A Cautionary Tale: How Cycling Saved My Life

By Coach David Ertl, Ph.D.

If you have read my eBook Pedal Off The Pounds (POTP), you know that it is filled with tips on healthy eating. While the eBook if focused on eating for weight loss, most of the suggestions are designed for healthy living as well, including heart health.

CoachErtl with bike.webPOTP discusses eating whole, unprocessed foods that are rich in nutrients and low in empty calories. When I wrote the book, I based it on the diet that I have come to eat and live by. I walk the talk. It has helped me stay lean as I have gotten older. And I was hoping it would keep me free of the diseases of civilization: cancer, diabetes and heart disease. So I was shocked recently to learn that I had a blocked coronary artery!

Mine is a cautionary tale that I’m sharing with you in hopes that you can avoid the same outcome, or at least discover it early enough to treat it without it taking a larger toll. Here’s my story and a few life lessons.

Bad Cold, Burning Lungs, Ongoing Symptoms

Early last summer I had a bad chest cold. When I resumed riding after taking some time off, I had quite a cough, and my lungs burned. After several months, multiple visits to my doctor and various tests and treatments, nothing seemed to be working.

My wife convinced me to get a second opinion and wondered why my doctor hadn’t ordered a stress test. I had discussed this with my doctor, but he said my symptoms didn’t fit angina. So I followed my wife’s advice and went to a different general practitioner. The first thing he did was order a stress test to rule out heart issues.

Neither of us expected that my heart was the problem. Among the possible culprits the doctor mentioned were gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or my ribs. When I did the stress test, the echocardiogram showed that part of my left ventricle was not functioning fully.

While a number of reasons could be the cause, the cardiologist suggested I get an angiogram to rule out a blocked artery. I decided to do that to be sure my heart was healthy for the rigorous training that I do. The angiogram discovered that my lateral anterior descending artery that feeds the left ventricle was 90% clogged. My cardiologist was able to insert a stent and open it up to 100%.

I was in shock when I found out about this. Here I am, Mr. Pedal Off The Pounds, and I have a clogged artery. Obviously, as a cycling coach and author, I want to set a good example – not be a cautionary tale. I want people to eat healthfully, exercise and avoid things like heart disease.

My Cycling Lifestyle Saved My Life

Hopefully, as you read this, you won’t say: “Look at him; he does all the right things and it doesn’t matter.” Because I believe it did matter that I have followed my own advice over the years. In fact, I believe that cycling saved my life in more ways than one.

First, because of my cycling I have always been interested in nutrition and eating healthfully. If I hadn’t eaten this way, who knows how long I would have lasted with my genes. Second, I believe all the training I have done for all these years strengthened my heart and allowed it to keep functioning despite poor blood circulation. I still can’t believe how hard and fast I was riding and racing with this much blockage. Third, I only felt symptoms while cycling. I didn’t get them on a treadmill or elliptical machine, only when I was bent over on my bike. If it wasn’t for cycling, my first symptom may have been my last!

I have always had “borderline high” LDL (or bad) cholesterol readings despite my healthy diet. I didn’t want to start a regime of statins for the rest of my life and thought that I could keep it under control with diet and exercise. My HDL (good cholesterol) has always been very high, my triglycerides very low and my C-reactive protein readings (inflammation marker) were very low. So other than LDL, the rest of those measures were great.

Here Are My Life Lessons

1) Get regular check-ups. An annual physical is a good idea, no matter how you feel, or what shape you think you’re in. Often, heart ailments – especially – are not readily apparent in your daily life, and can devastate you all at once if not diagnosed and treated. (My symptoms only presented when I was riding, not while doing “upright” exercises.)

2) If you don’t feel right, get it checked out and don’t stop checking until you identify the cause. As athletes, we tend to be more in tune with our bodies and notice every little thing, but at the same time we often tend to believe we are invincible and may be reluctant, as I was, to think it could be something serious. Even though we are fit, bad things can still happen to us.

3) Even if your symptoms don’t match up perfectly with a specific disease or injury, don’t ignore them. My doctor didn’t think I was experiencing angina and thus didn’t think a stress test was in order.

4) If you aren’t satisfied with what your doctor is doing (or not doing), don’t be afraid to get a second (or third) opinion. No one has as much interest in your health as you do, so take control.

5) Pay attention to your cholesterol levels and consider medication if you cannot get your readings down to recommended levels. None of us wants to be on a medication for life, but I now wish I had controlled mine sooner.

6) Keep exercising and eating healthfully. Doing so may not prevent heart disease or cancer, but you will be a lot better off and much better able to withstand the disease and recover if you are as healthy as you can be. (The same goes for recovering from an injury or surgery like total knee replacement or hip replacement; if you’re strong and in good shape going in, you will recover better and faster.)

7) Listen to your spouse/friends/loved ones. Sometimes they do know more than you do, or at least are more objective!

So what do I do now?

I am going to continue to ride and stay in shape. I am going to continue to eat what I preach in Pedal Off The Pounds.

But one thing I’m going to do differently is make an effort to avoid starches. Because of all my riding, and because my weight was under control, I didn’t worry too much about starches. They are great cycling fuel, and I was burning them off.

But the more I read, the more I realize that fast-burning, high-glycemic carbs such as starches in flour, potatoes and white rice may contribute to heart disease. And I am now on Lipitor, a statin. My LDL is already down to 90, so it’s getting closer to the goal range of 70. Obviously, I was unable to control it through diet and exercise, so I’ve accepted the need for help.

One last observation. As I’ve been reading about heart disease lately, I am interested and pleased to see that many of the recommendations for heart health line up very well with Pedal Off The Pounds: Eat lean protein; avoid saturated and trans fat; eat healthy fat (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fats/oils); eat lots of colorful fruits and vegetables; avoid processed sugars and starches, and don’t overeat. These are still good rules to lose weight by, and good rules to live by.


Coach David Ertl is a USA Level 1 cycling coach with the Peaks Coaching Group. He also is a national coach for the JDRF Ride To Cure Diabetes Charity Ride program and writes the training blogs for RAGBRAI, the weeklong ride across Iowa every summer. He has written more than 10 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach David Ertl, including the best-selling Pedal Off the Pounds. Click to read David's full bio.

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