Too Much Water? Not Enough Salt? Hyponatremia in Marathon Runners

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Hyponatremia (low sodium, or “water intoxication”) is a risk for runners with atrial fibrillation. It is certainly a risk for me and I believe I have experienced it a number of times in the past. Personally, I am much bigger than most marathoners (6’3” 205 lbs), and because of that and the atrial fibrillation, much slower – so I’m out there twice as long and sweating twice as much. Plus – over the years it has been drilled into all of us to make sure we drink enough water.

Ironman athletes, ultrarunners, and bigger runners are all at increased risk because we are simply out there for much longer periods of time. Women athletes tend to be at higher risk for hyponatremia – it has been found that women hydrate more during a race.

Drinking enough water is a good idea – but it needs to be accompanied by increasing salt intake.

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Normal levels of sodium are about 135-145 mEq/L. Symptoms are likely to begin at 130 or lower and if you get below 120 the condition may become fatal. While there are a number of medical causes for hyponatremia marathon runners fall into the category of consuming too much water and not enough sodium, and sweating out valuable sodium. Think of the white dried salt on your temple or on your hydration pack straps after a long run.

Symptoms include bloating, headache, swelling (check to see if your ring or wristwatch seems to be getting tight), nausea, vomiting and eventually weakness, restlessness, confusion, and well . . . it just gets worse from there. It is particularly problematic for runners because some of the symptoms (headache, nausea, cramps, and dizziness) are the same symptoms for dehydration so the impulse is to drink more water – which of course makes it worse.

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There is currently an ongoing study at the Houston Marathon involving volunteers who are followed closely, weighed, fluid intake measured, lab studies obtained, etc. The study found that runners with lowered sodium levels drank more water, retained more water than normal volunteers, and they lost more total sodium and had saltier sweat.

Runners who were dehydrated but not hyponatremic had higher heart and respiratory rates, felt worse, and had lower blood pressure than hyponatremic runners. The hyponatremic runners felt better, but had more nausea and bloating.

What can be done?

Drinking less water is sometimes recommended but it is difficult to do when you are used to drinking a lot of water while running. I’ve tried drinking less water during a marathon and frankly I think it made things worse. Also some runners can become hyponatremic without over-doing the water consumption.

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Weighing yourself frequently along the course and looking for weight gain (water retention) has been recommended – YEAH RIGHT! How is this going to happen?

Personally I try to drink water with sodium supplemented (NUUN, GU Brew), and try grabbing some little pretzels at aid stations (if available); but some research suggests this might not always be helpful.

“Watch out for feelings of confusion, nausea, fatigue, and particularly vomiting and swollen hands and feet. If you experience these, seek medical help.”

Fatigue? Really? Fatigue during a marathon – you don’t say? Isn’t that generally a part of the experience?

I don’t have a good answer. I know I’ve had problems with this – I’m clearly in the high risk category for hyponatremia. I also generally have particularly poor races if it is a warm day.

My interventions include

1.) Drinking enough water
2.) Electrolyte supplements in my water (NUUN, Gu Brew)
3.) Additional electrolyte supplementation (SaltStick caps, Endurolytes caps, little pretzels)
4.) Making sure I have a salty snack or meal after a race or long run
5.) Trying to dress so I’m a little cool rather than a little warm

I’d love to read your suggestions – please leave a comment if you have any experience with hyponatremia and suggestions as to how to avoid it.

Update (March 13, 2014):

I found this terrific article posted on Twitter by Dr. Larry Creswell. The key points are quoted below.

KEY POINTS

Most medical scientific organizations recommend low or moderate sodium diets to the general population in order to reduce the risk of high
blood pressure (hypertension).

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of hypertension.

Athletes lose sodium in sweat during exercise. The amount of sodium that is lost during endurance exercise depends on the sweating rate and
the concentration of sodium in the sweat. In turn, sodium loss during exercise depends on individual factors, such as genetics, fitness and heat
acclimatization, as well as the type, intensity and duration of exercise and the external environment.

