The Hidden Dangers of Extreme Exercise

It’s Saturday morning and you wake to a text from your buddy. He’s got a killer new workout he wants you to try with him… that is, if you’re brave enough. He says it’s supposed to be crazy intense, only for the strongest of strong. Never one to back away from a challenge, you say you’re in. After all, how hard could it be?

A couple hours later, you have your answer. Your muscles are throbbing and you feel completely and utterly exhausted. The worst part? You’re only halfway into the workout. With your pride on the line, you stay quiet and see it through to the end. It isn’t until later in the day, when the excruciating pain persists and you pee dark, brown urine, that you start to worry. A visit to your doctor confirms it. You’re not just suffering from the usual post-workout fatigue. You’ve got Rhabdomyolysis – a rare but life-threatening condition triggered by extreme exercise and muscle injury.

We all know some pain is par for the course when you’re working out. In fact, most of us try to feel the burn when we’re lifting weights. It’s proof that we’re serious about results, and not just training for fun. But a little pain is different than the feeling caused by Rhabdomyolysis, or Rhabdo for short. Rhabdo typically occurs after high-intensity exercises like weight lifting, running, spinning, or CrossFit. It can lead to extreme muscle aches and weakness to the point of struggling to move your arms, legs, or other affected areas. You may also feel nauseous, dizzy, and prone to vomiting.

So what causes Rhabdo? In short, extreme muscle strain. Your muscle fibers become so overworked that they die and release their contents into the bloodstream. This, in turn, can lead to serious kidney complications, where your kidneys cannot remove waste and concentrated urine. It also causes severe pain. In rare cases, Rhabdo may lead to death.

Rhabdo typically strikes the untrained athlete – the person who has limited exercise experience, who tries to do too much too soon. It’s the same person who doesn’t know his body’s limits yet, or when to call it quits.

But it’s not just untrained athletes who are susceptible. Anyone who goes in full speed with a workout they aren’t accustomed to (elite athletes included) can get Rhabdo. In fact, the situation can even be more dangerous for professional athletes if they have more muscle mass to break down. Documented cases of Rhabdo also exist among soldiers, firefighters, and others who regularly take part in a physically demanding activity.

So, you’ve read this far and now you’re starting to worry. Should you cancel your next workout? Opt for a light walk around the block instead of your usual run? Absolutely not!

Exercise is always a good idea, and true results only come with effort. The key is to listen to your body, know your limits, and not be afraid to stop when you need to. Who cares if your trainer is yelling at you to keep going, or your buddy doesn’t seem at all winded while you’re sweating buckets? If you’re genuinely struggling, then you need to push your pride aside and call it a day.

Another crucial step is to always ease into a new, high-intensity workout routine. Don’t go in at full force. This is especially important if you’ve been on an extended break from the gym or can’t remember when you exercised last. The last thing you want to do is start lifting like a competitive bodybuilder after a six-month hiatus. Instead, start by doing a less-intense version of the program first, or just one set versus multiple sets and reps.

Even if you’ve been exercising regularly for years, don’t suddenly catapult to a new intensity level. Ramp up to it slowly, over an extended period of time. Again, it’s not about avoiding high-intensity workouts. It’s about easing into them.

We’ve already mentioned the extreme muscle aches, pain, and weakness associated with Rhabdo. So how can you tell if what you’re feeling is normal or cause for concern?

Pay close attention to your body during and after your workouts. Generally speaking, you should feel better after a workout than you felt going into. A tell-tale warning sign is dark red or brown urine, or decreased urination. Call your doctor right away if this occurs. Other symptoms may include abdominal pain, fever, rapid heart rate, confusion, dehydration, or lack of consciousness.

If you have Rhabdo, you will be admitted to a hospital for treatment with intravenous (IV) fluids to help get your kidneys back on track. In rare cases, dialysis treatment will be needed to filter waste from your kidneys while they are recovering. Depending on the severity of your case, surgical treatment may be required or you may need to stay in the intensive care unit (ICU) under close watch. If not treated early enough, Rhabdo can lead to lasting damage or death.

Although the numbers seem high – about 26,000 cases of Rhabdo are reported in the U. S. each year* – the condition is extremely rare. Most cases are also reversible, especially with early diagnosis. Now that you know the signs and symptoms of Rhabdo, you’ll be that much more prepared to prevent it!

About the Author: Nicole Kepic

Nicole Kepic is a fitness & nutrition expert who specializes in health, wellness, and lifestyle writing. She has also had articles published in a variety of fitness and bodybuilding magazines. When she’s not busy writing for her clients, Nicole is either keeping active with her family or dreaming of her next sunny vacation.

Disclaimer: This content is for informational purposes only and is not meant as medical advice, nor is it to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Please consult your physician before starting or changing your diet or exercise program. Any use of this information is at the sole discretion and responsibility of the user.