We’ve seen plenty of accidents happen at the gym—barbells to the windpipe Opens a New Window. , kettlebells to the nether regions, and whatever the hell this guy was doing on the cable machine Opens a New Window. . And every runner knows just how dangerous a stray dog or a surprise swarm of hornets Opens a New Window. can be.
But workouts need not involve flying metal or flying insects to turn deadly. No, we’re talking about when athletes push themselves Opens a New Window. —and their bodies—to the point of breaking down, whether from extreme conditions, electrolyte imbalance, or sheer exhaustion.
So we talked to the experts and got their feedback on the most potentially dangerous problems an athlete could face. Make sure you know the warning signs while you’re working out—and exercise wisely, because nothing ruins #legday like a pair of failing kidneys.
Rhabdomyolysis is probably one of the most dangerous conditions, both short-term and long-term, that can result from simply working your body past the point of exhaustion. It happens most often with weightlifters and marathon runners who exhaust their muscles while also dehydrating themselves, particularly in hot conditions. Rhabdo can also be caused by drinking too much booze, and may also be linked with taking too many creatine supplements or anabolic steroids Opens a New Window. , according to the Mayo Clinic Opens a New Window. .
With “rhabdo,” as it’s known, muscle cells actually start to break down and release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream that can damage the kidneys. Symptoms include intense muscle pain and weakness and dark-colored urine; if someone suffering from rhabdo doesn’t get medical attention immediately, their kidneys can sustain permanent damage.
After the MMA fighter Dhafir Harris (a.k.a. Dada 5000) suffered two heart attacks during a February bout against Kimbo Slice Opens a New Window. , he blamed rhabdomyolysis. He admitted that he’d “pushed himself” to lose 40 pounds, and that his kidneys had “locked up” during the fight. “I think that my body was not used to that, because I’m not a full-time fighter,” he said on the Dan LeBatard Show. “I think that my body having so much time being off, and to push it from zero to 60, that could be something to focus on.”
Fortunately, this is a syndrome that’s simple to prevent. We’re all for pushing yourself to the limit, but never go so far that your body starts to break down under the stress. If you’re new to a sport, or you’re ready to embark on a sudden, extreme new exercise technique, then do it under the eye of a trainer who knows what they’re doing—and who isn’t going to grind you into a pulp.
The Fit Guy’s Guide to Rhabdomyolysis: What It Is, Why It Happens, and How to Avoid It Opens a New Window.
2. Electrolyte Imbalance
A hardcore workout—timed with a grueling weight-loss program Opens a New Window. and/or a sudden sugar rush—can throw your body chemistry dangerously off-track in the form of an electrolyte imbalance, which can result from either too much (hyper-) or too little (hypo-) of a given electrolyte.
“If there’s a disruption of key electrolytes Opens a New Window. like potassium, magnesium, or calcium, then that can cause electrical abnormalities in your heart,” says Dr. Michael Ackerman, M.D., a Mayo Clinic cardiologist—and, in extreme cases, result in a heart attack. “We know for sure that extremely rapid weight loss can cause major issues with swings in body electrolytes. That’s enemy number one from these weight-loss programs.”
Sudden weight loss can also be potentially deadly in the form of re-feeding syndrome, which affects people who suddenly eat or drink after conditioning their bodies to a starvation diet.
“Sometimes fighters or wrestlers will [starve themselves] to make weight, and then eat a fair amount after the weigh-in,” says Donald Hensrud, M.D., M.P.H., a Mayo Clinic doctor who specializes in nutrition, obesity, and exercise. “By feeding people too much too fast, it can actually wrench your body out of a compensated situation”—when it’s adjusted to starvation—“and suddenly create all kinds of chaos,” Hensrud says. It can even harm an athlete’s mental sharpness.
When Dada 5000 crumpled to the canvas against Kimbo Slice, it’s possible—albeit difficult to say for sure—that he was suffering from refeeding syndrome brought on by a sudden rush of sugar after a period of intense weight cutting. In turn, the electrolyte imbalance could have (again, can’t say for sure) disrupted his normal cardiac rhythm.
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