The saying ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is pretty applicable when it comes to working out. Place the muscles or cardiovascular system under stress and it strengthens as a response. This is one of the basic principles of training. However there is a rare condition that results from over training called rhabdomyolysis (or rhabdo) that results in the breakdown of muscle tissue, and if untreated quickly, can lead to death.
While uncommon, it is extremely possible in the everyday athlete, with cases reported in regular spin classes, normal HIIT classes, and amongst long distance runners. Essentially, the likelihood of rhabdo hitting increases if you are participating in a repetitive movement. “It can happen with any intense exercise if it involves repetitive motion of a muscle and new movement,” says Maureen Brogan, MD, an associate professor of medicine at New York Medical College in The American Journal of Medicine.
In her paper, Brogan identifies a whopping 91 per cent of her rhabdo patients as athletes who were participating in a highly repetitive exercise program with no prior experience (ie. It was their first class).
“Those are the patients that were most at risk because they may not be conditioned and are using and engaging new muscle groups for the first time at an intense rate,” she says. “So even if you were a different type of athlete like a runner, and then you switch to biking and use quadriceps and gluteus maximus muscles at an intense rate -- that first time, you may be at risk of getting rhabdo.”
Rhabdo involves the breakdown of muscle, and when this broken down muscle enzyme is released into the body, muscle swelling, muscle weakness, dehydration, and kidney failure.
According to the Australian Government, rhabdo is usually diagnosed in hospital, and treated through an intravenous drip to increase fluid and urine production.
While extremely rare, it’s important to note that rhabdo is a real possibility, and there are methods you (and your trainer) can employ to make sure you don’t get struck down during a new workout.
“If you are going to engage in a high-intensity exercise regimen for the first time, you should start out at a level you can handle. If working with a trainer or exercise coach, they should have you do levels of increasing intensity over time, and not hit people so hard the first time out that they end up overworking their muscles to a degree they aren’t trained for. Those are the people who end up in trouble,” advises TS Cutler in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine.