Cycling Themselves Into Early Graves...

    I clearly remember the words of my physiology lecturer every time I see the daily highlights of every Tour de France stage every year. It’s been over a decade now but his words still resonate in my ears whenever I see an elite endurance athlete like a professional cyclist.

    I’m writing this a few hours after Cadel Evans became the first Australian to ever win the Tour de France. The world often marvels at the levels of endurance that professional cyclists seem to naturally have. The truth is that besides for a few genes, they’re no different to the rest of us.

    So what’s the point of this blog post you may be wondering? Well, besides a few interesting facts about the physiology of a professional cyclist competing in the Tour de France, I’d like to  remind you that exercise is probably the next best thing you can do to your body besides getting the right daily nutrients and minerals.

    However, like all things, too much of it may actually be bad for you. Here’s a brief story about my experience with excessive exercise and a sudden health condition that almost killed me.

    Only a few people know about this but I thought I’d share it with you to highlight the dangers of overdoing your training and why finding a healthy limit to your body’s physical ability is important for optimizing your health.

    I was 20 years old and in the prime of my life. I ate an extremely healthy diet and trained for two hours twice a day, five days a week. I literally used three t-shirts during each training session because each one got soaked in sweat due to the intensity of my cardio sessions.

    I had 5% body fat and my resting heart rate was 36 beats per minute. I felt almost invincible…although most guys in their 20s seem to feel the same. I didn’t take any performance-enhancing drugs which made me feel even better knowing that I could naturally push myself to my body’s limit for longer.

    Then the cold hard reality of being someone who pushed himself too hard for too long slapped me in the face…and trust me, it was scary.

    I was with some friends on a holiday in Zanzibar, a small tropical island off the coast of Kenya and Tanzania in east Africa. I was relaxing in the warm shallow water with a friend when all of a sudden I felt dizzy. I stood up and turn to head back to the shore when all I can recall is the beach moving from its normal horizontal position to vertical.

    I woke up on the beach with the rest of friends and other holiday-makers with stunned looks on their faces. I had no idea why I was covered in sand and actually got annoyed that some had gone in my ears and hair. I tried to get up to rinse the sand off when everyone rushed in…I remember someone saying “take it easy fella, the Flying Doctors are on their way”.

    Flying Doctors?! Why? What happened to me?

    Well, it turned out that my heart suddenly stopped and I collapsed in the water…subconsciously taking some water into my lungs in the process. My friend rushed over to me, hauled me onto his shoulders and rushed to the shore, screaming to the beachgoers to get help.

    Thankfully, a nurse was on holiday at the same beach and after some CPR, she somehow managed to get me revived.

    After spending a few days recovering in a pretty fancy Nairobi hospital I returned to South Africa to see a cardiologist. He did a whole series of tests, including an angiogram, and couldn’t find anything related to heart disease. He did however find a small yet significant difference in size between my heart’s two ventricles…the left one being larger than the right.

    An ECG confirmed that I had Athlete’s Heart…a common condition in people who are fit. Nevertheless, despite everything he couldn’t find the reason why I experienced what is now known as Sudden Cardiac Death. My cardiologist isn’t alone…health professionals and researchers across the world still cannot explain why young, healthy and fit people can suddenly die. I consider myself extremely lucky.

    The whole near-death experience definitely had an impact on my life. I reduced the frequency and intensity of my workouts and cardio sessions. Although, I still believe in the incredible benefits associated with exercising…just not like it’s my last day on earth, if you can excuse the pun!

    Today I still enjoy running and you can read more about my latest hobby – barefoot running.

    Frequent moderate exercise is something that everyone should try at least three times a week. However, the professional cyclists I talked about earlier don’t. No sir, they train hard. Much harder than what I went through ten years ago.

    It’s been said that professional cyclists have a life expectancy 15 years lower than the average population. When you look at what the cyclists in the Tour de France put themselves through - well the ones who aren’t taking steroids like EPO and other banned drugs – it’s understandable to see why their bodies simply shut down before their time.

    The Tour de France is a 21-day cycle race that covers a total of 3,600kms (2,200 miles)…including ascending the descending the mountain ranges of the Alps and Pyrenees. 21-days later at the end of the race, the average rider would have burned 123,900 calories…that’s roughly 6,000 calories per day!

    This means that each rider needs to consume 9,000 calories a day to replace the calories burned while allowing for the recommended daily caloric intake for normal bodily functions. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to consume 9,000 calories a day, according to the exact menu from one of the Tour de France teams, click here to read an interesting and funny attempt by Joel Stein.

    Professional athletes like those in the Tour de France are sacrificing themselves for something which I personally believe is not worth ‘dying’ for…no title, prize-money or prestige is worth your life.

    It’s strange to look at the health spectrum and see two complete difference scenarios being played out daily.

    I appreciate that some people may argue that these athletes ‘live’ more each day than many other people to choose to eat junk food and sit in front of their TVs every day…making the most of their natural ability and following their dream, as opposed to becoming obese and developing an array of hypokinetic diseases.

    I too had dreams of being a professional athlete but thankfully, life gave me a reality slap that woke me up from the damage I was doing…it also gave me a second chance which many other people don’t get.

