Like many masters athletes, I’ve had my fair share of the types of injuries, setbacks, and low moments that can happen over years of training, competing, and working toward personal fitness goals. For many athletes, those setbacks can be as simple as being sidelined from a muscle strain to as complex as recovering from major surgery. My newest setback has been dealing with an arrhythmia.
Since I last wrote about my ski training a couple of years ago, I’ve continued to be on a masters cross-country ski team and have trained year-round in several sports. Two seasons ago I skied my 15th 51k American Birkebeiner ski marathon. But soon after that I started feeling winded while walking up a flight of stairs at work. As I was doubled over trying to catch my breath, I thought it was odd because I was in such good shape.
I continued to be out of breath during the simplest of activities, and I figured that maybe I had a virus or something. But over Memorial Day weekend, 2015, on a long bike ride with a friend over the hills of northern Wisconsin (the same area as the hilly Birkie trail), I nearly fell off my bike as I tried to catch my breath climbing a routine rolling hill. I stopped and looked at my heart-rate monitor, which showed almost 170 bpm, instead a normal 120-something. The pulse in my neck was beating erratically, and I could feel my heart in my chest pounding to a funky rhythm. I worried that maybe I could have a heart attack and warned my friend that he should be prepared to help if I suddenly fell over.
After I rested for a while, my heart rate calmed enough to resume riding. But it continued skipping throughout the 60-mile ride, and I struggled to catch my breath. (Yes, in hindsight it was probably not the best decision to continue riding, but we were miles from anywhere, and cell-phone coverage was weak at best. So I powered on, with crazy, middle-age denial being my motivator.)
Within a couple of weeks I saw a doctor who did an EKG. The printout was alarming and showed my heart indeed beating very erratically. He sent me for a series of heart tests that included running on a treadmill while hooked up to an EKG, an echocardiogram and, later, a CT scan with dye. Fortunately, I didn’t have any blockages or other structural problems. But the tests showed that I was having PVCs, or premature ventricular contractions, an electrical misfiring in one of the heart’s chambers. My doctor sent me home wearing a Holter monitor, which I wore for two days to track every heartbeat. When I got the results back a week later they showed 44,000 irregular beats during those two days. Given that high number, I was surprised when the cardiologist told me I could resume my activities and to just monitor I how felt going forward. So over the past year, when I tried to ski, cycle, and run, my heart skipped a lot and I continued feeling breathless. Exercising was now uncomfortable — and a little scary, because I didn’t know how hard I could go or if I was doing more damage than not. I cut way back on my workouts and mostly started walking. Sadly, I had to skip skiing in last year’s Birkie and didn’t ski much last winter at all; I also didn’t ride with my weekly cycling group. I went from being active almost daily, enjoying the camaraderie of friends, to mostly walking by myself.
As in any recovery, I had to manage my disappointment and expectations. And not expending the energy of my typical exercise caused my sleep to suffer, compounding the problems.
Now, after a year of doing only minimal activity, my heart still skips beats but not as badly. I’m hoping that all that easy walking has been helpful. Later this year, my cardiologist wants to discuss a procedure called an ablation, which cauterizes the misfiring section of the heart. But for now, I’m increasing my activities and have started training once again for next year’s Birkie. Let’s hope! As summer ends, I’ve just enjoyed my first official road ride of the year. And I’m back to roller skiing — not too intensely at first — and it’s fantastic to get out there again. (Find my video on our Instagram at @ExperienceLifeMag.)
As I track my road back, I plan to increase my training, get better sleep, and maintain good balance between work and life — always a good goal — all while monitoring the effects on my heart.
I’m not alone in developing an arrhythmia as an athlete. There’s growing awareness among masters athletes and some in the medical community of an increased occurrence of heart trouble in athletes. For our in-depth story on how long-term, intense endurance exercise may contribute to heart problems, see “Out of Rhythm.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing PVCs or any other heart-related arrhythmia, it’s important to get checked out immediately. I was fortunate that my situation wasn’t worse, because sometimes arrhythmias can, indeed, be life threatening.
Steve Waryan is Experience Life’s copy chief.
Listen in as Steve discusses his arrhythmia and recovery process with senior fitness editor Maggie Fazeli Fard: