! – you’ve had a stroke!

The problem: it’s difficult to tell whether or not a patient has a clot prior to having a procedure. A regular echocardiogram doesn’t even show a small clot; there’s not enough detail. The best way to determine if a clot is present is to do a transesophageal echocardiogram (TEE).

teeTransesophageal Echocardiogram

I’ve had three TEEs – it’s not fun – sort of like swallowing a telephone. Thankfully the last two that I had involved an anesthesiologist who put me to sleep for the procedure.

As far as I know it is fairly common to have a TEE prior to having an ablation procedure; but less common before a cardioversion (the shock!), especially for people who presumably have a low risk of a LAA blot clot – like people who are appropriately anti-coagulated, or people who have had atrial fibrillation for less that 48 hours.

In this article five interesting cases are reviewed.

Case #1 – a patient who was effectively anti-coagulated but turned out to have a LAA clot anyway (sounds familiar).

Case #2 – a patient who was actually more anti-coagulated than thought necessary, and was in atrial flutter for less than 48 hours, but turned out to have a LAA clot anyway.

Case #3 – an appropriately anti-coagulated person with a low risk of clot (CHADS2 score=1), but turned out to have a LAA clot anyway.

Cases #4 and #5 were high risk patients who would be expected to have a high risk of a clot. Case #5 actually had three clots in her heart – yikes!

How does all this apply to athletes with atrial fibrillation? Well, apparently healthy, athletic patients, who are appropriately anti-coagulated, and either undergoing a planned or emergency cardioversion, still have a certain risk of having a LAA clot and subsequent stroke.

Should everybody have a TEE before having a cardioversion? Probably not. TEE is expensive, unpleasant, and if anesthesia is involved it basically takes up an entire day out of your schedule. It might be a good idea to talk it over with your cardiologist, however.

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Happy Trails

What is the ACLS Approach to Atrial Fibrillation? (Advanced Cardiac Life Support)

A week or so ago I re-certified in ACLS – Advanced Cardiac Life Support. ACLS is a set of emergency clinical interventions for cardiac arrest, stroke, respiratory arrest, etc., which is basically a step above BLS (Basic Life Support – formerly known as CPR). ACLS certification, in my case anyway, is done through the American Heart Association, and is only open to health care providers: doctors, nurses, dentists, advanced practice providers like PAs and nurse practitioners, EMTs, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, and so on.

I thought I’d write about it in this blog so people might know what to expect as far as the type of treatment they might experience if they have an unstable episode of atrial fibrillation.

I’m in permanent atrial fibrillation, so when I’m in one of these classes I’m glad I’m not hooked up to an EKG – I don’t feel like getting medicated or shocked!

ACLS deals with various problems using algorithms, so let’s look at the “Tachycardia with a Pulse Algorithm” which would generally apply to acute atrial fibrillation.

ACLS-tach

So basically we start with a person with a fast heart rate. Tachycardia is, by definition, a pulse over 100 beats per minute, but for ACLS purposes it generally means a pulse over 150 bpm. Obviously not all tachycardia (fast heart rate) is atrial fibrillation.

For this article I am not discussing the other types of tachycardia, even though they are in the algorithm. I assume most people reading this blog are dealing with atrial fibrillation.

The first step is to assess the patient, identify and treat any underlying cause, make sure the patient is breathing effectively, assist if necessary, and give the patient some oxygen.

Now the next step is very important – is the patient stable? Five things: 1.) Is the blood pressure too low? 2.) Is there altered mental status (confusion)? 3.) Is the patient going into shock? 4.) Chest pain? 5.) Heart failure?

Even though I am in atrial fibrillation, all the time, I don’t have any of these symptoms. But if the patient is unstable and have tachycardia, basically, they are going to be getting some electricity! That means synchronized cardioversion, and in the case of atrial fibrillation (see “narrow irregular”) that means 120-200 joules – that’s a big shock!

Check out this video of cardioversion for atrial fibrillation – yikes!

