Of all the extreme endurance races out there—such as the Ironman triathlon or 50- or 100-mile marathons—the Tor des Géants ultra-mountain marathon may be the most extreme. The course is 205 miles long on the rugged terrain of the Italian Alps with a cumulative elevation gain of 24,000 feet. Participants have 150 hours, little more than six days, to complete the course. These feats of ultra-endurance are fascinating for scientists because they showcase how the heart adapts when pushed to the limit. Previous studies have found that after 3- to 15-hour races like marathons and the Ironman triathlon, the heart doesn’t pump as well, a condition referred to as exercise-induced cardiac fatigue. A group of French researchers looked at what happened to the heart after running for over 100 hours in the Tor des Géants. They were surprised to find that unlike with marathons and triathlons, heart function improved after the ultra-mountain marathon race.
During a heartbeat, the heart fills with blood and then squeezes together to push out the blood. In situations in which the body constantly needs more oxygen, such as with exercise, the amount of blood filling the heart is one signal that tells the heart to keep beating harder. The more the heart fills, the stronger the heart contracts.
This study found that the runners’ hearts filled more during each heartbeat. The researchers think it’s because the amount of plasma, which is the liquid portion of blood, increased, raising the overall amount of blood in the body. But why it increased is not clear. Fluid intake could be one factor, says Michael Joyner, MD, an exercise physiologist not involved in the study, in a podcast. Runners in ultra-long races pay extra attention to staying hydrated and often maintain or gain weight from the extra fluids, he says. Stéphane Nottin, PhD, the lead investigator of the study, wonders if inflammation from the extreme physical stress or greater retention of sodium (the kidneys use sodium to absorb water) is also involved.
“Physiology has a long history of expedition-led investigations—whether it’s high altitude, desert—and this paper follows in that wonderful tradition,” Joyner says. Other current ongoing studies in this spirit include a Mount Everest climb to examine cognitive decline at low oxygen levels and a study on the heart of a swimmer swimming across the Pacific.