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Aerobic performance of female marathon and male ultramarathon athletes

Summary

The aerobic performance of thirteen male ultramarathon and nine female marathon runners were studied in the laboratory and their results were related to their times in events ranging in distance from 5 km to 84.64 km.

The mean maximal aerobic power output (VO2 max) of the men was 72.5 ml/kg·min compared with 58.2 ml/kg·min (p<0.001) in the women but the O2 cost (VO2) for a given speed or distance of running was the same in both sexes. The 5 km time of the male athletes was closely related to their VO2 max (r=−0.85) during uphill running but was independent of relative power output (%VO2 max). However, with increasing distance the association of VO2 max with male athletic performance diminished (but nevertheless remained significant even at 84.64 km), and the relationship between VO2 max and time increased. Thus, using multiple regression analysis of the form:

$$\begin{gathered} 42.2 km (marathon) time (h) = 7.445 - 0.0338 \dot V{\text{O}}_{{\text{2 max}}} ({\text{ml/kg }} \cdot {\text{ min}}) \hfill \\ - 0.0303\% \dot V{\text{O}}_{{\text{2 max}}} (r = 0.993) \hfill \\ \end{gathered} $$

and

$$\begin{gathered} 84.64 {\text{km (London}} - {\text{Brighton) time (h) = 16}}{\text{.998 }} - {\text{ 0}}{\text{.0735 }}\dot V{\text{O}}_{{\text{2 max}}} \hfill \\ ({\text{ml/kg }} \cdot \min ) - 0.0844\% \dot V{\text{O}}_{{\text{2 max}}} (r = 0.996) \hfill \\ \end{gathered} $$

approximately 98% of the total variance of performance times could be accounted for in the marathon and ultramarathon events. This suggests that other factors such as footwear, clothing, and running technique (Costill, 1972) play a relatively minor role in this group of male distance runners. In the female athletes the intermediate times were not available and they did not compete beyond 42.2 km (marathon) distance but for this event a similar association though less in magnitude was found with VO2 max (r=−0.43) and %VO2 max (= −0.49). The male athletes were able to sustain 82% VO2 max (range 80–87%) in 42.2 km and 67% VO2 max (range 53–76%) in 84.64 km event. The comparable figure for the girls in the marathon was 79% VO2 max (ranges 68–86%). Our data suggests that success at the marathon and ultramarathon distances is crucially and (possibly) solely dependent on the development and utilisation of a large VO2 max.

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Correspondence to C. T. M. Davies.

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Davies, C.T.M., Thompson, M.W. Aerobic performance of female marathon and male ultramarathon athletes. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. 41, 233–245 (1979). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00429740

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Key words

  • Aerobic performance
  • Athletes, marathon, ultramarathon