Notice that it says “consider sedation.” Sedation can be considered, but not if it interferes with getting the unstable patient shocked as soon as possible. If you go into unstable atrial fibrillation at a race expect that the sedation will likely be skipped and get ready to be ZAPPED.

Photo by Ted Friedman.

Photo by Ted Friedman.

This is for unstable tachycardia – that means the patient is in some sort of crisis that may eventually be life threatening.

For an episode of stable atrial fibrillation expect vagal maneuvers and a referral to a cardiologist. Vagal maneuvers include firm carotid sinus massage, coughing, gagging, valsalva maneuver (holding your breath and “bearing down”), and placing your face in ice water (snow also works). A lot of people with intermittent atrial fibrillation already know how to do this.

For a great article about her episode of unstable atrial fib see Run, Smile, Drink Water and Don’t Die – A Guest Post by JoAnna Brogdon.

I’d be very interested in anybody else’s experience with unstable atrial fibrillation and what type of treatment was administered. Please comment below. Thanks.

Update Part 2 – Atrial Fibrillation, Pradaxa Fail, Transient Ischemic Episode, Blood Clot in Left Atrial Appendage

Jimi Hendrix sang, “manic depression’s a frustrating mess.” Well, I think the same can be said of atrial fibrillation!

mountainbikingwringoRingo and Me – Photo by Ben Vallejos

It’s been a while since I have written and I have to say the last couple of months have been nerve-wracking. As I posted in a previous entry I had a TIA (transient ischemic attack) while running a couple of months ago, had a normal carotid scan, but a TEE (trans-esophageal echocardiogram) showed that I had a small blood clot in my left atrial appendage.

In other words I had a “mini-stroke” and was at risk of having a full on stroke.

pradaxa

This TIA occurred while I was on Pradaxa, a newer, novel anticoagulant. At that point I was taken off Pradaxa, started on Lovenox (low molecular weight heparin) injections, and warfarin (Coumadin), and also aspirin. I was instructed to discontinue running, and bicycling, and limit my activity to easy walks, and a repeat TEE was scheduled two months after the initial one.

I won’t hold back any longer regarding the surprise ending – I never had a second TIA “mini-stroke” (that I know of) or stroke and the follow-up TEE (trans-esophageal echocardiogram) showed that the blood clot inside my heart is now gone. Hooray!

appendagePhoto – The little cul-de-sac is the LA appendage

Just to review how this happens: when you are in atrial fibrillation your atria is beating so fast it’s like it isn’t beating at all, just sort of vibrating. There is a part of the left atrium (the “appendage”) where the blow flow is extra sluggish, and this is where clots can form. When a tiny piece of clot breaks of and goes into the brain that’s a TIA. If a big clot is present and breaks of into the brain that’s a stroke, which of course can be disabling and even fatal.

It goes without saying that I am disappointed that this occurred while I was on Pradaxa. I figured that as long as I was taking it I was safe, and I liked not having to watch my diet or have blood tests constantly. Taking Pradaxa is easy – “set it and forget it.” Now I’m on warfarin (Coumadin), a royal pain in the butt, and have to micromanage my diet constantly – this drug is not an easy choice for a vegetarian! Eating too many greens (think kale) is dangerous as is not eating enough greens. Imagine trying to eat about the same amount of kale or broccoli or spinach each day.

zaPhoto – vegan pizza

My target INR is between 2.0 and 3.0, but seeing as I have had a TIA while on an anticoagulant I am trying to keep it nearer to 3.0 or even higher (3.0 – 3.5).

The two months between echocardiograms was an era of angst – anxiety and fear – for me, especially the first several weeks. Every symptom, no matter how minor, seemed like stroke. For example – lie in bed trying to get to sleep and your hand becomes numb – normal, right? Not when you know you have a blood clot in your heart – that seems like a stroke! Jump up from bed, start testing the muscle strength in each arm and leg, recite the alphabet, smile, frown, move eyebrows up and down checking for asymmetry. Do you think I’m exaggerating?

