Image by Skeeze (Pixabay)

It is mostly accepted that running a marathon is a physical challenge, and even more running an ultramarathon, although the physiological effects of running distances longer than 42 kilometres are rarely studied.

A recent article has tried to bring some light into this subject and see how an ultramarathon affects fluid and electrolytes levels, skeletal muscle damage and hepatic and kidney function in non-elite runners.


The study

Ten athletes with training volumes between 4 and 15 hours per week fulfilled the inclusion criteria and were included in the study as recreational non-elite individuals.

The race was a mountain ultramarathon, 67km long and with 4500m total ascent and descent in Austria. Food and beverages were provided every 5k.

Blood samples were taken from all individuals the day before the competition, immediately after finishing (within 15 minutes), and 24h later. During competition runners carried a heart rate monitoring device.


The results

Body mass and electrolytes

During a race sweat loss up to 2% of body mass is not associated with impaired performance or electrolytes balance. Losses in excess of 2% can affect the performance and should be compensated by fluid ingestion to avoid hypernatremia (excessive sodium levels in blood). Nevertheless, as we already went through another entry, drinking uniquely water could lead to hyponatremia (low sodium levels).

Runners body mass did not change significantly after the race (weight loss of 0.8kg).  Similarly, electrolyte levels remain unchanged for Na, Cl, K, and Mg, with only a small increase of Ca reported.

Finishing times were correlated with body mass index, but they weren´t with age or training volume.

Haemolysis and skeletal muscle damage

Haemolysis is related with repetitive foot strikes and gastrointestinal bleeding, and it can lead to situations of anaemia.

Skeletal muscle damage is common after a marathon as a result of many microtraumas. It is accompanied by increased levels of certain enzymes in plasma (creatine kinase CK and lactate dehydrogenase LDH), systemic inflammation (high IL-6 levels) and immune system activation (high white blood cells count, or leucocytosis).

Sports anaemia and severity of skeletal muscle damage are related with the distance covered, so they are usually more frequent in ultramarathons as distances increase, and especially in down-hill races (eccentric workload). In the present study they found increased levels of CK and LDH at both times post-race (15 minutes and 24 hours).

Kidney function

Nearly 40% of marathon finishers present some symptoms of rhabdomyolysis. It is a condition in which products of damaged skeletal muscles, such as myoglobin, reach the kidneys with harmful consequences, leading sometimes to kidney failure.

In the present study markers of renal damage (creatinine, blood urea nitrogen and glomerular filtration rate) were elevated in most of the non-elite ultramarathon runners. These levels were still increased in some runners after the 24h of recovery, indicating some degree of sustained renal dysfunction.


The conclusions

Results of the study were limited because of the low number of participants, the absence of females, and the lack of information about food and drink intake during the competition and 24h recovery period.

Nevertheless, it was determined that age, muscle mass, climate conditions, type of workload and experience level influenced skeletal muscle damage, and especially kidney function. Most of these are harmless side effects, although in runners with moderate levels of ultramarathon experience and training kidney injuries could take long to heal.

Because of these results, coaches and non-elite athletes should be aware of the risk of acute kidney injury associated with ultramarathon running. Symptoms which could appear during the consequent days are: too little urine, swelling (in legs ankles, and around the eyes), fatigue, shortness of breath, confusion and nauseas, among others.


Run healthy, and within your limits.

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Physiological and Pathophysiological Responses to Ultramarathon Running in Non-elite Runners

Hoppel F, Calabria E, Pesta D, Kantner-Rumplmair W, Gnaiger E, Burtscher M

Front. Physiol (2019) 10:1300. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2019.01300



Pros: course and landscapes; organization; different distances offered.

Cons: confusing start.

Finish area

This time around it took us long to sit down and write our report of what would become the last marathon of the calendar year. Sometimes there are not enough hours in the day to fit everything we want.

