Ultramarathons cause less wear and tear to human body than shorter marathons: Study

By Randell Suba , Jun 28, 2013 02:59 PM EDT

A new study suggests that going for a 200-mile ultramarathon may do less harm to the human body than going for a hundred mile run. It seems absurd but researchers based their findings on the performance and effects of athletes who participated in the grueling Tors des Geants.

The Tors des Geants is a 210-mile race that takes runners through 25 mountain passes, elevations of more than 80,000 feet, and some of the steepest terrain in the Italian Alps. What matters is reaching the finish line and all the runner has is 150 hours. Along the way, runners can opt to rest or sleep but the race does not have any compulsory stops.

The proponents of the study titled "Alterations of Neuromuscular Function after the World's Most Challenging Mountain Ultra-Marathon" looked into the effects of sleep deprivation and extreme conditions in 25 male participants at the 2011 Tor, out of 471 starters. Of the subjects, only 15 finished the race, while 301 in total crossed the finish line.

The study measured fatigue using electrical stimulation to the leg and foot muscles. The proponents also did blood tests to look into the blood chemistry during and after the run. The subjects were also interviewed to gauge their level of pain and fatigue.

"In our research so far, we are finding that the athletes who perform the best at these events are the ones who do not go out too quickly-or too slowly, either," explained Jonas Saugy, lead author of the study, in an interview with National Geographic.

Comparing the results to an earlier study that collected data from participants of a 103-mile race. The Tor participants showed only half of the decline in strength compared to the shorter race.

The levels of enzymes in the blood that are linked to tissue damage are a lot lower compared to participants of the Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc and the Western States Endurance Run. The level of C-reactive protein in the blood that confirms the level of inflammation increased for the Tor marathoners but not in the same levels as those who joined the Mont-Blanc race.

The control group who were sleep deprived but did not join the race did not show any measurable signs of muscle fatigue and inflammation.

The researchers attributes the lower incidence of fatigue and inflammation of Tors des Geants participants to the pacing of the athletes during the longer ultramarathon and the lower overall exercise intensity. Sleep deprivation also contributed to the better preservation of muscles since the runners slowed down and took more rest periods when they felt the effects of it on the second half of the Tor.

The study was published June 26 on PLOS One.

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