    13 Responses

    Reminds me of the story about the famous Sir Winston Churchill when asked about the secret of his longevity, replied "Sport – I never played it" or so the story goes :o)

    John Kelly August 24 2011

    Thank you so much for posting this!!  I have always been fit and (until recently) thought that somehow my cardiovascular system was superior in some way.  I have been athletic since I was little.  I ran for most of high school and my early twenties and after watching my parents and other older friends have knee and back problems from running, I switched to cycling.  I loved cycling and finding hills that I could sustain my heart rate above 170BPM for more than an hour was a hobby.  I am currently 35 and about a year and a half ago I woke up one morning with a very strange heart beat that would come and go randomly.  After two trips to the ER (and blood tests for illegal stimulants – which I have never taken), I was sent to a cardiologist.  I went through the entire stress test, blood test, harness (portable EKG), and echo-cardiogram (sonogram of the heart).  Well…I have the exact heart condition…my left ventricle wall was at the hypertrophic limit (1.1cm).  The strange heartbeat were PVCs (preventricular contractions).  Since then I have taken it easy and the PVCs come and go…usually lasting for 2-3 weeks and then 4-5 months with nothing.  My last echocardiogram (a year after the first) showed that my heart wall had decreased to 0.8cm (the completely healthy thickness is 0.7cm).  I am glad that my body let me know something was off before my heart stopped and I feel for those who have lost apparently healthy loved ones to this surprising (and odd) adaptation of the body to exercise.  As my 98 year old grandma used to say…everything in moderation.         

    Josh Caldwell April 14 2012

    Just experienced a sister in law that died of this condition. She was a hugh fan of spinning. Not sure if that was really what caused it but all indications are that. Sad thing. She was 48, very fit and eat well. Very eye opening.

    JoAnn August 19 2011

    Hi, Please don’t project your on personal experience as a general fact. We found a very significant increase in average longevity (17%) of the cyclists when compared with the general population. The age at which 50% of the general population died was 73.5 vs. 81.5 years in Tour de France participants. Ie, professional tour-cyclist on average live 8 years LONGER than the rest of the population. Your estimate was off by an astonishing 23 years, which is nearly a third of the average life expectancy of a human being.

    W July 28 2017

    Hello Warren,
    I enjoyed reading the article about endurance athletes like professional cyclists, and it helped to confirm my belief that excessive exercise (or excessive anything else) is bad for the health. However, I dislike generalised comments like ’It’s been said that professional cyclists have a life expectancy of 15 years lower than the average population’.
    It’s been said? By who? surely everything you can think of, no matter how unlikely, has been said by someone, sometime. Was the statement accurate? How was it measured? Just because it seems reasonable and confirms what I believe to be true, does not make it true.
    Please give references for statements of this kind, so we can have confidence that we are reading something more than simply opinion.
    Otherwise, interesting

    Eilish August 19 2011

    Hi John, We always appreciate hearing our customers thoughts regarding our blog content. Have you any specific health concerns that you would like to address? If the information in our blog relates to you we have a superb product; Cardio-Support, which contains a blend of high quality ingredients to support different aspects of cardiovascular and heart health, including arterial integrity, blood health, heart muscle strength and blood flow. We would love to help you further, if you have any questions in respect to this or any of our products please feel free to email us: In good health, Korina

    Customer Relations August 16 2017

    sorry, just accept how u put "extreme" cycling as "bad" for u because u had a bad experience.
    Even though it happens to people, the numbers are extremely low.
    I ride from 3 to 4 hour per day, am 185pnds and love the way feel, on nd off the bike!

    carlos July 30 2012

    I wonder if the study you posted is accurate Rob? After the recent events that have unfolded, it might be possible they misdiagnosed them as healthier than they should have been, and complicity has also been reported.

    Most of them have been juicing and it is a widely known fact that happens to be mentioned by Dean. I actually happen to find it more plausible that Dean’s story is more realistic also having read the pubmed study.

    mystic November 14 2012

    Chris, it was actually Dean, not Warren. Although I’m sure Warren would be flattered by you thinking he was in his early 20s ten years ago :)

    Taffy August 19 2011

    I’m afraid you appear to be misinformed: professional cyclists live, on average, 17% longer than the general population.

    Rob July 15 2012

    Hi Eilish
    My apologies for that, I should have said "I’ve heard that…" because I remember hearing it a few years ago buy cannot find any scientific evidence for this that’s why I didn’t include reference links. It’s plausible that any professional endurance athlete or someone who exercises excessively runs the risk of developing some form of health ailment as a result of constantly pushing their bodies to the limit.
    I’m so sorry to hear about your sister-in-law JoAnn, Sudden Cardiac Death can be difficult to comprehend because the person is usually in excellent physical condition. Thanks for commenting on this, I really appreciate it.

    Xtend-Life Expert August 20 2011

    Dr. Joe Mercola of used to be a marathon runner and trained very hard. He now regrets that and has given up all cardio work except for interval training. Not sure if Warren was doing strictly cardio or not- for what sport was he training and was he doing strength training as well? Long distance endurance athletes look they came out of POW camps- not too healthy looking!


    Chris August 19 2011

    Enlarged heart is a ticking time bomb. The coronary artery supplying the heart does not enlarge with the heart, so you have a large heart that does not get enough blood, which can lead to sudden muscle failure depending on use, which is the cause of the sudden cardiac arrest. When you already have an enlarged heart, try not to expend too much energy which is nutrients because the supply to your heart is not adequate enough to support an enlarged heart, mainly because the coronary artery that supplies blood to your heart does not enlarge to compensate for the increase demand from an enlarged heart. This is why it is a ticking time bomb. As you get older and plaque builds up on the artery walls, it gets even worse for people with enlarged hearts than for people who don’t have enlarged hearts.

    John Le August 15 2017

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