The Heart Of An Athlete

The Heart Of An Athlete
“In highly conditioned athletes,
a big heart-the literal, not the
metaphorical kind- is a sign of
health and power. But in
some cases, it can be a
deadly burden.”
Elite athletes often have enlarged hearts. This
enables them to reach amazing levels of athletic
endurance and strength. These super hearts can
pump huge amounts of blood which carries
oxygen to the muscles. A super charged heart
is the same as a super charged motor in a car.
This condition is developed as result of intense
cardio and/or strength training.
Background continued
The athlete’s heart condition is most
common in extreme swimmers, cyclists,
runners, rowers and weight lifters.
Unfortunately, the extreme training of
these athletes can sometimes reveal, or
make worse, serious pre-existing
problems with their hearts. This has led
to the premature deaths of some very
prominent athletes.
The healthy heart
The Heart Function
The heart will grow larger with an increased work load,
resulting in a larger heart and/or a thicker heart. Both of
these will bring about the athlete’s heart condition.
There are two basic ways to increase blood supply to
exercising muscles: Make the heart beat faster or pump
a larger volume of blood with each beat. This creates
less wear on the heart. Thus the size of the heart, not
the maximum beats, increases with conditioning.
Example: a world class marathoner could have the same
maximum heart rate as an average person, the difference
being the marathoner’s heart pumps more blood with
each beat.
Oxygen depleted blood
Heart Anatomyreturns from the body and
enters the right side of the
heart. Then, blood is
pumped out of the right
ventricle to the lungs,
where it picks up new
oxygen before returning
to the left side or left
ventricle. Finally, the
fresh oxygenated blood is
pumped back into the
body by the left
How do we measure the Athletes
The size of the left ventricle when fully
expanded, the thickness of its walls, and the
amount of blood it pumps with each beat, (called
stroke volume) are all key stats in assessing the
heart. A technique using ultra sound technology
called echocardiography allows doctors to watch
the heart in action, freeze the image, and then
take measurements to establish the athlete’s heart.
What do these elite athletes look
Elite athletes had a 46% larger left
ventricle than non-conditioned
They also had a 33%increase in
stroke volume. Resting heart rates of
low 30’s for marathoners due to
enormous stroke volume. A normal
person would pass out if his heart rate
dropped to 30.
Easy Come, Easy Go!
A fascinating aspect of the athlete’s heart is
how fast the condition comes and goes. It
can develop in weeks and vanish just as
fast. Ten endurance runners from New
Mexico returned to college with normal
sized hearts after a summer of reduced
training. In just 4 months of rigorous
training, their left ventricles increased 23%.
How different types of exercises
influence growth of an athletes heart
The exact load on a heart determines specific changes.
Volume loading, caused by intense aerobic training.
Here, muscles demand oxygen for a longer time.
Volume loading increases the left ventricle, thus
increasing the stroke volume.
Examples: running swimming, biking
Pressure loading, caused by intense anaerobic strength
training. Increases thickness of right wall.
Example:weight training. Thus, cross training gives
us the most versatile conditioned athletes.
What causes the sensational
deaths of elite athletes?
Some elite athletes may have been born with heart
conditions which they never noticed. Since their
hearts were so big, they resembled the athlete’s
heart condition, not the enlarged diseased heart
they were born with. Another reason why these
athletes don’t know they have diseased hearts is
that their enlarged hearts masked and compensated
for their genetic defects. If detected early, many
deaths could have been avoided with the use of
proper medication.
Examples of heart diseases
Viral Cardiomyopathy
Virus attacks left ventricle. Can be cured.
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy(HCM)
Abnormal thickening of the left ventricle. Most
common disease.
Difficult to detect since it resembles the athlete’s
heart. HCM is genetic and has no prior
symptoms. 1 in 500 persons has this condition.
Viral Cardiomyopathy
Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy
Heart diseases continued
Congenital abnormalities: Structural
problems from birth.
Coronary artery disease (CAD):
Arteries are blocked: Sergei Grinkov
died. Never knew he had a problem.
Morfans Syndrome: disorder of
heart’s connective tissue. Flo Hyman
died. Did not have a clue about this.
Myocarditis: Inflammation due to
viral infection. Hank Gathers sought
treatment, but still died.
Coronary artery disease (CAD)
CAD Victim
Sergei Grinkov
Marfans Syndrom
Marfans Syndrom victim
Flo Hyman
Myocarditis victims
Hank Gathers, Reggie Lewis
The Good News
Early in the twentieth century, there was a
debate about the long term effects of the
athlete’s heart. After years of testing and
research, the result is that there are no
dangerous consequences so long as there are
no hidden diseases.
The sudden death of some elite athletes was
sensational and unnerving. However, these
deaths were not due to over training , but
rather a predisposed heart problem masked
by an extraordinary conditioned heart.
Some notable athletes who died
early due to undetected heart disease
Paavo Nurmi- great marathoner/Olympian
Babe Didrickson- Words greatest woman
Bill Rogers- Ultra Marathoner
Secretariat- Triple Crown winner
Legendary Hearts
Paavo Nurmi &Bill Rogers
More Legends
Babe Didrickson
More Legends
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