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Healthy Heart

October 6, 2010

By Jillian Shaw

Want a healthier heart? Combining endurance and resistance training, as triathletes do, might be the key.

A study of triathletes recently published in the journal Radiology reveals that the heart adapts to triathlon training by working more efficiently. Triathlons are defined as multi-sport events consisting of swimming, cycling, and running in succession.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study using MRI to investigate effects of triathlon training on cardiac adaptations,” said lead researcher Michael M. Lell, M.D., associate professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg in Erlangen, Germany.

For the study, researchers conducted MRIs on 26 professional male athletes with the average age of 27.9, and did the same on a control group of 27 males of the same average age who were active no more than three hours per week. The triathletes in the study were among top national and international competitors with six or more years of continuous training.

The results of the study clearly showed that the triathletes had larger left atria and larger right and left ventricles than the control group. The triathlete’s left and right verticles also had greater muscle mass and wall thickness, indicating a higher level of health than their more sedentary counterparts.

“In competitive athletes, it is important to distinguish physiological adaptations as a result of training from pathological conditions such as cardiomyopathy, the most common cause of sudden cardiac death,” Dr. Lell said.

The scans of the triathletes’ hearts reflected the skills required to be successful in a triathlon, in which a competitor needs to have superior training in both endurance and resistance. Dynamic or endurance training includes activities such as running and swimming, while weightlifting is an example of static or resistance raining. Cycling is considered both endurance and resistance.

While past studies have shown that extreme endurance training might be linked to a higher risk of sudden cardiac events, this study showed no such correlation. “Cardiac adaptations in elite triathletes in our study were not associated with sudden cardiac death,” Dr. Lell said.

In addition to their more robust hearts, the triathletes’ resting heart rates were 17 percent lower than those in the control group as well, which allows more economized and efficient heart function. “The hearts of the triathletes in our study are stronger and able to manage the same workload with less effort,” said Dr. Lell.

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