Be Smart & Take Care of Your Runner Heart

Take care of your amazing heart.
Take care of your amazing heart.

Be Careful!!  Running could cause you to have a heart attack!  I know you have heard this before.  If you are a runner, well-meaning friends and relatives have no doubt e-mailed you with great concern when the news outlets report that someone has tragically died in a race.  I’ve heard it a lot over the years and I always allay the concerns of my well-meaning friends with logic: heart attacks happen.  It isn’t the running that necessarily caused it or created a higher risk.

Do you get as annoyed as I do when people tell you running is bad for your heart?

It really irks me because I feel they are inferring that by running, I am disregarding my heart health.  That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination.  Heart disease runs rampant in my family.  My grandfather died at age 67 from a massive heart attack.  My uncle died from a major heart attack at age 50. Don’t think for a second that it doesn’t scare me or that I disregard any potential risks.  To the contrary, I have talked to my doctor at length and have been tested for various blood markers that can help identify heart disease.

I also read the various studies and editorials that come out on the subject.  There is no consensus, but I believe that if you have a family history and/or the right conditions for a heart attack (high cholesterol, etc.), you may be in trouble even if you run 120 miles a week.  Just ask the families of Ryan Shay, Jim Fixx, Micah True“Voodoo” Joe Truini and numerous others.  It really is critical that you are aware of the common signs of heart attack.

Why am I mentioning this now, you ask?  Well, for starters, it is American Heart Health Month.  I wore my red on Friday, but I wanted to do something more meaningful by raising awareness on Salty Running.  I also thought it would be an appropriate way to celebrate Salty’s own successful heart procedure last week.  Last, but not least, the truth that we – as runners – are not immune from heart disease as runners recently hit close to home.

I was out on a leisurely Saturday morning run in the beginning of January when I ran into one of my neighbors.  He was walking out of his driveway to say hello to me which was odd, as usually he’d be running.  I stopped and said hello to him and the first words out of his mouth were, “I had a heart attack on New Year’s Eve during my run.”

Jim Fixx Running + floss
Jim Fixx wrote the original running bible and also died of a heart attack after his daily run at the age of 52. At the time of his death, some tried to pin his death on running, but his clogged arteries and family history say otherwise. (Photo credit: filmresearch)

This was the last thing I was expecting him to say.  He is an avid runner and runs several marathons and half marathons each year.  He is in his 50s and is in great shape.  A heart attack?!  Thankfully, he recognized what was going on with help from his wife and physician brother and quickly sought help.  After a short surgery and a couple of days in the hospital, he is thankfully almost back to new.

In honor of my friend, Salty and Heart Health Month, I want to take a moment share the common signs of a heart attack for women.  I also want to share some of the insights my friend gave me.  It is critical that we all understand and pay close attention to symptoms of a heart attack no matter how healthy we perceive ourselves to be.  Heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States: 43 million women in the U.S. are affected by heart disease and it is the cause of one in three deaths of women every year.  Those are some shocking numbers – and numbers we simply can’t run away from.  So without further adieu, here are the top 10 signs of heart attack in women identified by the American Heart Association:

1.  Sweating or Feeling Overheated.  Yes, we certainly know how to bring our sweat on, but pay attention if you feel like your temperature suddenly spikes.  If you are going through menopause or peri-menopause, these symptoms can be masked by “hot flashes,” but do take note if you have sudden spikes in your body temp.

2.  Indigestion or Nausea. Sudden waves of nausea, stomach ache, cramps, and diarrhea are another sign you may be having a heart attack.

3.  Ear, Jaw, Neck, or Shoulder Pain.  Women don’t usually suffer the traditional sudden chest pain of a heart attack that you see on TV.  Instead, you may feel a sensation of tightness running along your jaw and down your neck, and sometimes radiating up to your ear. Numbness and pain may extend down to your shoulder and arm (usually on your left side).  Alternatively, it may feel like you have a severe backache or pulled a muscle in your neck and back.

4.  Exhaustion or Fatigue.  Extreme fatigue in the month or months prior to a heart attack is very common.  We are not talking about the ordinary, I have too much on my plate tiredness, but if overwhelming fatigue sidelines you from your usual schedule, take note.

5.  Sleeplessness or Insomnia.  Are you feeling wired despite being exhausted?  Many women have reported insomnia, racing thoughts, and a feeling of being keyed up during the weeks that preceded their heart attack – particularly before they fell sleep.  Many women also found themselves waking frequently and being unable to fall back asleep.