Sodium ingestion by endurance athletes does not typically increase blood pressure, so low sodium diets are not recommended for individuals
who participate in long-term aerobic exercise.

Sodium ingestion during or following endurance exercise will help to stimulate thirst and drinking as well as stimulate fluid retention by the kidney.

No athletes are immune to hypertension, so athletes should monitor their blood pressure as they do their general health. This is particularly
important for older athletes, athletes with a genetic predisposition to hypertension, stroke or other cardiovascular disease.

Next Event – Vernonia Marathon Sunday, April 13, 2014

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Training on the OC&E near Sprague River, Oregon

I’ve signed up for a Spring marathon – specifically the Vernonia Marathon. It is in Northern Oregon – North and West of Portland – a part of the state that I have never visited. I think this might be my 18th or 19th marathon but I’m not sure.

I just did my first true long run and I feel pretty good. I informally classify runs like this: two to six miles are shorter runs, like mid-week type runs. Medium long runs are nine to twelve miles. I’ll usually try to do a nine to twelve mile run every weekend even if I’m not training for anything. In fact, if I’m not training for anything at all sometimes that’s my only run of the week (with mountain biking or hiking on other days). I think of a true long run as being fourteen miles and up. There’s something about that distance that, for me, seems pretty serious. Anything over thirteen requires more fortitude.

I didn’t just start training for an April marathon this weekend – I’ve been training for weeks – but my weekend long runs have only been eleven to twelve miles.

As far as my atrial fibrillation is concerned nothing has changed – I remain in atrial fibrillation all the time, my running has slowed, and I need to make sure I drink enough water and eat something salty afterwards. After the fourteen miler I went through the drive through at Burger King and bought each of the dogs a cheap burger from the value menu (the dogs aren’t vegan), and just an order of fries (with salt) for me. This way I avoid the dizziness I sometimes get from standing up after a long run.

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Sophie Tired After a Long Run

The Vernonia Marathon course is on a paved bike trail. This is the first Rails to Trails project in Oregon – the OC&E Woods Line State Trail being the second. I chose it because I like to train on the OC&E and have completed the Bizz Johnson Marathon (on an un-paved rail trail) seven times.

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Sophie on Paved Portion of the OC&E Trail

I dislike running on pavement so hopefully there will be a dirt trail off to the side of the paved part. If not – well, a paved trail seems a lot softer because it is simply pavement on top of gravel as opposed to pavement on top of concrete (which is what our local streets are.)

I expect the Vernonia Marathon should be a small, informal, fun race and I won’t know anybody there except for my friend Claude who is also going to run it.

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Winter Training

My race strategy is to start out slow and then take it easy. The course profile looks hilly – but how steep can a rail trail be? Trains can’t go up more than a one or two percent grade, right? I think the hills will be gradual – like the Bizz Johnson course.

Funny – I always enjoy the training much more than the actual races.

If anybody has any experience with this event please comment below. See you there.

Atrial Fibrillation News Update

Here are a few internet news stories related to atrial fibrillation. In the future I’ll try to update more frequently so I don’t end up with four topics in one blog entry.

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Overall, the increase in risk of heart attack was about 70% in AF patients, even after accounting for other cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, body mass index, and history of stroke and vascular disease. However, when the researchers looked at subgroups, they found that increased risk of heart attack was more than doubled in women and African Americans with AF—but less than 50% for men and whites with AF.

I’m not sure what to say about this – hopefully runners with atrial fibrillation (who hopefully also have other heart healthy lifestyle choices – like a healthy diet, not smoking, reasonable body weight) will do better than the general population. One bit of good news – the blood thinners a fib patients take to prevent stroke also seem to help prevent heart attacks.

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“Novel” anticoagulants refers to the newer prescription anticoagulants that are used as an alternative to Coumadin (warfarin). Specifically: Pradaxa (which is the one I currently take), Xarelto, and Eliquis.

I can tell you that as a clinician there are not many things more frustrating than prescribing medications for people who are on Coumadin – it seems like it interacts with everything! One of the great things about the newer anticoagulants is that they have less drug interactions – but they still do have potential drug interactions.

