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New Research Out Of Wintec | Te Pūkenga Paving The Way For Ultra-marathon Performance

New research to support peak performance in ultramarathon running, conducted by Russell Best, Principal Academic Staff Member at Wintec | Te Pūkenga Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance, and his international collaborators, is having an immediate impact in the field.

The research, Limits of Ultra: Towards an Interdisciplinary Understanding of Ultra-Endurance Running Performance was recently published in the prestigious journal Sports Medicine, and has featured in stories by the magazine Outside, French daily newspaper Le Monde and weekly podcast KoopCast whose host Jason Koop described the paper as likely “to have influence in the ultra-marathon space for years and maybe even decades from now.”

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The seeds for the research were sowed during lockdown. Best, who cut his teeth in distance running, first as an athlete and then as a sports nutritionist back in the UK, had the time and space to think about what wasn’t already out there in the academic literature. “I started looking at what the limits of ultra endurance performance are and pulling that apart to see what could actually make a difference to what athletes and coaches do in this area,” said Best.

When he was convinced he had the bones for a strong study, Best approached his PhD supervisor, Dr Nicolas Berger, who went on to become the lead author of the study, for support to progress the research. Together they unpacked the ideas and came up with their dream list of the best minds in the world who they would want to be involved in the research.

“Part of our strategy was finding the right experts who could not only write their own section, but also critique one or more of the other sections,” he said.

“It was a brave list, but it paid off, with all bar two of the people jumping on board and making up the team of nine from USA, UK, France and Italy who collaborated on the study. These included Trent Stellingwerff, one of the best sport scientists in this area on there, Sharon Gayter, a world record holding ultra runner, along with Andrew W. Best, Andrew M. Lane, Guillaume Y. Millet, Martin Barwood, Samuele Marcora, Patrick Wilson and Shawn Bearden.

“We really tried to capture everyone's perspective in terms of what limits performance and take a systems approach to it. We thought about things that often wouldn't be considered, such as how we've evolved to be good at running as a species, teasing apart all the elements of hydration, how we regulate our body temperature, and how the gut can be adapted to tolerate this type of exercise.”

They also looked at the psychology of it. Best explains that ultra marathon running is typically anything in excess of a traditional marathon, but most ultra races start at 50km and a lot of the athletes he’s worked with are competing in 160km races, so he says, “it's got to be a deeply personal thing and you've just got to love being out there.

“We looked at how fatigue develops over time and whether that's something that exists solely in the mind or it's a brain and body type experience. So yeah, we covered a lot of ground!”

Asked what makes the paper unique, Best points out that the researchers were one of the first groups to consider all of these aspects together, with the evolutionary approach aspect being a particularly unique consideration in academic literature.

“Because the scope of the sport is so vast, what limits performance in each instance is going to be different. Everything limits ultra performance in a given context, as you’ll experience different performance pressures, so to understand what you're up against you need to understand what your personal limitations are, and then work through that and adapt what you're doing to try and meet the demands of the competition you're about to undertake.”

Wintec | Te Pūkenga Centre for Sport Science and Human Performance offers programmes from foundation to Postgraduate level, that give students the opportunity to understand the science behind how the body works, providing them with insight and the ability to get better results for their future clients or themselves.

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