The Gerês Extreme Marathon had been on the to-do list for a while, although other races or plans had prevented our participation. The race takes place in the Peneda-Gêres National Park, the only one in Portugal, and located in its northern edge. It is organised by the Carlos Sá Nature Events, a company specialized in events in natural areas.

With the marathon there are also races of 32k, half marathon, 14k and an extreme mile one day earlier. Distances for every level, and with an ecological approach: every runner has to carry a liquid container to prevent unnecessary waste.

Maybe the most complicated bit is arriving to the Peneda-Gêres area, and the race headquarters in the village of Gêres. 500 kilometres from Madrid and more than 400 from Lisbon, but much closer if coming from Porto or Galicia. The area offers plenty of things to see around and hiking routes.

On arrival on Saturday evening, among intense raining intervals, firstly we pick the runner kit at the local auditorium. After dinner in one of the many restaurants available in Gêres is time to rest. With accommodation in the village, there is no need to get up too early.

Morning appears cloudy, but with no rain and good running conditions. The club from Valladolid, formed by Pepe Turón, Enrique Benito and me, has a few minutes to spare before the start.  Runners of the 32k depart at 8.50, and the marathoners at 9.00, with a bit of confusion as the 14k start is delayed for a bit, and its runners open a path for us to go.

Why is called “extreme” marathon? Looking to the altimetry it offers 1350m of D+ and 1350m of D-, mostly in roads. The course includes 3 ascensions, being especially hard the first one, which goes from 350 to almost 900 metres in over 7 kilometres.

Altimetry 42k

With the marathon of San Sebastian from last week on the legs I take things easily. Not being a typical road marathon takes out the responsibility of pursuing a target finish time. During the long and steep first slope, I go easily. As I get closer to the summit, where is located the first drink station, front runners are already on their way down. During the downhill section I can recover a few places, while also having time to enjoy the views.

View during the race course

The next two uphill sections are also hard, but not as much as the first one. Energy decreases, despite eating bananas in the stations and my gels, but I can keep running even on the steeper sections. Knowing that the last 8 kilometres are downhill is an encouragement as I get to the last lookout point and drinking station. The worst is done. Legs suffer in the way down: the punishment of a faster pace and the continuous braking.

A short detour around the Gêres village that seems to be too long at this stage gets me to the finish line. Net time of 4.31.31, and position 136 out of 218 runners. With a long trip ahead, there is only time for a quick shower before heading back home.

This was marathon number 13 of 2019, to finish the season with the same number than in 2018.

We will be back with new marathons in 2020, when we will try to get to 100 and celebrate the 20th anniversary from our marathon debut. Thanks for reading.

"Pucelanos" team
Trying to look good with Carlos Sá

RACE (2016, 134min, Stephen Hopkins)


Pros: Stephan James´s acting work; filmed in location; admitting the racism present in the USA without demonizing uniquely the German side.

Cons: it could have gone beyond his Olympic days but is clearly focused on Owens´s most brilliant phase; the flirting part.



We are in front of a biopic of the famous James Cleveland Owens, best known as “Jesse” Owens, going from his early university student days in 1933 to his Olympic successes in Berlin 1936. He is interpreted by Stephan James as Owens, and Jason Sudeikis as his coach, with the participation of Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten and William Hurt in secondary roles.

Owens is from a humble family and already has a daughter. He knows that studying may be his only chance to get a living, so he moves to Ohio State University, where soon gets under the wings of coach Larry Snyder, himself Olympic in 1924.

With 28 months to go before the Olympics we watch Owens´s life and on the background the possibility of a USA boycott on Berlin, because of its political stand on the Jewish matter. A representative of the USA Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons), visits Berlin to get assurance from the German Committee that there will be no problems with Jewish or black people competing, while visiting the construction works on the Olympic Stadium.

Among the historical figures we have in the movie are Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefensthal on the German side. The first trying to establish the Olympics as a nazi propaganda event, and the second one, as an artist/filmmaker who wants to make the best film possible about the Olympics and its preparation.