Please click on the link to see tables for drug interactions involving Pradaxa (Dabigatran), Xarelto (Rivaroxaban), and Eliquis (Apixaban).

Obviously all of the novel anticoagulants can interact with any other drug that is *ALSO* an anticoagulant – like Plavix or aspirin. Keep in mind that this includes NSAIDs like Alleve (naproxen), Motrin (ibuprofen), etc.

Personally, I completely avoid taking ibuprofen and naproxen – but every once in a while (like after a brutal long run) I will take a Celebrex. Tylenol (Acetaminophen) is fine – no interactions with the anticoagulants (although it has its own issues).

By the way – if you read the article and see a possible drug interaction please don’t stop taking any of your meds – but contact your own doctor immediately for advice.

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A recent study has shown that Coumadin (warfarin) actually increases the risk of stroke for people in atrial fibrillation during the FIRST THIRTY DAYS of warfarin therapy. That’s just the first thirty days – the idea is to prevent having a stroke, and that’s what taking Coumadin does.

This finding does not suggest that anything will change – doctors are still going to put people on warfarin to prevent stroke. They just have to get through the first thirty days!

If you are on warfarin and you read this article – please do not stop taking your medication.

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Finally – the FDA has not yet approved the Watchman left atrial appendage closure device by Boston Scientific – but it has given a “vote of confidence.” It appears that this gadget, which is implanted in the left atrium to prevent the formation of the clots that cause strokes, may be approved by the FDA for the US market late this year. The majority of the panel agreed that the Watchman was equivalent to standard treatment with warfarin, but it hasn’t been compared to the new novel anticoagulants (see above).

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Atrial Fibrillation Stroke Calculator

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Atrial Fibrillation Stroke Calculator

I saw this link today on Facebook and thought I would share it – it is an AF Stroke Risk Calculator, and was posted by the Atrial Fibrillation Association – a great resource for people with atrial fibrillation. As you probably know one of the greatest risks of being afflicted with atrial fibrillation is that it can lead to you having a stroke. Blood clots can form in the malfunctioning atrium, break loose, travel to the brain and – BOOM!!!! – you’ve had a stroke. Prevention is the best approach.

This calculator is basically a clever automated version of the CHADS2 score. I was delighted to find my risk is 0%.

But if course my risk is definitely higher than zero percent – even if my CHADS2 score is zero.

My heart is abnormal in more ways than the atrial fibrillation. I have hypertrophy of my left ventricle (from running – not a risk factor) but I also have “severe hypertrophy” of my left atrium (the top chamber of the heart) which my cardiologist assures me is a risk factor for stroke and although my CHADS2 remains zero I am on an anticoagulant (Pradaxa).

My question has been: Why not include left atrial hypertrophy in the CHADS2 calculation?

Answer: I dunno.

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Lillian and Lolawanda ready for another trail run

My other question has been: What else can I do to reduce my risk of a stroke?

I understand my risk is NOT zero, regardless of what this calculator says.

Obviously one thing I know I can do is to remember to take my Pradaxa twice daily. Believe me, for somebody who is only taking one medication it isn’t as easy to remember as you might think. I have considered switching to Xarelto simply because of the once a day dosing.

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My Pradaxa

But other than that what else can I do? One more thing (I think) – stay well hydrated.

As a large, slow, long distance runner (who is often on the trail for several hours at a time) I sweat more than smaller runners, and I have to be very careful not to become dehydrated. I spoke with a friend of mine who is an Internists/hospitalist and he agreed – don’t become dehydrated. Being dehydrated can literally thicken the blood and increase the chance on a clot, and therefore increase the chance of a stroke.

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Be Careful Out There!

How much water should a person drink? I have no specific prescription but what I do is try to drink enough so that my urine is relatively clear once per day. Also there is such a thing as too much water and big, middle-aged distance runners are at relatively high risk of hyponatremia (too much water – not enough sodium) so be careful out there!