Every once in a while a person stammers or mispronounces a word. Normal? Maybe, but not when you are obsessed with a gigantic blood clot lodging in your brain.

As far as exercise was concerned at first I was limiting myself to short, easy walks more appropriate for a non-athlete. Eventually I became a bit bolder and started doing longer (but slow, especially up hills) hikes of an hour or two. It took me three weeks (!) to bridge to a therapeutic INR, so I was on warfarin and Lovenox for all that time. Once I was off the injections I started doing bike rides – but they were on non-technical trails and were slow, especially while going uphill.

My brain never got the memo that I was no longer a long distance runner/cyclist so I still ate like I was, and consequently I’ve gained some weight.

At this point, after finding out the clot is no longer present, I have started increasing the intensity of my bike rides, but mostly I’m still doing bike rides. I haven’t yet started running again – but I will.

I am mountain biking again, but not on any trails that would be considered challenging. Well, that’s not 100% true, I guess.

awol-1-2Photo – “Adventure Without Limits?”

As far as mountain biking is concerned I am phasing out technical trails (gradually). I made a deal with my self that if I didn’t have the blood clot on the second TEE I would get a new bike – and I did. I got a Specialized AWOL, which is a “gravel grinder.” That’s sort of a cross between cyclocross bike and a loaded touring road bike – basically a bike designed for gravel or dirt roads – we have an infinite supply of these around here so I have a lot of exploring ahead of me.

As far as that blood clot is concerned I’m very pleased it has gone away – but I am not fooling myself that it is gone forever. It could return at any time. It wasn’t there when I had my second TEE, but it could actually be there right now – how would I know? How long had it been there and how many times have I had a clot in that area? There’s no telling without doing a ridiculously expensive, somewhat invasive test over and over. I guess all I can do is stay vigilant, take my meds, watch the diet, and keep on trying to run, hike, and ride, even if it is at a reduced level.

Afibrunner: Patient Perspectives: Long-Distance Running and Mountain Biking in Permanent Atrial Fibrillation / EP Lab Digest

Patient Perspectives: Long-Distance Running and Mountain Biking in Permanent Atrial Fibrillation / EP Lab Digest

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I am honored to have had an article published in the December 2014 issue of EP Lab Digest, a monthly journal for electrophysiologists and allied health professionals who work in electrophysiology labs.

The managing editor, Jodie Elrod, had approached me about writing a “patient perspective” article as she was familiar with my afibrunner blog. The article is basically a synthesis of material already presented in this blog, particularly my article called Atrial Fibrillation – A Visit to the Electrophysiologist.

I am delighted to have this opportunity to communicate with the EP community and promote my plea for empathy with respect to the endurance athletes afflicted with atrial fibrillation.

Thanks EP Lab Digest!

Also interesting – my cousin Chuckie, (an electrophysiologist – I’m sure they don’t call him “Chuckie” at work), who I mention in my article, had an article published in the November 2014 issue of EP Lab Digest.

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.

SOBcourse50m
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.

SOBnumber
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.

http://youtu.be/Vd4jeeu90Rk
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.

SOBdnf
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.

Running with Atrial Fibrillation – It’s Okay To Be Slow! Forget The Pearl Izumi Advertisements

I saw some recent Pearl Izumi ads posted on The Trail and UltraRunning group on Facebook and thought I’d comment.

There are a number of Pearl Izumi ads that make fun of slow runners, here are two examples:

Pearl Izumi1
Pearl Izumi – Trying to sell shoes by denigrating slow marathoners

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Divide and Conquer – Pearl Izumi teasing “joggers”

The remaining ads can be found on this excellent blog:

Short, Round, and Fast

One of the nice things about endurance sports, from half marathon and up, is that most participants do not have this type of attitude. It is a live and let live culture. It seems like half marathons in particular are a plce where you generally see conspicuously non-athletic looking athletes – and good for them!

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Half Marathon Participant – Right on!

As for me, I’m in permanent atrial fibrillation, which makes me slow, and now I have to take a beta blocker, which makes me even slower.

