Is Pain Truly Weakness Leaving the Body?

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Dhruv Pillai, Staff Writer

BFS. Bigger. Faster. Stronger.

So proclaim Harriton’s famous ‘sheets’ that are freely available in our weight room. A third of the way through my junior year at Harriton, I am all-too-familiar with these all-powerful pieces of paper, these edicts of exercise that give every athlete at Harriton a set routine of workouts. These exercises will make the athlete bigger, faster, stronger.

Freshman year, I worked out with the basketball team during preseason, hoping to make the team, and was exposed for the first time to regimented exercise; purposeful movements and activities that were designed just so, optimizing physical prowess.

The following year, I ran cross-country, and though the focus was much less on weight lifting, track workouts still carried the same intensity—the workout was tailored by professionals so that you could achieve maximum potential.

Two years later, I have begun to question these methods and routines, as I have become more aware of the ever-changing nature of sports philosophy.

This gave rise to the question: How far can I push myself? I want to get the best results, and the changing consensus on workouts and number of sets and order of routine clearly shows that what experts believe might not be 100% correct; if the sheet says I should bench 100 lbs., couldn’t I be able to do 105 lbs.? If I’m told to do a 200 workout in 35 seconds, couldn’t I do it in 34 seconds?

When I first thought about how far athletes can push themselves, I thought about the physical limitations that accompany the unfortunate condition of being human. No matter how dedicated or gifted an athlete is, he or she will never be able to run a marathon in 20 minutes. No man or woman will ever be able to bicep curl a bajillion lb. dumbbell; it’s physically not possible.

There are dramatic instances of pushing limits, of physical feats that are close to humanely impossible. Take the exmple of Stafon Johnson, the USC running back who dropped a bar on his throat while bench pressing, or the two runners in the recent Philadelphia Marathon who collapsed and died, one at the finish line, the other a quarter of a mile before the finish of the race. Think of some rowers at our own Harriton High who literally row until they were blue in the face.

When athletes push themselves to the limits of their bodies, several things can happen. They can hobble off to the water fountain, thrilled at having participated in such vigorous exercise and anticipating a good night’s sleep. Or they could die.

Sudden cardiac death (SCD) during exercise is not unheard of; it happens throughout the world, from the casual adult hoping to slim down at the gym to the elite marathon runner Ryan Shay, who passed away while trying out for the Olympics.

Ryan Shay, in particular, presents an interesting case. Aren’t elite athletes supposed to be invincible? Don’t distance runners, especially good ones, have ridiculously efficient hearts? While it is true that exercise results in longer lifespan and lowered the risk of obesity, there are some aspects of health that exercise cannot influence.

Young athletes, no matter how athletic, no matter their resting heart rate (affected by exercise and a great way to tell how ‘in shape’ a person is), may be born with one of two common preexisting heart conditions that can endanger them: the first is hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) and the second is long Q-T syndrome.

HCM is a genetic disorder that results in a thickening of the heart muscle, often asymmetrically. Wait, bigger muscles are good, right? Wrong. Thickening of cardiac muscle actually obstructs blood flow.

Though sedentary individuals might not feel HCM, an athlete who consistently needs high blood output increases the risk of pushing his or her heart over the edge.

The heart could reach a point where it is unable to supply the body and itself with the oxygen and other nutrients found in blood, and could attempt to remediate this by simply increasing its beats per minute. This would, in theory, increase blood flow, but can actually be counterproductive.

The heart eventually enters tachycardia, a condition which is characterized by such rapid beating of the heart that it is not able to refill in between beats; the heart may be beating a lot faster than before, yet the output is actually less, as it is unable to send the same volume of blood to the body per beat. This often results in loss of consciousness and more often than not, death.

Long Q-T syndrome is a bit more complicated than HCM. In order to understand it, we must first define some aspects of the heart and how it is monitored.

Essentially, the heart beats because of electrical signals being conducted throughout the cardiac tissue. It has a certain rhythm to it, a pace that is set by areas of your brain that even you cannot control.

After a beat, the heart needs to repolarize, or, in simple terms, ‘get ready’ for the next electrical impulse (it does this by recreating the gradient of ions outside and inside the membrane of the cell. Welcome back to Biology, everyone). The heart cannot contract without complete repolarization. The period of time that the heart takes to repolarize is called the QT period; a long QT period means that the heart cells of a person take longer than normal to repolarize and prepare itself to send blood throughout the body once again.

As you can imagine, this could be lethal during exercise, the time when your body needs oxygenated blood most and in the biggest quantities. In fact, long QT syndrome’s most deadly manifestation is through arrhythmias.

As mentioned earlier, the heart has a pace, a cadence set by electrical signals received from the brain. The brain sending electrical signals faster than the heart’s ability to process them (repolarize) can trigger tachycardia, causing the heart to undergo the same phenomenon caused by HCM.

Both of the above conditions are most prevalent in young athletes under 35. Young athletes at Harriton have to turn in a completed physical form in which their physician asserts that the student is in good enough health to partake in a sport.

Fortunately, part of the examination that takes place while filling out a physical form includes routine heart tests, including the measurement of blood pressure and auscultation (vocab word! It means to listen to the heart with a stethoscope).

Unfortunately, none of these tests can detect HCM or long QT syndrome. Yes, these disorders can be detected using a cardiogram, but when was the last time your doctor stuck a bunch of electrodes on your chest and hooked you up to the iconic ‘heart monitor,’ House M.D., style?
Though our physical forms do a good job of making sure athletes don’t have any obvious conditions that would endanger them, they do not adequately address SCD.

Exercise is fun. It’s invigorating, and choosing to integrate it into your lifestyle is possibly one of the best decisions you will make in your life. But don’t go overboard. Know your limits, and try to push yourself as far as you can go in a healthy way.

The burning feeling you get in your muscles is healthy. Don’t stop for slight discomfort. But if you start feeling light-headed, or you feel weird in your chest, stop. Sometimes these might simply mean you haven’t had enough water today; sometimes they might mean you haven’t eaten enough today; and sometimes, they might mean that you’re in danger.

Be smart. Be sensible. Be safe.