Health checks you need to ace - because running does not grant you full immunity, says Kristin Pladson.
The chances are, you’ve memorised all your personal bests and race split times – but do you know what your blood pressure is? ‘Many runners think that because they’re athletic, they won’t suffer from health problems such as high blood pressure or diabetes,’ says Dr Mark Harrast, medical director of the Seattle Marathon. But no matter how much you run, he says, you can’t change risk factors such as your genes or your age. The best way to safeguard your health is to catch troublesome issues early by adding screenings to your diary.
Here, we take you through the whats, whens and whys of four key medical checks.
What is it? There are no early symptoms of high blood pressure (BP), but the longer it goes unnoticed – and untreated – the more damage occurs to your heart and blood vessels, upping your chances of a heart attack or stroke. However, running does keep BP in check, because exercise helps dilate the body’s blood vessels. Still, Harrast warns against assuming you’re immune. Approximately one in five UK adults may
have high BP, yet many don’t know it. Your risk increases with age, while high salt, saturated fat and alcohol intake can also aggravate the condition.
When to screen Start at age 18; then every year.
Healthy range Blood pressure should be under 120/80 mmHg.
What is it? Some cholesterol – a waxy, fatty substance – is necessary to build healthy cell membranes. But whatever the body doesn’t use can cause harm. The ‘bad’ form (LDL) clings to the arteries, impeding blood flow to your heart. The ‘good’ form (HDL) soaks up and removes excess cholesterol. Increasing good cholesterol is as beneficial as decreasing bad, say doctors. Lacing up is a great way to boost HDL, but because the precise reasons behind the sport’s positive impact aren’t fully understood, even the fittest runners shouldn’t take healthy levels for granted.
When to screen Start at age 40; then as advised by your doctor.
Healthy range Total cholesterol below 5 millimoles per litre (mmol/L); LDL below 3mmol/L.
What is it? Iron is the key to the production of haemoglobin, which ferries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. If haemoglobin is low, your workouts may pay the price. (Runners already tend toward lower iron stores because of increased blood volume.) Yet there are no alarm bells that announce early iron deficiency. Symptoms – fatigue, achy joints, muscle soreness and sliding performance – match up to other things such as flu or overtraining. But if iron stores aren’t returned to a healthy state (through diet and supplementation), heart problems may arise.
When to screen As symptoms occur; women and vegetarians may want to ask their GP about preventative screenings.
Healthy range Men: 75-175 µg/dL; women: 65-165 µg/dL.
What is it? Derived from carbs, blood sugar (aka glucose) is a source of bodily fuel. The hormone insulin moves sugar from the blood to the cells. With type 2 diabetes (the most common form), the cells either ignore the insulin or the body doesn’t produce enough. Glucose then builds up, leading to problems. Running lowers blood-sugar levels as your muscles burn glucose, but that
doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get checked – especially if you have a family history of diabetes. Symptoms: you might feel thirstier, hungrier and more tired, or make more trips to the bathroom.
When to screen Start at age 40 (earlier if family history); then once a year.
Healthy range 4-6 mmol/L before meals; under 7.8 mmol/L after a meal.