But I’m certainly not going to stay home, and I’m going to remain a trail runner, even if I’m slow, and I still plan on signing up for distance events. At my last half marathon I was very surprised to see almost the entire field, including people who would previously never had been in front of me, pass me, get smaller, and disappear from sight. In the first two miles. Not fun. I was thinking, “Whoa, where’d everybody go?”

Contrary to how it might appear to faster runners who are observing slower runners, it’s not always easy being slow. It might actually be more difficult. Yesterday on a four mile trail run, my first run on the beta blockers (more on that later), I rounded a corner and saw another runner behind me. He was an individual who I had seen at the trailhead, who appeared to be a bit older than me, and who was wearing jeans and a long sleeved shirt on a ninety degree day. I thought, “Oh man, I don’t want to get passed!” and I cranked up my speed. I don’t think I was running fast at all, maybe about a ten minute mile, but the burning in my lungs and legs felt like a fast 5K. “This is ridiculous!” I thought, saddened. This is “fast” for me now.

But that is my new reality.

As far as Pearl Izumi is concerned they evidently think that being assholes, and creating some controversy, will make their ads stand out. They may be correct. There are a lot of competitors out there, they have an extremely small market share, and it is said there is no such thing as “bad publicity.” I knew that they made shirts, and jackets; but until now I didn’t even know they sold shoes.

pearlizumi3 dog
Pearl Izumi Shoes – so fast you’ll kill your dog!

One of their ads last year, which featured a runner who ran so fast in his new Pearl Izumi shoes that he killed his dog, made quite an impression. Of course they apologized and had their (unfunny) ad featured in news stories and blogs for weeks.

By the way, my main nylon running jacket is made by Pearl Izumi. I like it, it’s a good jacket. I’m not going to boycott them or burn the jacket, or anything like that. I just want to say in this blog that slow runners are probably slow for a reason – and that reason isn’t necessarily poor character or laziness.

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Me – Lazy jogger with atrial fibrillation after a twenty mile training run. I ran so slow that my dog survived!

Or even if the slow runner does have poor character, or is lazy, well, what’s it to you?

And guess what – Pearl Izumi got three of their ads posted in my little blog (and elsewhere) – for free!

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.

mywar
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:

Rejoice – Not All Runners in Atrial Fibrillation Are Slow

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Moore Mountain 1/2 Marathon

The thing I enjoy most about the afibrunner blog is comments from other athletes who are dealing with atrial fibrillation. A recent comment from a runner (we’ll call him “Lon”) really caught my attention – here is a runner who, while in atrial fibrillation, was able to race at six minute mile pace (or better).

Here are some excerpts from his comments:


Way to Go!!!
Since 1983 I’ve run/jogged 59 full marathons and have suffered with A-fib on and off for the last 12 years. I’ve finished the Boston (2001 in 3:23) and NY City (2005 in 4:15) marathons while in constant A-fib while carefully monitoring my heart rate. My cardiologists encouraged me to run marathons and also triathlons. One cardiologist told me that my heart is so strong that it laughs at A-fib and that I have the heart of an olympic cyclist. For the first 6 months of this year my heart was in constant A-fib that no drugs or multiple cardioversions could put it back into normal sinus rhythm. On July 9, 2013 I had the “Wolf Mini-Maze” (at the International A-fib Center of Excellence in Indianapolis) operation done on my heart. It was a great success and my heart has been in constant normal rhythm ever since (nearly 6 months now and I’m not taking any medications). In the Mini-Maze they removed my Left Atrial Appendage (LAA) so that if my heart ever goes back into constant A-fib I will NOT meed anticoagulant therapy. As you likely know life threatening blood clots tend to form in the LAA when your heart is in constant A-fib. The risk of stroke over the life time of an A-fib patient is huge. 3 out of 5 A-fib patients will suffer a stroke in their life even while taking anticoagulation meds like coumadin. That is a statistic that your doctor will not likely tell you about. Coumadin is over rated and is simply not very effective for some people which should be a terrifying realization to anyone dealing with A-fib. Anyway, as much as I love marathons, I’m laying off the long distance jogging for a while and am just jogging 10K’s (one per moth and 3 sprint triathlons this Summer) as well as several other physical activities.
Good health to you!
Lon

I have lamented that atrial fibrillation has made me slow, while openly admitting that I started out slow – I’ve only ran, as far as I know, one six minute mile in my entire life – and that was thirty years ago.