We talked about other risk factors are there? Risk factors for blood clots in the legs include being inactive, obesity, and smoking – probably less likely for the readers of this blog.

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Sedentary after a LONG RUN

What about alcohol? Does that increase the risk? He said probably not and in moderation might even decrease the risk – but remember – alcohol clearly increases your risk of atrial fibrillation – and if you drink enough alcohol you will become dehydrated – so there you go!

By the way – don’t expect this this risk calculator or this blog to advise you as to whether or not you should take your aspirin, your warfarin (Coumadin), your Xarelto, or your Pradaxa. It is important that you make this decision with your doctor.

Run, Smile, Drink Water and Don’t Die – A Guest Post by JoAnna Brogdon

Once upon a time there was a girl that loved to run just for the fun of it. She woke up early one morning on a cold and rainy March morning, excited to run the Rock Creek River Gorge Trail Run at Prentice-Cooper State Forest, just outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. She had run this race before and was wowed by the gorgeous gorge views and challenging single track trails.

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She signed up for the 10.2 mile run but wasn’t feeling exactly right that morning. She couldn’t put her finger on it. She was just a little off but that wasn’t going to stop her! She bounced out of bed and decided to do the 6.5 mile option instead of the 10.2—a decision that turned out to be one of the best she ever made.

The start was a little fast. Everyone was ready to get moving on the chilly and very wet morning. Soon the 158 runners headed into the woods and formed a single line, slowing the pace which was a good thing. The trails were incredibly slippery with tons of thick mud after much rain that winter. One runner took a face plant when crossing the creek and came up with a big gash on his forehead and blood dripping down his face.

“Are you OK said the girl?”

“Yes, I am just happy to be out here,” he responded.

“Me, too!” she replied. There were smiles on everyone’s faces as they headed up steep hills and carefully focused on the each step.

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At the half way mark, she was feeling OK but a little more tired than usual. No problem she said to herself, just having an off day. It was time to focus on other things, talk to people, make some jokes and carry on. She found a guy wearing a shirt that said, “Idiot Runner’s Club – Run, Smile, Drink Water and Don’t Die.” This sounds like my kind of runner thought the girl! They chatted and laughed about how slow they were going but how happy they were to be there instead of sitting on a couch or still sleeping in bed. The mud was so thick that their shoes nearly got sucked off but happily they went up yet another hill.

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Even though she wasn’t moving very quickly, her heart was starting to race quite fast. She slowed down and was walking more than running. She put her hands in the air a few times feeling like it was getting a little hard to breathe. Just focus on the gorgeous trails and it will be over soon, she told herself.

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There is that Idiot Runner again. He caught up and they were passing each other back and forth. It was time for more chatting and laughter. Only a few more hills and it will be time to relax and enjoy the day. One final push, climbing up through the narrow Indian Rockhouse and the race is almost over.

It is only 6.5 miles, she thought why does this feel so hard? She had run 50Ks and didn’t feel this bad. There goes a female racer. She will have to see if she can catch her but just felt so tired and ready to stop. Then she heard the crowd and knew that the end was near. She pushed as hard as she could one final time to make it to the finish line—she did it! And then she decided to sit down for a minute, she really didn’t feel so good … and then there was darkness …

…what is that noise?

She was waking up and heard a loud noise – it was her heart pounding at an incredible rate and a bright light in the distance. Someone was saying something to her, if she could only get to the light. She woke and found herself inside the medic tent with two physicians by her side. Her legs were cramping with the worst pain she had ever felt. Where was she? What had just happened? What was her name? Which hospital did she want to go to? So many questions…

She was being placed in an ambulance and sent to the local hospital. She was in rapid rate Atrial Fibrillation and needed a Cardizem drip to get her rate down. They admitted her to the hospital and the nurse came by to explain what A Fib meant. She drew a nice picture for the girl.

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She learned that A fib occurs when one or both of the upper chambers of the heart – called the atria – don’t beat the way they should. This can cause blood to pool in the left atrium, where a blood clot can form. If that clot breaks away, it can travel to the brain, where it can cause a type of stroke called an ischemic stroke.

