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Preventing Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT) after destination races

After a whirlwind destination race weekend, many runners look forward to the flight home. On the plane, your tired legs will get a chance to relax and you’ll have the opportunity to sleep. It sounds like a dream come true, right?

Wrong. In fact, sitting still in a plane, train, or car post-race can be dangerous for your health. Runners and other endurance athletes have a higher risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT) than sedentary individuals.

DVT basics

DVT happens when a blood clot forms in one of the body’s deep veins, most often the legs or arms. If the blood clot breaks loose and travels up the bloodstream, it can block the blood vessels in your lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism, and it can cause breathing difficulty and even be fatal. About 100,000 people in the U.S. die from DVT and pulmonary embolism each year.

Certain factors increase the risk for DVT, such as pregnancy, smoking, taking birth control pills, or being overweight. DVT is also more likely to occur after prolonged periods of inactivity — making a long flight or car ride home from a race the perfect opportunity. Normally, blood flows freely throughout the body, but when we sit still for a long time — 3 hours or longer — blood flow slows down, and a clot can form.

Some experts believe that endurance athletes have a higher risk of DVT because of more efficient vascular systems. Runners often have larger veins and arteries in their legs. When athletes sit still, it may be easier for blood to pool in these larger veins and clot. Also, endurance athletes tend to have lower resting heart rates, meaning blood flows slower through the body.

Symptoms of DVT include:

  • Pain. You may only have pain in your calf when you flex your foot, for instance.
  • Swelling.
  • Redness.

If you have signs of DVT, seek medical help at once. Be sure to tell your doctor you’re an endurance athlete and recently traveled. It’s not uncommon for runners with DVT to be misdiagnosed since athletes often appear to be tiptop health.

How to reduce your risk

Immediately after the race:

  • Keep moving. Resist the urge to sit down, and walk around so blood keeps flowing.
  • Take in plenty of fluids. When dehydration occurs, blood thickens. Thick blood moves slower through the veins, upping the chance for a clot. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids before and during the race, too.

On the trip home:

  • Wear compression socks. These socks are more than just a fashion statement — they put pressure on the leg muscles to keep blood flowing.
  • Get up and walk around every hour or so. Walk the aisles of the plane or train or stop at rest area and walk around for a few minutes.
  • Move your feet while seated. Point and flex your toes and tighten and release your leg muscles every few hours.
  • Stretch out your legs as much as you can. Try not to let the edge of your seat put pressure on your calves.
  • Keep hydrating. Stay away from alcohol and caffeine, which can contribute to dehydration.
  • Delay travel until 24 hours after you finish your race, if possible. DVT is most likely to happen within the first 24 hours after an endurance event. Waiting an extra day or two before heading home may lower your risk.

Written by Jen Matz.