In 1935 Owens during the Big Ten meet, wins four events in 45 minutes: the 100 yards, long jump, 200 yards and 225-yard hurdles, breaking the world record in the last three events. He appears as a clear favourite for the following year Olympics.

In a close vote at the end of 1935 the USA Olympic Committee decides to attend the Olympics. But soon before the event Owens feels pressure from the black community to resign from attending to condemn German politics. He finally decides to go anyhow and make his statement by competing. His coach, not allowed to integer the Olympic team, travels to Berlin on his own.

The last third of the movie is in Berlin, where Owens for the first time can share accommodation with their white colleagues. We don’t get to watch all qualification races, but obviously it would slow the movie pace. In the 100 metres final, he wins clearly, getting his first gold medal.

We are shown that Owens is not greeted by Hitler himself, although this scene in the movie may not be exactly true, as in real life Owens assured that he was greeted by Hitler and even had a picture showing it. Nevertheless, it wouldn´t change much Hitler´s image nowadays.

The second gold medal comes in the long jump, after a hard competition with the German Luz Long, who helps him to qualify for the final, after two null jumps. At the end Owens gets the victory after breaking the Olympic record in his third attempt, although he had ensured the gold in his second attempt. Both, Owens and Long do the honour lap together.

His third gold medal comes in the 200 metres, and that was supposed to be his last one, but two members of the 4X100 relay are Jewish, and forced out of the team by Brundage, whom Goebbels blackmails because of his previous business acquaintances. Owens enters in the team as a replacement in the first relay post, winning his 4th gold Olympic medal.

Back in the USA Owens is received by crowds in New York, but still unable to get through the main door to his own tribute, showing us that the big prevailing problems with racism back at home. He was never invited to the White House, nor his achievements get any governmental recognition.

With the film finishing we know of our other characters future. We know that Owens and his rival Long were friends until Long´s death. The consequences of his cordial attitude towards Owens cost him the life, as he was sent to the front during WWII as a punishment for his actions during the Olympics.

Coach Larry Snyder continued training in Ohio State University and was head coach of athletics in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Brundage was chosen as President of the USA Olympic Committee in 1952, a position he held for more than 20 years until his death.


A recommendable film, as there are not many historical films about athletics, and focused on one of its undoubtable legends.13

Berlin Olympic Stadium
Commemorative plaque with winners of Berlin1936


Photo by Matt Lee in Unsplash

The pelvic floor is a structure composed of muscles and connective tissue, underneath the pelvis, and whose function is separate the pelvic cavity and the perineal region. It is present in males and females, although in the latest is larger because it also contains the birth canal. Its main function is supporting organs such as the bladder, intestines and uterus (in women), and in the maintenance of the continence and intra-abdominal pressure.

When there is a dysfunction of the pelvic floor some consequences are: urinary incontinence, pelvic organ prolapse (when an organ slide from its position into the vagina) or sexual dysfunctions.

Physical exercise carries many health benefits, but it is also related with some pelvic floor problems in female athletes, the most common one being urinary incontinence.

Many young women have no knowledge about pelvic floor function, and how sports practice may be related with some of its associated problems. Sports practice increases intra-abdominal pressure, especially in high impact disciplines.

There are two opposing theories relating exercise and pelvic floor dysfunctions:

  • Female athletes have stronger pelvic floor muscles.
  • Female athletes may overload, stretch and weaken their pelvic floor muscles.

If the pelvic floor musculature is weaker than the surrounding muscles, it may not be able to contract simultaneously with them, causing urinary losses, especially in conditions of physical exertion. Nevertheless, pelvic floor muscles training has been related with an improvement in some symptoms, as muscular strengthening allows a better blood supply and nerve activity in the area.

The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence of the United States recommends women with incontinence to perform at least 8 pelvic floor contractions, 3 times per day. There are different exercising options, such long squeezes or fast short squeezes, with fully relaxation between them.

