What You Need to Know about Your Heart and Running

Your heart is one of your most important vital organs outside of the brain, which in part manages your heartbeat. Whenever you run, you get your heart pounding and your pulse hammering. You know exercise is good for the heart, but is running especially beneficial?

Running helps the heart in the following ways:

  • May reduce heart disease risk
  • Increases heart strength 
  • Lets your heart do its job easier
  • Keeps your weight down
  • Reduces cholesterol
  • Lowers blood pressure

Running can aid your heart and your health, but not if you do too much. In this article, we’ll elaborate more on the above benefits as well as lay out some heart health downsides to running. The pros far outweigh the cons, but you need all the facts for your health, and that’s what we strive to do today.

Let’s get started. 

The Upsides of Running and Heart Health

May Reduce Heart Disease Risk

Heart disease or cardiovascular disease can cause blood clots, structural heart issues, and narrowed blood vessels. With the heart in such poor shape, you might develop chest pain in the form of angina. You’re also at higher risk of stroke and/or heart attack. 

According to the CDC, heart disease kills more United States residents who are in ethnic and racial groups, women, and men than any other. An American will die of cardiovascular disease once per 36 seconds, which is at least two deaths a minute. It’s no wonder up to 655,000 US residents die of heart disease annually.

Those stats should be more than enough incentive to take care of your heart, and running is a great way to do that. In 2014, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology published the results of a 15-year study involving 55,000 participants.

Those who ran over the years were at a lower risk of death from heart disease at a rate of 45 percent lower compared to the participants who didn’t run. The runners were also less likely to die in general than the non-runners, with a mortality rate that was 30 percent lower. 

Increases Heart Strength

You don’t only run, but do strength and weight training. Through these exercises, you’ve been able to build bigger, stronger muscles, right? Well, your heart is a muscle too, and although you can’t give it a set of weights to lift, running is about the next best thing. 

A classic study published in 1985 from the journal Clinics in Sports Medicinedetailed how your heart can change for the better when you run. “Echocardiographic studies show that distance runners have larger, thicker left ventricles than do sedentary controls,” says the study. The report adds that “the ‘athlete’s heart,’ once believed to be an abnormal condition, is now recognized as representing a highly efficient organ.”

Here’s a quick anatomy lesson. Your ventricles are the hollow heart chambers that gather blood from the atrium and then send it to the heart and lungs. So having bigger, thicker ventricles is a good thing, as your heart is now working in optimal condition. 

Makes It Easier for the Heart to Do Its Job 

Another benefit of larger ventricles is that the heart can do its thing without having to put in nearly as much effort. This much is confirmed by that Clinics in Sports Medicine report, which also said that “the typical runner tends to have a slow resting pulse rate and a high maximal oxygen consumption…their hearts are more efficient than those of sedentary people, pumping a larger volume per beat.”

What does all this mean? That your heart can pump more blood each time it beats, doing little work but reaping big rewards. 

Your heart works hard, and constantly at that. According to this article from Live Science, every single day, your heart will beat 100,000 times. We don’t even breathe that much every day, doing so only 22,000 times. 

Anything that can make the heart’s job easier is worth doing, and that includes running! 

Controls Weight

You know what makes the heart have to work even harder? Being overweight or obese. This 2019 report from Vascular Health and Risk Management states that “obesity is associated with an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease…particularly heart failure and coronary heart disease.”

When gaining weight, the study continues, the hemodynamics of your heart change. Hemodynamics refer to blood flow dynamics. Further, the structure of the heart is also altered. Adipose tissue, which holds onto fat or lipids, release pro-inflammatory cytokines that can create atherosclerotic plaques and cardiac dysfunction when you’re overweight. 

The CDC says that between 2017 and 2018, obesity had risen by 42.4 percent in the US. By the way, CDC data also states that besides just heart disease death, obese people are at risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and stroke as well.

Running is one such way to prioritize your weight loss efforts. For each mile you run, you burn roughly 100 calories. That means pushing yourself to run five miles can torch 500 calories, which is significant. Once you get to a point where you’re doing 10K or 15K races, you’re burning between 1,000 and 1,500 calories for your efforts.

By the time you run a marathon, which is over 25 miles, you’re looking at burning 2,000+ calories.

To lose weight, you need to burn more calories than you ingest. If you’re torching upwards of 1,000 calories and you eat 2,000 calories a day, you’re burning half that, which could lead to weight loss.  

Reduces Cholesterol

Another way the heart benefits from running is by lowering cholesterol. If you don’t know what cholesterol technically is, it’s a substance in the blood with a waxy texture. 

