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How Sport Affects Your Veins...and Vice Versa

How Sport Affects Your Veins...and Vice Versa

One of the most common pieces of advice we hear from our doctors is to exercise regularly. From managing our weight to improving cardiovascular health, it’s no secret that physical activity is good, while a sedentary life can lead to any number of health problems. This is great news for those of us who genuinely enjoy getting out and about.

But while exercise is undoubtedly beneficial for improving fitness and overall health, it can also put stress on our body if we’re exercising more than our body is used to or pushing ourselves to the limit. You may have noticed, for instance, that some athletes are prone to developing varicose veins – could this be because they’re pushing their bodies too far? 

Why Do Athletes Get Varicose Veins?

Athletes tend to be more active than non-athletes, and also tend to keep a close eye on their overall health by eating well and taking supplements. As varicose veins are often associated with long periods of sitting or being immobile, it seems contradictory that athletes would be at higher risk of varicose veins. However, the stress that some sports put on the legs can indeed increase the risk of forming varicose veins. Some of the more stressful sports include:

Distance Running - long periods of remaining upright can cause blood to pool in the lower legs.

Skiing and Snowboarding - intra-abdominal pressure can damage vein valves.

Tennis, Basketball, Netball - any sport which includes rapid stop-start motions with the legs can damage vein valves.

Football - The physical contact between players can damage vein valves, or break and worsen existing varicose veins.

Weightlifting - The strain of lifting weights can damage or worsen already damaged veins.

How Varicose Veins Affect Performance

Although certain sports may exacerbate varicose veins, it doesn’t mean that you necessarily have to stop participating in physical activity altogether when they appear. Some of the main symptoms that athletes with varicose veins will experience is pain, swelling and a heavy feeling in the legs. This may happen while the athlete is performing, or even when they’re at rest. This level of discomfort alone may be enough for an athlete to seek treatment, even before considering possible further complications such as blood clots and ulcers.

Beyond this, varicose veins may have further effects on strength and endurance. As we know, strenuous physical activities bring about a higher heart rate and increased blood flow. In our legs alone, the blood flow while exercising may increase as much as five times when compared to the blood flow at rest. While healthy veins can manage this increased blood flow properly, damaged veins can’t. Not only does this result in reduced strength and cardiovascular endurance, but the increased stress can stretch and damage varicose veins even further.

Professional Athletes Who Have Had Varicose Veins

Due to the increased stress caused by their sport, a number of professional athletes have suffered from varicose veins. US Olympic swimmer and gold-medalist Summer Sanders suffered from varicose veins, as did triple gold medalist and beach volleyball star Misty May-Treanor. In the past Summer Sanders has acted as the spokesperson of a campaign called “Rethink Varicose Veins”, stating “As a life-long athlete and Olympic swimmer, I never thought a condition like varicose veins or chronic venous insufficiency would affect me.”

Canadian soccer player Sydney Leroux has said that she formed varicose veins while pregnant with her first child. Another athlete with a history of vein problems is Serena Williams who, in 2011, suffered from a blood clot that traveled to her lungs. Since varicose veins can be precursors to blood clots, it’s possible that Williams suffered from varicose veins as well.

Alternatives And Treatment

Although athletes with varicose veins don’t need to stop exercising altogether, there are some sports or activities that are better off avoided. This includes high-impact activities such as running, particularly on hard surfaces, dancing, gymnastics, high-impact aerobics and so on. Activities that involve high amounts of strain or stress should also be avoided, such as weightlifting, as well as contact sports such as football or rugby. It may also be a good idea to avoid activities that require tight boots, such as skiing or skating.

That leaves low-impact activities. Swimming and water exercises are perfect as they are both low-impact and tend to work the whole body. Exercise machines are fine, but it is better to stick to lighter weights and more repetitions rather than low reps with heavy weights. Cycling on a real or stationary bike is fine, although spending too long sitting in the same position on a bike may lead to blood pooling in the legs. And for all athletes, if the pain or inconvenience of having varicose veins is persistent then the best option is always to look at more permanent treatments.

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