Women who carried out pelvic floor training were 17 times more likely to report an improvement of their symptoms or total cure, so it should be the first treatment of choice for any type of urinary incontinence.

With the increase of women practicing sports, educational campaigns should be in place to provide enough information and remove the “shame” and secrecy of these situations. It would encourage them to get treatment and solve the problem.



Pelvic Floor in Female Athletes: From Function to Dysfunction
Carvalhais A, Da Roza T, Sacomori C

Women’s Health and Biomechanics pp 145-153


Panoramic view of La Concha

Pros: flat course; spotless organization; well provided aid stations; free buses to/from start/finish.

Cons: maybe more stands in the running expo.

Introductory panel

With the dates of some marathons changing so much lately it is good to know that San Sebastian has been stable at the end of November for many years. Valencia moved from February to November, and nowadays to early December. Gran Canaria has decided to move its 2020 edition from its usual January slot to sometime in November, trying to get more runners, although I run in 2018 and there were a lot of foreign athletes. Its slot in a month lacking marathons has been luckily filled by the Almagro marathon (moving also from its June slot). And Pamplona has gone even further, and recently cancelled the marathon distance for 2020 altogether.

Marathon 85 was supposed to be Puerto Varas, in Chile, but it was cancelled as a result of the widespread social unrest in the country. Back in Spain San Sebastian was waiting for a fourth time (and third in a row).

As usual I arrive on Saturday and go straight to the running expo in the velodrome of Anoeta to collect my bib number, and this time around the t-shirt, that I forgot to pick up last year. Unlike other editions it is very quiet, with no many runners or stands around. Maybe runners collected the numbers earlier or in the alternative locations provided on previous days.

Free from duties, time to eat some pintxos in the central tabernas with my friend Gonzalo, who also is running again the marathon. Satisfied I walk to my accommodation. With strong wind and now also raining it doesn´t look very inviting for race day.

This time I stay in the local hostel, not exactly in the city centre, but offering basic and clean lodging on a budget. With so many visitors for the races, prices hike up considerably during the weekend. Additionally, the organization bus will stop at the front door at 7.50 on Sunday to get to the start area.

As weather doesn´t accompany much, I spend the evening resting. I get up at 6.00 and get my breakfast with plenty of time before the race, scheduled at 9.00, as it is the half marathon. It keeps raining during the short bus trip to Anoeta, where I leave my luggage just around the clock, trying to stay warm for as long as possible.

The course is the traditional from other years, with 2-laps for the marathon and only one for the half-marathon and following the seaside in many sections. After so much rain, it stops exactly as races start. Running conditions become ideal with cloudy sky and a temperature of 10-11°C.

The first kilometres I navigate among runners, but things get easier soon. I am close to the 3.30 group, although not fast enough to catch them, while keeping my distance from the 3.45 one. Aid stations are frequent and well supplied with isotonic drink, water and nuts, and further in the race also bananas and energy gels.

I cross the half marathon in 1.46.32. Things look good, as even with my usual delay in the second half I could improve my results in the last 2 editions (3.46.00 and 3.45.02). Fresher than last years, with less marathons in previous weeks, I can keep a good pace, surpassing runners as I get into the last kilometres. I finish the race in 3.38.42, for the 12th marathon of the year, getting also my season best.

No much rest as next week is time to run again. Portugal awaits with its Gerês Extreme Marathon, in the Peneda- Gerês National Park, so-called the world´s toughest road marathon. Follow us and find our report here soon.

Anoeta Velodrome just before the race start
Some fine pintxos


Bikila´s final attack on Rhadi in Rome

“I wanted the world to know that my country Ethiopia has always won with determination and heroism.” Abebe Bikila

Rome has been rewarded the Olympic Games of 1908, but an eruption of the Vesuvius in 1906 obligated the Italian capital to skip the event in favour of London. Its time would come again, when it was selected to host the Olympics of 1960, taking them back to the very same place where they had been forbidden by Emperor Theodosius in 393.

