As part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team, I have been given a great opportunity to be a part of a research study to examine the effects of marathon training on heart health. Dr. Aaron Baggish from Massachusetts General Hospital and co-medical director for the B.A.A. Boston Marathon is overseeing the study. Lucky for me, I fall in selected group (aka high risk category); male, non-professional marathon runner, between the ages of 35-65.
Study participation involves an individual fitness and heart disease risk profile before and after marathon training which includes a screening for heart disease. There will be two study visits to Mass General Hospital, one visit before and one visit after marathon training. During each visit participants will have blood tests, an electrocardiogram (ECG), an echocardiogram (echo) and a cardiopulmonary exercise test (CPET).
January 5, 2013 was my first appointment. It was probably the only time in someone’s life that they are actually looking forward to an appointment with a cardiologist. It started with some blood tests. Stephanie, one of the clinical research coordinators, lightheartedly assured me she would leave enough blood so I would be able to complete the CPET. I wasn’t so sure. They sent me back to the waiting room with breakfast, a choco-walla bar and some water.
A short time later I was brought into the testing room. It was a little chilly but I then realized I would probably appreciate it once the real work started. When Dr. Baggish came in, he performed the echocardiogram. While gathering the necessary data for his study, he was also assuring that I was fit to continue the study. He gave me the thumbs up and I was ok to continue to the CPET.
Next they needed to get a baseline of my heart rate, blood pressure, VO2, VCO2, my heart’s electrical activity and sure a few more stats. I was thinking, this could not have been a better baseline measurement. I have not really exercised all summer. My fall training was cut short due to a hamstring pull and the holidays have just finished, full of over eating and “holiday cheer”. I was wondering if a was a better candidate for Nova’s Couch Potato Marathon Challenge. (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it).
After hooking me up for the ECG and CPET, I definitely looked like something out of a science fiction movie. I wore a mask that allowed measurement of my breathing that kind of something Darth Vader would maybe wear to bed so he didn’t have to wear that big helmet. I wish I thought of asking if they would take a picture of me but didn’t, so this MGH photo will have to do.
I began jogging on the treadmill at 5 MPH and a light grade. I’m not sure of the rate of change during the test, but the speed remained constant while the grade would increase over time. At certain points they would take a blood pressure reading while I continued to run. The computer screens where busy plotting the ECG graphs and displaying the many parameters being tracked during the test.
A laminated paper with chart ranging from 1 to 10 allowed me to point to the level of effort I felt I was exerting. For the first 10 minutes, I was able to point to the low numbered, green region of the chart. I wondered how long it take until I would stop pointing and use the universal 5 fingered stop sign to indicate I can’t go any further. Slowly the grade increased. I had no idea if I was doing better than I expected, or it was a statement of what happens when you find excuses not to exercise. As my finger moved down the chart and entered the red, I felt the production of lactic acid in my legs, and knew I was anaerobic. It was only time before I hit my VO2max. A few minutes later I was there.
After the test, I was curious of my results but most of it will have to wait until after the study is completed. I am looking forward to both my personal changes after the end of my marathon training and the results of the study. There have been a few popular studies published recently highlighting the risks and negative aspects of participating in endurance sports and the associated heart risks. I hope this study will provide more insight either confirming or debunking this theory, but more on that later.