Competitive HIIT Will Kill You

Ever hear of Phidippides Cardiomyopathy? Neither did I. But you see it every year when high-performing athletes drop dead in the middle of races that they’ve been training years for.

I’ve been having some good discussions with a member about Arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy (ARVC), which is essentially diagnosed after sudden death when your heart starts going crazy during long endurance efforts.

Phidippides was the first casualty of running a marathon. I quote from Phidippides Cardiomyopathy: A Review and Case Illustration by Justin E. Trivax and Peter A. McCullough.

In 490 BC, during the Greco-Persian War, Persian King Darius I commanded his army to attack the Greeks, whom they greatly outnumbered. In the face of this attack, a 40-year-old Athenian herald, Phidippides, was ordered to run nearly 75 miles through mountainous terrain to Sparta to request military support. Although the Spartans agreed to assist the Greeks, they could not help immediately due to certain religious obligations, so Phidippides began his journey back to Marathon, completing 150 miles in less than 2 days. Upon his arrival in Marathon, to Phidippides’ disbelief, the Greeks had defeated the Persians. Phidippides was then sent to Athens, 26.2 miles from Marathon, to spread the news of this impressive victory with the other Greeks. Upon his arrival in Athens, after running the 26.2 mile journey, Phidippides stretched out his arms and exclaimed, "We are victorious!" He then collapsed and died. His death was the first report of sudden cardiac death in a long-distance runner. Since his demise, numerous accounts of endurance athletes suffering cardiac related complications have been documented.

There seems to be a genetic mutation that’s triggered by high intensity work that causes your heart to repair itself with essentially scar tissue rather than stronger muscle. That is, in the absence of long duration cardiovascular output your heart will repair itself normally. However if you are a long duration high intensity kind of athlete, the act of training for (or competing in) these events both damages your heart and triggers genetic mutations that interfere with the repair mechanism in your heart. A perfect one-two punch.

This kind of damage doesn’t show up in the typical assays that done in your doctors office. And what doctor is ever going to tell a marathon runner that they’re damaging their heart? The conventional wisdom is that they are the ones doing everything perfectly.

There’s lots of nuance here, and I don’t have the time or space to go into it - but I love that our members send me these overly nerdy articles!

What bothers me is that the HIIT du jour in the fitness industry. These things are marketed as a necessary healthy luxury that you need to take part in - especially in Boulder! I used to poke at the various colors of theory and effects because they were ineffective and expensive - just wasting your time and money. (I do understand the attraction of the competitive nature of these methods and the shared suffering that makes you feel like you’re involved in a community.)

But it turns out that they’re actually dangerous. And they’re dangerous in exactly the way they market themselves: competing in class to see who can spend the most time at a high heart rate! Take the stressed out Type-A extroverts, add another layer of competition and see who can damage their heart the most. So it’s not just ineffective and expensive, it’s also deadly - and you’re paying good money to damage yourself while being proud of your number on the leader board!

You can train to be fit for extreme events without your training being extreme! Why put cumulative damage on your heart when you can turn it down from 11 and just get stronger and fitter the “easy” way. That suffering you’re putting yourself through is actually causing long-term damage to your body.

Low-intensity Alactic+Aerobic Anti-glycolytic training is the better way to get fit without damaging your heart.

Michael Deskevich