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Finish Line – Eugene Marathon

My understanding about atrial fibrillation is that the atria no longer preload the ventricles, and most people have a decrease of about 20% of their cardiac output. While sedentary people might not even notice this athletes certainly would. I do!

But I have heard that in some patients, certain athletes, there is little change in cardiac output and atrial fibrillation will not affect performance much. Lon seems like one of these fortunate people. Lon’s point about the increased risk of stroke (even if you take your Coumadin, Pradaxa, or Xarelto) is well taken – and I’m guessing that that is why he continued to pursue an effective treatment for his atrial fibrillation.

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Finish Line – Haulin’ Aspen Marathon

But after all those marathons Lon states he is no longer running endurance events – he goes on to elaborate:

Here’s a little more. I tried not to make a long story short above. I left out mentioning that I had a radio-frequency catheter ablation in June 2010 in Seattle that worked great in keeping my heart in normal rhythm until December 2012 when suddenly for no apparent reason went into persistent A-fib. (During that 2 1/2 year period I finished 9 full marathons and 8 sprint triathlons) My heart stayed in persistent A-fib even after 4 cardioversions and large doses of amiodarone. My cardiologists in Seattle told me that I should accept my persistent A-fib and they offered to ablate my hearts pace makers (AV and SA nodes) and give me an electronic pacemaker so that my heart rate can be controlled. That told me that I needed a second opinion so I started communications with Dr. Randall Wolf in Indianapolis about his Mini-Maze procedure. After consultations with an E.D. doctor (and a championship Iron Man triathlete) who had the Mini-maze operation and was very happy with the results, I decided to get the Wolf Mini-Maze and of course I informed my Seattle cardiologists of my intentions and they said to go for it. Absolutely the main reason that I went for the Wolf Mini-Maze is that it removes the left atrial appendage which brings my risk of stroke down to that of a healthy person with a normal healthy heart while not taking any anticoagulation drugs. The fact that I now enjoy a normal heart beat is just a huge plus factor.

From 1983 until December 2012 I completed 61 full marathons a most of which ran with all out efforts (I’ve averaged sub-6 minute pace all the way). I’m now finding out that long distance running is simply not good for the heart and most likely caused my A-fib problem.

Google Dr. John Mandrola’s 18 minute video called “Cycling Wed: I told you so…”. It is very illuminating and a must see for all endurance athletes. Please check that out.
Cordially,
Lon

I don’t know much about the Wolf Mini-Maze procedure and don’t necessarily advocate it for everybody, but clearly it worked in Lon’s specific situation. Here is some information regarding the Wolf Mini-Maze.

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Finish Line – Lake of the Woods 15K

No need to Google the video by Dr O’Keefe (posted on Dr Mandrola’s blog) I have the link right HERE.

Here’s the video:

If you don’t feel like watching the eighteen minute video I will summarize it for you – Exercise is good for you but in moderation. Too much or too intense exercise causes chronic inflammation of the heart and can ultimately harm the heart (atrial fibrillation, among other risks).

But if you are an endurance athlete dealing with atrial fibrillation you already know this – surely you have had a dozen or so friends and relatives, possibly sedentary and/or obese, kindly forward you information about the study he refers to – as if to justify their seemingly wise choice to avoid marathons and triathlons and replace it by watching other people play sports on television. Yes, this study was in all the newspapers and magazines last year.

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Finish Line – Avenue of the Giants Marathon

Please understand, and I paraphrase here, that Dr O’Keefe states that exercise is good for your heart, and being obese and sedentary is bad for your heart – but that overdoing it is a problem. He didn’t say people should avoid exercising.