The Games were very well received in Rome, with unprecedented crowds, being the first to be broadcasted. A young boxer called Cassius Clay won a gold Olympic medal, and sadly there was the first known Olympic death for using performing enhancing drugs (the Danish Enemark Jensen).

Abebe Bikila was born in Jatta, Ethiopia, in 1932 on the same day Argentinian Juan Carlos Zabala won the Los Angeles Olympics marathon. Of humble origin he worked very young herding cattle. On a trip to the capital Addis Ababa when he was 19, was impressed with the Imperial Guard and enlisted.

Naturally gifted he started soon competing with the armed forces team in the 5000 and 10000 meters, running his first marathon only in 1959. Under Finnish coach Onni Niskanen he won the marathon trial one month before the Olympic Games. His time of 2.21.23 at Addis Ababa´s altitude (2400m) was better than the one achieved by defending Olympic champion Alain Mimoun at sea level (2.25.00).

The Olympic marathon was scheduled for September 10. The triangular course didn´t start nor finish in the Olympic stadium, but in Campidoglio and the Arch of Constantine respectively, just in the city centre. Expecting warm weather, the start was delayed until 17.30 for the 59 runners present. Hundreds of torchbearers on both sides of the road were ready to provide illumination when dark.

A large leading group of athletes was still together by the 10k (31.07). Everyone seemed cautious because it was still warm and the difficulty of the course, that forced them to dash around monuments and plazas.

By the 20k (1.02.39) a barefoot Ethiopian, Bikila, was in front accompanied by Moroccan Rhadi ben Abdesselem, totally unknow besides his participation in the 10000 metres a couple days earlier and debuting in the marathon. Half a minute behind was Belgian champion Aurele Vandendriessche.

The front African duo continued increasing distance with their pursuers. At 30k (1.34.29) they had opened a 2-minutes gap over Barry Magee from New Zealand, and the soviet and world-record holder Sergey Popov.

At 40k (2.08.33), and already heading towards the finish line, Magee´s pace had brought him only 86 seconds behind the front runners. Behind him soviet marathon champion Konstantin Vorobiev had overtaken his comrade Popov.

It was time to fight for victory, as the race was nearing its conclusion. First Rhadi tried to move away from Bikila but failed. When reaching the Obelisco di Axum, in Piazza di Porta Capena, that has been brought from Ethiopia by the Italians in 1936, Bikila attacked. He knew that it was only 500 metres from the finish line, and Rhadi was unable to fight back. The gold medal was for Bikila in 2.15.16, improving the world record of Popov by just 1 second. 25 seconds behind entered Rhadi, for Morocco, with New Zealand´s Maggie getting the bronze medal.

The quality of the race was impressive, as 15 finishers managed to complete the marathon under Zátopek´s record of 2.23.03 established in Helsinki only four years earlier. African countries had demonstrated for the first time their quality in the marathon, allocating 4 of the top-8 finishers and changing the marathon trend that had gone until then.

As for Bikila he became instantly a hero in Ethiopia. His history was far from over as we will see in our next entry, dedicated to the Olympic Games of Tokyo in 1964, where he became the first athlete to revalidate his marathon Olympic title. But that is another story.



“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.

Bikila celebrating his Olympic victory


Photo by Pexels in Pixabay

Exercise-induced muscle damage occurs after unaccustomed exercise. It was firstly described in 1902 as a delayed muscle soreness being already suggested that it was caused by microtears in the muscles.

Nowadays it is accepted that exercise-induced damage results in pain, soreness, inflammation and reduced muscle function, often accompanied by an increase in intramuscular enzymes levels and inflammation markers. All these effects are annoying and may potentially affect training levels and athletic performance. It is a temporary damage, but when time is limited it can be useful to reduce recovery time to a minimum.

There a lot of techniques used for recovery (massage, cryotherapy, stretching…) with varied results, but there is also the possibility of counteracting muscle damage with specific foods or supplements, that we will cover in this entrance.



