Cycling and Heart Health

The news was stunning. A member of my bike club emailed word that a local man prominent in cycling circles had a massive heart attack while leading a morning group ride today. The news hit close to home, because while I didn’t know him well, he was the guy who taught the Road I course I took two years ago.

A passing motorist gave CPR, and paramedics got him to a hospital where he was put into an induced coma. One of the arteries to his heart had a 100 percent blockage, and doctors made a temporary opening to get blood to his heart.

It was eerily similar to what happened to Belgian cycling star Kim Kirchen during the Tour of Switzerland in June. He, too, had to go under an induced coma. Kirchen is now out of the hospital.

I thought cycling was supposed to make us invincible.

It turns out that endurance athletes might face serious heart risks of their own — partly because they’re in better shape. ¬†As an article on by Dr. John Mandrola points out, cyclists are more likely to have a 20 percent blockage than the 80 percent blockage often suffered by couch potatoes. But that 20 percent blockage is more likely to lead to a heart attack, because it is more likely to cause blood to clot on it.

Hm. Never knew that. Okay, I’ve never really paid much attention to food. In fact, my wife often complains that I eat like a teenager.

That’s about to change. I’ve enjoyed the effects of losing some weight lately; but that’s stalled out for the time being. Time to get back on track. Time to notice what I put in my body. Time to get serious about total health, not just exercise. And time to recognize that while I’m relatively healthy, I am not invincible.


  1. says

    Wow, scary to think that being active actually makes you more likely to have a heart attack. Guess it’s better to know now then to be sorry later.

  2. says

    Yes, I read on a local forum someone suffered from a Pulmonary Embolism during a trip to Colorado. He was a Cat1 Road racer on a mountain biking trip and just sitting down for long hours triggered a blood clot which passed into his lung. Very scary reality is that we still have to watch what we eat. More so than ever due to the amount of exertion we put our bodies through.

    Great blog. Banana’s and nutrition in general are important!

  3. says

    Ray, you hit the nail on the head about nutrition. I know more cyclists that think they have a free pace to cheeseburgers and eating whatever they want because they rode for 2 hours and burnt 1200 calories. Exercise will keep you fit on the outside, but the nutrition on the inside still needs to be the #1 priority. I’m not going to speculate what the contributing factors were in Stanton’s case , but for all of us examining our diets is a good start. Next step would be a visit with your doctor to go over your family history and see if heart conditions run in your family and run according tests. Even blood tests can determine if people are susceptible to blood clots which might have helped in the case of the Cat1 racer in BigFlipBoy’s example.

    • says

      I totally agree with your comments, Mike. I’ve always said that you can cycling your butt off, but if you aren’t eating properly it’s just not going to do what it’s supposed to.



  4. Veer says

    Thanks for the sage advice – I have just this week discovered your blog. I am one of those who is newer to road biking than your blog web page name. Infact I do not own a road bike yet, I have just been taking my mountain bike (which I am certainly a lot more familiar with) on road rides for exercise – climbed Mt. Bonnell up and down just this weekend. I have been losing a bit of weight and had not given a second thought to eating right. Reading your blog brought home this simple fact. Thanks for your writings – they are fun to read as well as provide very useful pointers to even newer bike noobs like myself.

  5. Bill says

    The Dr. John Mandrola article is really interesting reading. Something to think about.
    Just a side question… why did a passing motorist give CPR instead of one of the cyclists in the group?

  6. Catherine says

    Hi- the cyclist in the accident is my cycling coach. He is also my dad. I enjoyed finding your blog post.

    I agree with you that it’s too easy to ignore what you are eating if you are slim and fit, and I applaud you and everyone for taking a fresh look at your diet. I’m going to do the same. Dropping a few pounds would certainly make me faster up those hills!

    I also just wanted to mention that in dad’s particular case, diet was not a factor. He’s had advanced heart disease for some time. It is likely genetic, possibly viral. He knew his heart was at risk, and has been a careful, healthy eater for as long as I can remember. Now that isn’t to say he’s a DAINTY eater. He is a cyclist, after all. When he has some apple with lunch, he eats ALL THE APPLES.

    You’re right that you can be fit, but still have seriously overstressed organs, unhealthy arteries, high blood pressure, etc. due to poor eating habits.

    But I’ll keep riding my bike, even if I have the same genetic heart disease as dad. Riding the couch is too damn slow. :-)

    @Bill — good question.. there was only 1 other rider there when he fell– the rider was *under* dad, actually. I think even as he went unconsious, dad knew he’d better save the Cervelo and land it on a friend. (kidding) His riding buddy was unclipping dad from his pedals and preparing to do CPR when motorist came and just took over. Then the other riders arrived on the scene, about the same time as EMS.

    As of now, dad is alive, and should be waking from his induced coma tomorrow.

  7. says

    Junk food is not our problem. It’s the amount of we eat. Red meat, potato chips or fried food in moderation will not hurt. It’s having that stuff every day that kills us.

  8. says

    I’ve heard of several incidents like this lately. I think one of the things to watch out for is being “too fit” in terms of lowering your resting heart rate. Some athletes have very low resting heart rates and when they sit for long periods, the blood can pool in their legs and form clots that later travel to more critical areas in the body and cause problems.

    The other issue is biting off more than you can chew. Don’t ride 20 miles a couple times and then try to set a record pace in the Hotter than Hell Hundred. Stay within yourself.

  9. says

    Wow, that makes my encounter with a heart attack some 6 weeks ago pale in comparison. My prayers go out to Catherine’s dad – and just like with him, diet was/is not an issue. After everything was said and done my cardiologist shrugged his shoulders and said: sometimes bad things happen no matter how well you live

    • says

      If you don’t read GT’s blog, his heart attack was in late June. He was back on the bike in less than three weeks, is now back to doing group rides, and is pointing to a century. Way to go, GT!

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