6.  Stress and Anxiety.  We all know stress is a  big contributor to heart attacks, but too often we don’t perceive our own stress as unusual, since our lives are so jam packed.   But if you are feeling noticeably more anxious, stressed and keyed up, you may be poised to have a heart attack.  Many women have reported a feeling of  “impending doom” either right before or while they are having a heart attack.

7.  Shortness of Breath.  If you are short of breath or suddenly feel like you have a hard time catching your breath doing normal activities (including running), take note.

8. Dizziness or Lightheadedness.  Feeling faint or shaky?  Do you feel like you need to go lie down because something isn’t right?  This is a common effects of heart attack in women.

9. Memory Loss and Inability to Concentrate.  If you suddenly find yourself wondering, “what was I doing?” in the middle of your activities, you may have a problem.

10. Pressure in the Chest. The most commonly reported symptom of heart attack for men is chest pain.  Some women experience it, but rather than a feeling of pain, many women report feeling as though a heavy weight is pressing down on them or as if they can’t breathe because something’s compressing the lungs.

If you have any of these symptoms – or a combination of them – please do not ignore them.  We are never to busy to take care of our hearts.  This is particularly true if we feel it during our run.  My friend mentioned that he suddenly felt like he had a huge weight on his chest as he was running.  He couldn’t catch his breath and felt incredibly fatigued.  He had to stop and catch his breath a half mile from home, and when he got home, he laid down because he felt “off.”  He ended up taking a shower (which he later learned was a BAD idea from his doctor) and during that shower experienced sharp pains in his right arm.  Fortunately, his wife had been Googling his symptoms and encouraged him to call his brother who is a physician.  His brother directed him to get to the hospital ASAP – he was having a heart attack.  The quick moves of his loved ones saved his life.  Hopefully with some of this information, you can save your own or someone else’s if you notice something is awry.

Be smart & take care of your runner heart.

Do you have any experience with heart disease or have any other symptoms to share?

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Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. Thanks so much for this post Mint! One of the men in my running group went into cardiac arrest during the Sunday group run a few weeks ago. He is one of the fittest guys in the group and it was such a shock to all of us. Thankfully, he is doing great now and recovering. But it’s so important that we know CPR or run with a cell phone, you never know what can happen.

    1. I was remiss in not mentioning CPR, but you are correct! Many people don’t take the time to get certified or are afraid of it due to mouth-to-mouth. However, if someone codes with a heart attack, you can and SHOULD do rapid chest compressions even if you are not CPR certified until the paramedics arrive. You could save a life. More info here:

      Also, I am so glad your friend is okay!

  2. This is a great article. I have a heart condition, and in the summer had done some research about it and things to look out for. One thing I casually read was the symptoms of heart attacks in women and how different the symptoms were in women than men…as you say, nothing like you see on TV.
    A few nights later, I honestly thought I was having a heart attack. I had what seemed like desperate heart-burn, I felt sick and I was sweaty and feverish as well. I made the mistake of googling my symptoms, realised they followed the heart attack pattern and terrified myself. From that point on, every further symptom I read about I developed. Aching arm? Check. Jaw pain? Check. Looking back, those later symptoms were psychosomatic but at 1am I have never been so scared in my life. I couldn’t decide whether to go to hospital or not and ended up staying at home – still not sure if that was wise or not. The next day I went to my cardiologist and he checked me out. All fine.
    It was a sobering experience and one that made me realise that being there for my little boy and my husband was more important than running. Good to get things in perspective. But knowing the symptoms is SO important, so thanks for this reminder.

    I’ve also decided not to run any more marathons – apparently people with heart conditions are 4 times more likely to die during a marathon than a half marathon…so i’ll stick with 13.1 miles in the future. I’m also about to give up meat – again, vegetarians are 32 % less likely to die from heart conditions. Every little helps, eh?

  3. That’s so scary to think that people who are so healthy can be at risk of a heart attack. Thanks for pointing out the signs to look out for I will definitely keep these in mind

    1. Yes – I forgot to mention that my friend who had the heart attack had no prior medical problems and no family history. It was a complete fluke. So the lesson is, even if you run and are in great shape, always listen to your body and know the signs.

  4. I get annoyed when nonrunners latch on to these headlines to criticize runners. It seems less about concern for the runner and more about the criticizer feeling morally superior or making excuses for him/herself.

    That being said, this is a really important post. As someone who recently discovered a heart condition, I can’t recommend enough that any runner who experiences anything with their heart that seems a little off, should go get it checked out. Can’t hurt, but it can hurt if you wait too long!