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Two and half days in the hospital she waited for the meds to convert her heart back to normal sinus rhythm. They placed a band on her wrist that said “fall risk” – they had no idea.

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The doctor decided the only way to get her heart back to normal rhythm was to cardioconvert using an electric shock. She was wheeled down to the operating area and what a surprise– she saw the two doctors that were at the race. One was a cardiologist and the other was an anesthesiologist for cardiology. They were chatting and laughing and encouraging her that it was all going to be OK. Her cardiologist was running late and it delayed the procedure. He was known for this as he always took time with his patients. Right as the doctor arrived; the nurse looked at the monitor and said wait—she converted on her own! We don’t need to shock her heart. The girl was happy and believed that it was actually going to be OK— maybe not happily ever after but OK. She smiled as she remembered the new friend she had just met on the trail…

“Run, Smile, Drink Water and Don’t Die.” Now those were words to live by.

The End.

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JoAnna Brogdon, forty-three years old, went into a fib several times since the race and was hospitalized twice. She has no underlying chronic conditions and the doctors are unable to tell her why she has had a fib. She believes the worst part of the condition was the emotional stress and not being able to exercise as she had in the past. She underwent a cardiac ablation recently and her heart has been beating normally since. She is hopeful that she has put a fib behind her at least for now and looks forward to running, traveling and feeling normal again. JoAnna wants to support those that struggle with a fib and may be contacted at joannabrogdon@hotmail.com.

New Blog – Colombia Travel Journal

I have a new blog. It’s a single 16,000 word entry – my travel journal from our trip to Colombia during Spring of 2012. That was about two months before I went into persistent (permanent) atrial fibrillation. I was running nearly every day back then and reviewing the journal I realize how much I have slowed down since going into atrial fibrillation. Oh well.

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Here is the new blog: http://colombiajogging.wordpress.com/

For information on running and bicycling while in atrial fibrillation – just keep scrolling down.

Rejoice – Not All Runners in Atrial Fibrillation Are Slow

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Moore Mountain 1/2 Marathon

The thing I enjoy most about the afibrunner blog is comments from other athletes who are dealing with atrial fibrillation. A recent comment from a runner (we’ll call him “Lon”) really caught my attention – here is a runner who, while in atrial fibrillation, was able to race at six minute mile pace (or better).

Here are some excerpts from his comments:


Way to Go!!!
Since 1983 I’ve run/jogged 59 full marathons and have suffered with A-fib on and off for the last 12 years. I’ve finished the Boston (2001 in 3:23) and NY City (2005 in 4:15) marathons while in constant A-fib while carefully monitoring my heart rate. My cardiologists encouraged me to run marathons and also triathlons. One cardiologist told me that my heart is so strong that it laughs at A-fib and that I have the heart of an olympic cyclist. For the first 6 months of this year my heart was in constant A-fib that no drugs or multiple cardioversions could put it back into normal sinus rhythm. On July 9, 2013 I had the “Wolf Mini-Maze” (at the International A-fib Center of Excellence in Indianapolis) operation done on my heart. It was a great success and my heart has been in constant normal rhythm ever since (nearly 6 months now and I’m not taking any medications). In the Mini-Maze they removed my Left Atrial Appendage (LAA) so that if my heart ever goes back into constant A-fib I will NOT meed anticoagulant therapy. As you likely know life threatening blood clots tend to form in the LAA when your heart is in constant A-fib. The risk of stroke over the life time of an A-fib patient is huge. 3 out of 5 A-fib patients will suffer a stroke in their life even while taking anticoagulation meds like coumadin. That is a statistic that your doctor will not likely tell you about. Coumadin is over rated and is simply not very effective for some people which should be a terrifying realization to anyone dealing with A-fib. Anyway, as much as I love marathons, I’m laying off the long distance jogging for a while and am just jogging 10K’s (one per moth and 3 sprint triathlons this Summer) as well as several other physical activities.
Good health to you!
Lon

I have lamented that atrial fibrillation has made me slow, while openly admitting that I started out slow – I’ve only ran, as far as I know, one six minute mile in my entire life – and that was thirty years ago.

