I Had a Heart Attack at Age 47. Here's How I Got Back to Cycling 90 Miles a Week

I Had a Heart Attack at Age 47. Here's How I Got Back to Cycling 90 Miles a Week

As a seriously fit cyclist who hadn’t even hit age 50 yet, Reverend Carl Matthei never expected that the feelings in his chest might be heart disease. Also as a seriously fit cyclist, traditional rehab wasn’t really made for him. So he found a new kind of program based on HIIT that got him back to his previous fitness and back to trusting his body again. Here’s his story, in his own words:

I have always been into health and fitness and sports. I’ve routinely cycled between 62 to 93 miles (100 to 150 kilometers) a week, and I eat what most people would call a really good diet. I don’t eat fast food. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke. So I assumed that I was pretty healthy and would not have been a candidate for a heart attack.

But on October 30, 2019, at age 47, I woke at 5:30 am to go for a ride with three friends before work, and we were planning to ride hard. I felt a strange sensation in my upper chest that began almost as soon as I started riding. Often when riding hard it is not unusual to have various aches and pains, so I didn’t give it a second thought. I had been having a similar feeling on a few other rides, but had assumed it was related to the banana I ate before those rides.

When I arrived home, I had a shower and breakfast, got dressed for work and even had a small family birthday party for my daughter who turned 20 that day. I mentioned to my wife that the banana I’d eaten had not gone down very well, and there was still a small, strange, lingering feeling in my chest.

My wife is a doctor, and she immediately said, “Are you telling me you had chest pain while exercising?” I replied “No, it’s not that!” She then demanded we go straight to the local hospital. I told her she was overreacting, and then she threatened to call an ambulance. I backed down and agreed to drive to the hospital (as long as we dropped another daughter at school on the way).

I arrived at the hospital with very little pain and looking completely healthy. The initial ECG test didn’t show anything unusual and the doctors were initially pretty casual because I didn’t look to be in much trouble. As doctors asked me questions, someone took some blood and sent it off for testing.

Fifteen minutes later, when the blood test results came back, all hell broke loose. They threw me onto a hospital bed, shaved my chest, stuck electrode pads all over my chest and put in a cannula. I was rushed upstairs for an echocardiogram, which showed that part of my heart had stopped beating and I was officially having a heart attack.

I was then rushed straight into an emergency angioplasty. Although I have none of the usual things which are normally associated with heart disease (not overweight, not high cholesterol, not high blood pressure, not a smoker or drinker and quite young in heart attack terms), for some reason, I have aggressive coronary disease. On the day of the heart attack, I didn’t know whether I would live or die, but found great comfort in my faith.

I was very fortunate to have a cardiologist who was also a competitive cyclist. On the first day after the heart attack, he told me that I would be back to riding soon. He gave me confidence and hope that the exercise I enjoyed was not over forever, and he gave me a plan to get back to it safely. As there is some evidence about depression in heart attack sufferers, it was great to be inspired from Day 1 to keep going.

I did cardiac rehab at nearby Prince of Wales Hospital. When I turned up to the ward, it was clear I was different from most of the people there. I was 10 to15 years younger than nearly everyone, and I wasn’t really overweight. A big part of the rehab was slow spinning on a stationary exercise bike. I could see that I was going to get bored fairly quickly.

Fortunately for me, Dr. Andrew Keech, an exercise physiologist at UNSW Sydney’s School of Medical Sciences, had been working with the cardiac rehab team there on a different way to come back from a heart attack—it was with using HIIT training.

We pushed really hard during the high-intensity parts, even soon after having the heart attack. After the warm up in each session the staff got me doing 30 second sprints at full intensity then 30 second rests. That was repeated without breaks 15 times then followed by a warm down. As my health and fitness came back they raised it to 20 times. It was fantastic to be able to exercise at high intensity!

The research says it is more effective than normal cardiac rehab, and it really helped me to get back to the serious exercise that is such an important part of my life. It was so good to be able to get back to a good fitness level reasonably quickly in a safe and well-monitored environment. It’s hard to come to terms with being a heart attack victim, especially since I was young and healthy.

I was very fortunate to be able to stay in the Rehab program a little longer than normal to keep building fitness and strength. It was really only COVID lockdowns that ended my rehab. At that point, I got back on my own bike and returned to riding on the road. Initially my cardiologist just told me to not be competitive on the bike and to stop when I felt pain. I tried to do both but failed a little! I found that I had to set myself a maximum heart rate to mark where “competitive” probably started. That was frustrating but probably wise.

One year after the heart attack, with a good report from the cardiologist, I was allowed to ride at full intensity again which felt great. All chest pain had gone by that stage and it was great to be able to really push hard again. In the year since, my cycling (and even my general health and fitness) has pretty much returned to the level it was at before the heart attack, for which I am very thankful to God.

Over time, I have become much more comfortable talking about it and owning it. I suspect most people have similar initial struggles, but I want to encourage others that it soon becomes easier to talk about and live with. Being back to riding helps. And I won’t brush off any symptoms if I feel them again!

Images Powered by Shutterstock