Thursday, October 24, 2013

Endurance Athletes and the signs of a heart attack?

Whenever people and especially athletes discover I had a heart attack when they talk to me, the first two questions that pops up every time are.

“How will I know when I am having a heart attack” and
“Are there any long term symptoms leading up to a heart attack”

Getting these questions all the time I thought it might be worth writing a post about it.

I am not a Doctor and my advice is not based on medical evidence but it’s my personal opinion and what I've experienced.

The first question I did answer in one of my previous post heart attack symptoms and won’t go into detail now. 
But the symptoms are basically feeling dizzy, nausea's, pain on the inside of the arms (biceps), having heart burn but higher up than the usual heart burn. Eventually breaking out in a cold sweat and not able to walk up straight and going into a fetal position due to the extreme pain.

What I’ll try and answer today is how you know if the heart is not functioning as it should be and are there any medium/long term signs. Personally I don’t think there are definite signs but thinking back to the time leading up to the attack and what I've experienced I came to realize that I was not my usual self. I didn't take note of it and thought it was just part of endurance training.

What I've noticed is that it felt like I had asthma and I even complaint to Kim, saying that I must go to the Doctor (which I never did). I struggled to breathe (tight chest), especially on my runs and also just as I started running. This would then go away later during the run. I also struggled to do my once a week fartlek session and could do it but was the odd 30 seconds slower than my usual rate and going slower as the weeks tick on.

The advantage of training with a power meter is that I've noticed that I was losing power during my bike sessions especially when I was doing the shorter interval sessions. When I was doing my endurance rides or recovery rides I could hold my target power zone without any issues but when it came to the short all out 1 minute sessions or the 5 minute sessions above threshold I just couldn't hold the numbers. My power was steadily declining with each session and nothing helped no matter what I tried doing to improve the numbers.

Thinking back I am sure that those sessions where the heart need to pump extra hard were the ones where the heart showed that there is something wrong and just could not perform at that high level.

One other thing I also noticed was the week before the Xterra race when I had the attack, I did a half Ironman and after the race I had some heartburn and pain inside my arms. No issues during the race. The energy drink supplied during that specific race was not what I was using and I thought that was the reason why I experienced the heartburn. The pain inside my arm, I thought was my lack of swim training the past couple of weeks. 
How naive of me but an issue with my heart never crossed my mind, never did I know that it was a heart attack on its way.

I've read lately that a lack of sleep over a long period can also lead to a heart attack. With me having a full time job and not neglecting my family my day started at 4am and ended at 11pm. My typical day was training before work, working long hours in a stressful environment, spending time with the family after work and then training again until late at night. Getting 5 hours of sleep a night and some nights less over the past 6 years must have taken its toll on my heart.

They've said it many times in articles but only do I realize now that sleep is very important and one thing one can’t neglect.

This week on Twitter I saw a lot of tweets from people entering Ironman South Africa and for the first time the event is sold out long before entries close. This is great news and I am glad that Triathlon is growing at such a rate in South Africa. It’s great being caught up in the moment and entering Ironman or being challenged by a friend to do it but training for and racing an Ironman is very demanding and puts your body to the ultimate test.

One concern I do have is that a lot of entries are first timers and when I look at some of these people’s tweets they haven’t done a long distance triathlon before and some are new to the sport and haven’t done a triathlon at all. I would urge these athletes or for that matter even the seasoned endurance athlete to go for a proper medical exam once a year which include a proper scan of the heart (EKG, Sonar, etc.) This might not help everybody but will show any defect there might be that you are not aware of.

In my case they might have picked something up or maybe not but now it’s too late to know and all the “what if’s” can’t turn back the clock.

My conclusion is that I don’t think there are specific signs leading up to a heart attack but listen to your body. What I do believe is that every endurance athlete should do a proper medical exam once a year to prevent any possible issues to ensure that you can do the sport you love for many years to come. 

Never think that this won't happen to you, that's what I thought.

Oh and get enough sleep every night!

And what would a post be without a pic of my buddy, Eddy