My choice – I understand the concept of the “law of diminishing returns” as well as the next guy; but for me, well, I enjoy long, slow trail runs and mountain bike rides more than just about anything else I can think of – so I chose to continue.

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Finish Line – Bizz Johnson 50K (I completed the 50K in atrial fibrillation)

Race Report – Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon, October 13, 2013

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Runners at the starting line 2013
 
This year, October 13, 2013, was my seventh time running the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon. My first time was in 2007 and I have ran the event every year since then. Last year I ran the 50K (31 miles), but it is pretty much the same course, just 5 miles longer.
 
Has anybody reading this blog knows I have been in persistent atrial fibrillation for the last two years. For the 50K last year, and the marathon this year, I was in known atrial fibrillation. I am pretty sure that I went into atrial fibrillation about two thirds of the way through the 2011 marathon. At least (in retrospect) it felt that way, but that was before I knew I was afflicted with this dysrhythmia.

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It took a long time to get to the finish line this year
 
The course of the Bizz Johnson Trail Marathon is well known to me and I enjoy it a great deal. The Bizz Johnson Trail is a rails to trails project, and is about 24 ½ miles long. For that reason the race begins with an out and back on a Forest Service fire road in order to make the marathon and official 26.2 mile run. Once the runners get on the actual rail trail the course is a gentle uphill until about the 6 mile marker at which point there is a 20 mile downhill section. This might sound like it’s easy, but remember, it’s a run not a bike ride. This is the only race where afterward I typically have a lot of quadriceps and heel pain from all the downhill.

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Except for the portion where the trail crosses the Susan River Canyon the grade is very gradual. Trains evidently are unable to go up or down anything that is too steep, and the average grade is below 1%, and at its steepest probably about 2%. This is an estimate, I’m really not sure of the exact grade. One thing I can say, though, is that the steepest downhill is the last 6 miles down the Susan River Canyon. This is also where the course is the most scenic (including two tunnels) and often this section is quite warm.
 
This year the deciduous trees were changing and it was quite beautiful.

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Along the course (No deciduous trees here – sorry)
 
Some people worry about the elevation at Bizz Johnson, but to me that isn’t even a factor. I live and train at the exact same elevation as the Bizz Johnson Trail. As a matter of fact I do almost all my training on mountain biking and hiking trails which are much steeper and more technical than the Bizz Johnson Trail.
 
I have to admit I had a bad time this year. I don’t think it had anything to do with the atrial fibrillation per se, I think I worked myself into a bad attitude, or bad mental state this year – ruminating over certain past events on the two and a half hour drive to Susanville the day before the race. Also I had trained for the 50K, but I really didn’t feel up to it and the day before the race I switched to the regular marathon. This probably was a good move, but I felt somehow depressed over that choice.
 
I’m not sure how many marathons I have ran, but it’s somewhere between seventeen and twenty races. There comes a time in every marathon where I start to feel poorly, but usually I don’t start to feel that way until somewhere around mile twenty-two or twenty-three. For some reason at this year’s Bizz Johnson I started to feel that way about mile six. “It’s going to be a long day,” I told myself.


 
Ultimately I completed it, I suffered like an animal, but I lived to fight another day. It’s interesting that I finished it at almost the same time that I finished the 50K last year, that is taking into consideration that the 50K starts an hour before the regular marathon. My recollection of the 50K last year is that I felt much better, surprisingly, throughout the entire race than I have during any previous marathons. Maybe I should stick with 50Ks.
 
My friend Stephen, who ran the race this year as well, said he suffered like an animal as well, and that “it seemed like every mile hurt.” But then again he finished several hours ahead of me, came in seventh place overall, and won his age group. It was probably worth it.
 
Sometimes I wonder – am I good at marathons? Maybe. Maybe not. I’m certainly not fast. Seems like I did a good job, the night before, sitting in a motel room watching sitcoms. Maybe I’m better at something like that. Well, I guess I’ll have to keep trying marathons until I get one right.
 
