Sudden Death in Long-Distance Running

Image courtesy of the BBC

Image courtesy of the BBC

Say the phrase "sudden death" to most sports fans, and the next word they'll expect to hear is "overtime." But for participants in long-distance running races, literal sudden death is a very real hazard for those runners who have a genetic predisposition to cardiac arrhythmias -- and many people who are at risk don't know it.

Sudden death arrhythmia was brought to my attention by this article from the New York Times, which tells the tale of a healthy 24-year-old runner who died of sudden cardiac arrest (complicated by an arrhythmia) at a 15-k road race on Sunday.

Apparently such deaths, though rare, are common enough that the BBC's website has an informational page about it, and an entire society, the Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndromes Foundation, exists to promote awareness of sudden death syndrome and encourage further research into treatment of these conditions and prevention of further deaths.

How to know if you (or a runner you love) may be at risk? The SADS Foundation says that some risk factors include:

  • A family history of unexpected, unexplained sudden death of a young person;
  • Fainting or seizure during exercise, excitement or when startled;
  • Consistent or unusual chest pain and/or shortness of breath during exercise.

Screenings for this kind of arrhythmia generally include an electrocardiogram to observe the heart's resting rhythm, and sometimes a "stress" electrocardiogram to see how the heart responds to the vigors of exercise. A blood test may be administered to see whether a patient has a genetic predisposition to this kind of arrhythmia. Beta blockers are the most common kinds of medications used to treat identified cases of arrhythmia.

I'm posting this information not to cause a panic... merely to spread awareness of this condition, and encourage anyone with symptoms to seek medical advice. By the time an incident actually occurs, it may already be too late. An EMT was with the young runner within a minute of his collapse on Sunday, and he was at a hospital being treated thirteen minutes later -- but alas, even with that speedy treatment it was already too late to save him.

Running is a great way to improve your health and strengthen your heart -- not to mention running's many psychological benefits, too! -- but if you have any risk factors for sudden death arrhythmia, please see a doctor before you head out for that next hard interval workout!

See you on the trail!