Not all cholesterol is bad. High-density lipoprotein or HDL cholesterol is considered good, as it can filter low-density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol from the blood. If you didn’t guess by that description, LDL cholesterol is considered bad.

The higher your LDL cholesterol, the more at risk you are of developing heart disease, stroke, or heart attack. A poor diet can lead to high cholesterol, as can having diabetes, smoking cigarettes, not exercising, and being obese.

This 1997 study from JAMA Internal Medicine reviewed the cholesterol levels of 8,283 runners, all of whom ran recreationally. The participants were also all men. 

Some of the runners went 10 miles or fewer a week and others were considered long-distance runners, which meant they ran 50 miles or more each week. The HDL levels of the long-distance runners were 85 percent lower than the short-distance runners. 

Lowers Blood Pressure

Running can also help with high blood pressure or hypertension, which in turn benefits the heart. 

Those with high blood pressure can have one of two types of hypertension: primary or secondary hypertension. Primary or essential hypertension is that without a cause. What’s worse is that primary hypertension develops slowly. 

With secondary hypertension, there is a diagnosable cause. Those causes can include the use of illegal drugs, blood vessel birth defects, thyroid issues, adrenal gland tumors, kidney issues, and/or obstructive sleep apnea. Taking medications like prescription drugs, over-the-counter meds, decongestants, cold medications, and birth control can also sometimes contribute to secondary hypertension.

Unlike primary hypertension, secondary hypertension will appear quickly, seemingly overnight. 

No matter the type of high blood pressure you have, you need to control it. Hypertension can lead to eye blood vessel damage which could cause blindness. You may also be more likely to have kidney blood vessel problems, heart failure, stroke, or heart attack.

That same study from 1997 that we cited in the above section also looked into the rate of high blood pressure in short-distance and long-distance runners. According to the results, the long-distance runners were thought to be able to reduce blood pressure medication use by as much as 50 percent. They also had a lower hypertension risk by 50 percent. 

The Downsides of Running and Heart Health

It may seem clear that running is awesome for the heart, but things are quite as cut and dried as they appear. 

The problem isn’t necessarily with everyday running, but more with those runners who compete in marathons and even ultramarathons. By definition, a marathon must be 49.125 kilometers, 385 yards, or 26 miles to be counted as such an event. Ultramarathons are at least 50 kilometers or 31.069 miles, but some can be 100 kilometers, which is 62.137 miles. The most serious and strenuous ultramarathons are 100+ miles.

Ultramarathons are already regarded as quite dangerous activities. Runners are more likely to injure themselves through stress fractures and sprains. Dehydration is common since runners might drink through their supply of water and not be able to stop and get more. Running this long can also lead to food shortages.

Those are small inconveniences though when you consider what damage ultramarathons can do to the heart. This University of Miami Hospitals and Clinics article from 2020 cites a stat from the American Heart Association that those who run ultramarathons and other extreme long distances can develop heart arrhythmias. 

It gets worse. This 2019 article from Heart.org featured quotes from Dr. Peter McCullough, Dallas, Texas’ Baylor Heart and Vascular Institute’s chief of cardiovascular research. Dr. McCullough is in the interesting position of having been a runner himself. He’s run across the country, completing marathons in every US state and then some. He’d done 54 marathons in his lifetime, eventually ceasing the activity in 2012.

“I’m convinced that to go grind it out for hours on end at a steady peace is the wrong thing,” McCullough told Heart.org. 

Further, McCullough participated in a Mayo Clinic study from 2012 involving runners. The goal of the study was to determine whether endurance exercise helps or harms the heart. The participants all underwent MRI testing to confirm the results.

The researchers determined that those who ran very long distances had right ventricle and atrium dilation that lasted for up to 24 hours after a run. These runners may have also had biomarkers for heart injury and stress.

McCullough said as many as 25 percent of runners could have recurrent heart injuries and that one percent of these people could develop myocardial fibrosis or heart scarring. According to McCullough, myocardial fibrosis can cause heart failure. 

This isn’t meant to scare you or dissuade you from running, far from it. Maybe you just want to scale back on those ultramarathons and save the long-distance running for a few times a week. 

Final Thoughts 

Running is good for the heart if you don’t overdo it. Running upwards of 50+ miles a week can help you ward off weight gain, hypertension, and high cholesterol. You also strengthen your heart so it may do its thing without as much effort.

Those who run ultramarathons though should take heed. Heart injuries are more common in these runners. Said injuries could at some point lead to heart failure. Keep some of your runs shorter to prevent this!   

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Geoff Southworth

I am a California native and I enjoy all the outdoors has to offer. My latest adventures have been taking the family camping, hiking and surfing.

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