Blackcurrants and cherries are rich in anthocyanins, natural pigments with potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, helpful in reducing symptoms of muscle damage.

Pineapple is rich in bromelain, with anti-inflammatory properties. Its supplementation improves muscle function, reduces soreness and increase pain threshold.

Pomegranate juice is rich in ellagitannins, a polyphenol with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Significative reductions in soreness were seen with 15 days of 500mL consumption in resistance-trained subjects.

Watermelon juice also showed improvements in soreness levels. It is rich in L-citrulline, with antioxidant properties and precursor of nitric oxide, key factor in vessels vasodilation.


Plants and herbs

We already dedicated one of our entries to beetroot juice. You can find it here. Briefly it is rich in dietary nitrates and betalains, with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and its consumption is linked to a faster recovery time between exercise bouts.

Green tea is known for being rich in polyphenols, with potent antioxidant effects. Results have been contradictory. Consumption for 13 weeks prior to downhill running (40min at 65% VO2max) decreased soreness 48h after exercise, although other studies didn´t show any effect.

Other spices and less know herbs also showed promising results. Among them we could talk about curcumin (derived from the spice turmeric) that ameliorates muscle damage, ginger, for faster recovery, and ginseng, that reduced markers of muscle damage. Nevertheless, more studies are needed for all these compounds.


Amino Acid and Protein Supplements

Branched chain amino acids, or BCAA, are quite popular. Its supplementation at levels of at least 200mg/kg/day for a minimum of 10 days could be effective in reducing moderate muscle damage.

Creatine is used as energy substrate, but also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Its supplementation had mixed results, although it shows some promise in attenuating damage induced by endurance or sprint exercise.

β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate, or HMB, may improve biochemical measures of exercise induced muscle damage by increasing protein synthesis and decreasing muscle protein breakdown. Supplementation ranged from 0.3 to 3 g/day for a period between 2 and 6 weeks prior to effort.

L-glutamine has shown in several publications that may improve muscle function and reduce biomarkers of damage. It has been suggested to improve immune function and replenish plasma levels of glutamine, that decrease during prolonged exercise.

Taurine has also antioxidant effects and has been suggested to regulate calcium homeostasis in skeletal and cardiac muscle tissues, that could make it useful for attenuating muscle damage.


Other compounds

Vitamins C and E supplementation offered mixed results, while vitamin D was the subject of a recent entry where we explained its effects extensively.

Other promising results have been shown for methylsulfonylmethane, or MSM, and caffeine. Both of these compounds had already their own entry in our blog here and here respectively.

Specialized waters are also becoming a focus of interest recently. Deep ocean mineral water consumption after workout improved markers of muscular damage after a single bout of fatiguing treadmill exercise (40% VO2max until 3% body mass lost). These results were confirmed in later studies and using bedrock mineral water too.

As you can see, and we have gone only through some of them, there are many compounds with potentially promising results in delaying/avoiding effects on exercise-induced muscle damage, although more studies are necessary to completely understand their effects.



Nutritional and Supplementation Strategies to Prevent and Attenuate Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage: a Brief Review

Harty PS, Cottet ML, Malloy JK, Kerksick CM

Sports Medicine – Open volume 5, Article number: 1 (2019)

Image by Arek Socha in Pixabay


Photo by Jeffrey F Lin (Unsplash)

Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 is a United States’ federal law that says:

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

With the passing of this law in 1972 it was required that any public institution, including public schools, had to give boys and girls equal opportunities to practice sports. Nowadays this can be seemed as obvious, but back in 1972 only 1 out of every 27 girls played any kind of sport.

In athletics it had a big effect, as although the disciplines offered for men and women didn´t have to be the same, women got access to similar scholarships, equivalent training/competition facilities, coaching/support, travel allowances and publicity, among others. Thanks to this law participation of women in college sports increased 6 times, and almost 10 times in high college sports.

