Those of us who do ultramarathons have a hard time explaining what we do to non-runners. They often stare back in disbelief as we casually talk about running 100 miles in the mountains through the night without sleeping. But when scientist start looking at our sport, the results can get even more surprising. In this report from NPR, some Swiss researchers traveled to the Italian Alps to measure muscle strength in runners during an 100+ hour event. I already new we get better as we age, but they found out we also get better as we go longer!
Ultramarathoners Get Better the Longer the Event
In the decidedly nutty sport of ultramarathoning, the stakes keep getting higher. The courses get longer and the terrain steeper, but runners continue to push the boundaries of human endurance and sheer will.
So a team of researchers in exercise physiology led by , of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, explored what happens when these ultra-long-distance runners, whose muscles are already fatigued, are also deprived of sleep.
To do this, they found a group of hardcore runners at the , a particularly excruciating race in the Italian Alps. These volunteers were willing to be poked, prodded, and covered with electrodes in the name of science while competing.
What the researchers found was that these runners experienced significantly less overall muscle fatigue by the end of the race than a similar group at a race of only half the distance. The were published by PLOS One.
The Tor des Geants is unique in that the clock is continuously running. So unlike races, such as cycling’s Tour de France, that are run in daily stages over predetermined distances, these runners have to figure out when to sleep and for how long.
The Tor des Geants lasts days. And the runners are often in a state of intense sleep deprivation. In 2012, the average racer finished in 107 hours, with only nine hours of sleep.
To test muscle fatigue under the Tor’s extreme conditions, Saugy’s team administered a battery of tests before, during and after the race.
French ultramarathoner Chistophe Le Saux took third place in the Tor de Gentes.
Courtesy of Enrico Romanzi
Volunteer sat upright in a chair equipped with straps, pedals, strain gauges and electrodes. A series of leg and ankle extensions tested the runner’s voluntary muscle strength. To test involuntary muscle strength, electrodes zapped the runners’ muscles and the researchers measured the reactions.
Tor runners experienced a roughly 25 percent loss in muscular strength compared with a loss of 35 percent in a shorter race over equivalently difficult terrain.
Saugy says the Tor runners’ preservation of muscle strength can be explained by pacing strategy, including sleep breaks during the middle of the race.
“They try to run a maximal distance in a minimal time, which involves a great deal of sleep deprivation,” he says. “In the second half of the race, the runner’s speed decreases significantly, and this decrease of speed involves a decrease of intensity and therefore a preservation of muscle tissue.”
The overwhelming exertion in the first half of the race also means that runners sleep a lot more in the second half, which helps to preserve their muscles. [Read More…]
So it appears the next natural progression from doing 100 milers is to run multiday races. Just take it a little easy and preserve that muscle strength! Anyone game?