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Finishing the 50K last year

Being a veteran trail runner who has to be self-reliant, except during a race, I carry my own water. I use an Ultimate Design WASP hydration vest, with NUUN tablets added for electrolytes. I refill it at the water stops if necessary. This year, for some reason, I figured I should probably drink some of the electrolyte drink that they offered at the water stops in addition to my own concoction. I should have known better. It was a pink drink that is evidently marketed by the Power Bar company. I have never tasted a urinal cookie before, but I imagine that this pink sports drink is pretty close. Every time I drank a Dixie cup of it at a water stop I had to walk a little bit and try to hold it down. In other words I was having a lot of nausea. Being nauseous will not prevent me from drinking because I figure I can always drink more water if I vomit, but it sure does keep me from eating, so I was a little deficient as far as carbo gels were concerned. I think I only had two all day (and had planned on five).
 
During last Sunday’s race I decided that the mile between mile marker twenty-three and mile marker twenty-four is definitely the cruelest mile. Suffering is maximized, and you’re close but not really close enough to the finish. If I tell myself, “it’s only three more miles!” I then start to think that three miles sounds like a terribly long distance.

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I enjoy listening to music on my iPod shuffle while I run and when I arrived at the last quarter mile of the race a terrific song came on my iPod. It was Oh Comely by Neutral Milk Hotel. Unfortunately I was feeling remarkably emotionally labile at that point in time that I knew that if I listened to the song I would start crying. I already knew I was suffering and wasn’t going to appear well coming across the finish line, but I really didn’t want to finish crying like a little kid – so I fast forwarded it. I clicked until I found a song that was a little bit more emotionally bland.

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When the finish line mercifully appeared I was glad to be done. I strolled over to the feed section and as usual there were a lot of great things to eat, but I was feeling so nauseous – there was not one thing there that I could’ve eaten. Claude, who also ran the race that day, was waiting for me and we took the shuttle back to the parking area. I had some food in my truck for post race meal, but as soon as I walked over there I became quite sick and expelled a large quantity of pink water. It must have just sat there in my stomach – there was a lot of it! I felt much better, changed into my dry clothes, and ate my post race meal. I started to wonder – emotionally labile, tearful, and nauseous – was I pregnant? (Ha ha)

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The Fear of Going Too Hard – Atrial Fibrillation Running

One big difference between running in persistent atrial fibrillation and normal sinus rhythm is that, for me anyway, there is a lot of apprehension about over-doing it. The days of charging up a hill may be behind me at this point, and I haven’t done anything resembling a speed work-out in well over a year.

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Prior to atrial fibrillation I used to do interval work-outs once in a while. For certain marathons where I had a specific personal time goal I would do a work-out known as “Yasso 800s.” Although some expert dispute that this is actually the most effective speed work-out for marathon training, nobody would dispute that this is a difficult work-out. I would do them on Wednesday nights at a local college track and I always felt they were my most difficult work-out of the week – probably more challenging than my languorous week-end long runs. Certainly this was the work-out where most feared injury.

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To be honest I don’t miss Yasso 800s. I never have been a fast runner and never enjoyed short fast races like 5Ks.

But even during LSD (long slow distance) work-outs there usually comes a point where I will feel that the run is becoming difficult and I have to push through that. People often say “push through the pain,” but it isn’t really “pain” per se; but whatever it is it now makes me nervous!

But now that I am in persistent atrial fibrillation I think twice about pushing beyond any thresholds, however they are described. I have a fear in the back of my mind that I am going to make the atrial fibrillation worse, or pass out, or die, or . . . well who knows? This is all new territory for me.

I think this is why I “bonked out” of the second and third (out of seven planned) twenty mile runs I did during my build-up to this Sunday’s Bizz Johnson 50K. I just wasn’t willing to risk it. But if I’m unwilling to risk it it is obvious that I will only get slower and slower each year.

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RINGO SAYS RELAX

I’d love to hear from other endurance athletes about this topic whether you are in a fib or not, and whether you are risk averse or not. Please feel free to leave a comment.