Cambridge tests for Marathon Des Sables runners

Published: 25 March 2015 at 13:22

Anglia Ruskin study examines how athletes cope with ‘toughest foot race on earth’.

Ahead of one of the world’s greatest endurance tests, athletes competing in the Marathon Des Sables will be undergoing tests of a different kind in Cambridge this week.

The Marathon Des Sables, which begins in Morocco on 5 April, is known as the toughest foot race on earth, with athletes covering a total of 150 miles in just six days.

And if contending with blistering Saharan heat, snakes, scorpions and gruelling sand dune climbs isn’t enough, the competitors also have to carry their food, water and clothing.

Sports scientists at Anglia Ruskin University are studying 60 competitors taking part in the 30th Marathon Des Sables, to investigate how they cope with the demands of this ultra-endurance event.

The 60 volunteers have been undergoing a battery of lab tests during the 12 weeks leading up to the race to establish their nutritional, physiological, psychological and gastrointestinal health. Scientists will also test them in Morocco immediately after the race, and then again in Cambridge a week later.

While there are several aims to the study, the main focus is to investigate the effects of ultra-endurance running on the digestive health of the athletes.

Dr Justin Roberts, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Sciences at Anglia Ruskin University, completed the Marathon Des Sables in 2011. He said:

“Many endurance athletes are familiar with digestive issues, for example ‘runner’s trots’, and this study aims to provide a better understanding of how running extreme distances affects the gut.”

Probably the most famous case of “runner’s trots” occurred in 2005 when Paula Radcliffe was caught short on her way to winning the London Marathon.

Craig Suckling of Anglia Ruskin’s Sport and Exercise Sciences research group added:

“Research suggests that intensive exercise causes short-term damage to the gut wall and a variety of symptoms such as headaches, nausea, dizziness and fever could be related to the acute release of endotoxins in the gut."

“Hopefully our study will shed light on how training and innovative nutrition strategies, particularly the regular use of probiotic supplements, may benefit the health and performance of these athletes.”