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Testing Endurance

Researchers follow 44 ultramarathon runners in a race across Europe to track the body's response to extreme physical challenge.

Jul 26, 2012
Hayley Dunning

During the Trans Europe Foot Race, runners cover more than 4,487 kilometers (2,788 miles) from southern Italy to North Cape, Norway. For the 2009 race, 44 of those runners submitted to daily health examinations, including MRI scans with a mobile scanner, ice-water pain tests, and blood and urine analyses. The project, detailed last week (July 19) in BioMed Medicine, was divided into four modules:

  • Musculoskeletal system: to investigate potential damage to joints, bones, and soft tissues in the legs
  • Brain, mind, and pain perception: to investigate changes in the volume of the brain, damage caused by lesions, pain perception, and mental stress
  • Cardiovascular system: to assess the effects of stress on the heart and arterial wall strength
  • Body composition: to track changes in muscle mass and body fat
While the huge resulting data set is still being looked at from every angle, the researchers have released some preliminary results. Of studied runners that didn't finish the race, the most common reason was inflammation of the leg tissues due to overuse. Two runners fractured bones, but because of their high pain tolerance, they ran over 200 more kilometers before giving up. Some runners who experienced leg inflammation were able to continue running, and it eventually cleared up.

The data will be used to assess the course of breakdown and regeneration in such injuries, as well as provide insights into the susceptibility to injury between individuals. By looking into the brain, the researchers also hope to investigate the hormonal influence resulting from endurance exercise.

"This pioneering study will assess the impact of extreme endurance on human physiology," wrote Andrew Murray and Ricardo Costa in an editorial for BioMed Medicine. "The results will be of interest not only to endurance runners, but to anyone interested in the limits of human performance."

Correction (July 30, 2012): This story has been updated from its original version to correctly reflect the journal name as BioMed Medicine, not BioMed Central Medicine. The Scientist regrets the error.

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