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Finish Line – Eugene Marathon

My understanding about atrial fibrillation is that the atria no longer preload the ventricles, and most people have a decrease of about 20% of their cardiac output. While sedentary people might not even notice this athletes certainly would. I do!

But I have heard that in some patients, certain athletes, there is little change in cardiac output and atrial fibrillation will not affect performance much. Lon seems like one of these fortunate people. Lon’s point about the increased risk of stroke (even if you take your Coumadin, Pradaxa, or Xarelto) is well taken – and I’m guessing that that is why he continued to pursue an effective treatment for his atrial fibrillation.

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Finish Line – Haulin’ Aspen Marathon

But after all those marathons Lon states he is no longer running endurance events – he goes on to elaborate:

Here’s a little more. I tried not to make a long story short above. I left out mentioning that I had a radio-frequency catheter ablation in June 2010 in Seattle that worked great in keeping my heart in normal rhythm until December 2012 when suddenly for no apparent reason went into persistent A-fib. (During that 2 1/2 year period I finished 9 full marathons and 8 sprint triathlons) My heart stayed in persistent A-fib even after 4 cardioversions and large doses of amiodarone. My cardiologists in Seattle told me that I should accept my persistent A-fib and they offered to ablate my hearts pace makers (AV and SA nodes) and give me an electronic pacemaker so that my heart rate can be controlled. That told me that I needed a second opinion so I started communications with Dr. Randall Wolf in Indianapolis about his Mini-Maze procedure. After consultations with an E.D. doctor (and a championship Iron Man triathlete) who had the Mini-maze operation and was very happy with the results, I decided to get the Wolf Mini-Maze and of course I informed my Seattle cardiologists of my intentions and they said to go for it. Absolutely the main reason that I went for the Wolf Mini-Maze is that it removes the left atrial appendage which brings my risk of stroke down to that of a healthy person with a normal healthy heart while not taking any anticoagulation drugs. The fact that I now enjoy a normal heart beat is just a huge plus factor.

From 1983 until December 2012 I completed 61 full marathons a most of which ran with all out efforts (I’ve averaged sub-6 minute pace all the way). I’m now finding out that long distance running is simply not good for the heart and most likely caused my A-fib problem.

Google Dr. John Mandrola’s 18 minute video called “Cycling Wed: I told you so…”. It is very illuminating and a must see for all endurance athletes. Please check that out.
Cordially,
Lon

I don’t know much about the Wolf Mini-Maze procedure and don’t necessarily advocate it for everybody, but clearly it worked in Lon’s specific situation. Here is some information regarding the Wolf Mini-Maze.

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Finish Line – Lake of the Woods 15K

No need to Google the video by Dr O’Keefe (posted on Dr Mandrola’s blog) I have the link right HERE.

Here’s the video:

If you don’t feel like watching the eighteen minute video I will summarize it for you – Exercise is good for you but in moderation. Too much or too intense exercise causes chronic inflammation of the heart and can ultimately harm the heart (atrial fibrillation, among other risks).

But if you are an endurance athlete dealing with atrial fibrillation you already know this – surely you have had a dozen or so friends and relatives, possibly sedentary and/or obese, kindly forward you information about the study he refers to – as if to justify their seemingly wise choice to avoid marathons and triathlons and replace it by watching other people play sports on television. Yes, this study was in all the newspapers and magazines last year.

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Finish Line – Avenue of the Giants Marathon

Please understand, and I paraphrase here, that Dr O’Keefe states that exercise is good for your heart, and being obese and sedentary is bad for your heart – but that overdoing it is a problem. He didn’t say people should avoid exercising.

My choice – I understand the concept of the “law of diminishing returns” as well as the next guy; but for me, well, I enjoy long, slow trail runs and mountain bike rides more than just about anything else I can think of – so I chose to continue.

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Finish Line – Bizz Johnson 50K (I completed the 50K in atrial fibrillation)