In 1972 from 400 athletes competing for the USA in the Olympics, only 84 were women, where they won 23 medals against the 71 from his male counterparts. In the last Olympics in Rio, in 2016, the USA women were 294, outnumbering the 264 men. And they also won more medals than men (61 vs. 55), including more gold medals (27 vs. 19).

Clearly the passing of Title IX had a big impact in the women USA team success. It shows that it should be taken as an example on how to tackle female discrimination in sports in countries where women are still suffering high levels of discrimination.

Besides this good news, there are still problems remaining, as girls at all ages still participate in sports at lower rates than boys. Supporting sports practice among them includes many benefits.

High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy; get better grades and are more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports. Additionally, it gives them higher levels of confidence and self-esteem, with a more positive body image, and lower levels of depression.

Abuse and harassment are two of the mains reasons that deter girls and women from participating in sports. Implementing policies to safeguard them would reduce the likelihood of such offenses.

Additionally, it would also help to remove stereotypes, as young women may be afraid of been seen unfeminine. It is important to encourage them, as it requires some practice and time to understand the sport discipline and achieve results.

And more importantly, sports practice doesn´t need to be always competitive either. It must be fun and provide a friendly social environment.

Time to follow suit!

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Photo by Morzaszum (Pixabay)


Image by Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

During marathon history results have implied that there may be a genetic component involved in giving many nations their big champions.

The first United States great runners were Native Americans, specially from the Hopi Tribe, who understood running as a connection with their gods and ancestors. Among them we could talk of Lewis Tewanima, who placed ninth in the marathon during the 1908 Olympics and claimed silver in the 10000 metres during the Olympics four years later.

Athletes from Finland ruled in many distances from the 1912 Olympics until 1976. It was the time of “The Flying Finns”, a golden generation that started with Hannes Kolehmainen, who won four Olympic gold medals ranging from the 5000 metres to the marathon, and finished with Lasse Virén, who won another 4 Olympic gold medals, in the 5000 and 10000 metres in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

In the United States the running boom started during the 1970s, especially propelled by the victory of Frank Shorter in the 1972 Olympic marathon, and the victories of Alberto Salazar in Boston and New York in the early 1980s.

Besides the sporadic winning news of some Tarahamura Indians from Mexico in ultra-marathons, nowadays the international marathon scene seems ruled by athletes from East African countries, especially Kenia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and some others.

Therefore, genetics has been linked to elite international marathon performance. Trying to find these sport performance phenotypes, or in other words the genes involved in marathon success, has prompted a whole new area of genetic studies.

The main factors related to running performance are maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), lactate threshold, running economy and oxygen uptake kinetics. It has been found that VO2max is heritable by 40-50%, confirming the importance of genetics in the performance. But obviously not everything is genetics, as there are other key factors involved, such as training.

A recent big meta-analysis has found a total of 14 different genes that could be associated with endurance performance:


They are mainly involved in ATP generation (the primary energy fuel of all living things), glucose and lipid metabolism, thermogenesis and muscle fibre type composition. They could contribute to an adequate body fluid balance and improvements in blood flow and oxygen delivery to exercising muscles.

  • COL5A1

Important for the collagen in the ligaments, that influence motion, it could improve the energetic cost of running and consequently the performance.

  • ACE, NOS3 and ADRB2

These genes codify the enzymes involved in cardiovascular function, contributing to blood pressure and vasodilation control. A variant of the ADRB2 has been associated with faster marathon times by improving blood delivery to muscles and a better recycling of lactate to produce energy.

All the studies included in the analysis have their own limitations, as sometimes they include athletes from the same ethnicity, different endurance sport disciplines, or a small sample size.

Other genes are linked to power-related sports. Every Olympic sprinter tested had a copy of a R allele in its ACTN3 gene. This allele is involved in the production of proteins used in fast-twitch muscle fibres, determinant in short running sprint distances.

Although we can see the results of these studies are far from determinant, the risk of gene manipulation is already a possibility. The transference of genes or genetically modified cells into an individual to enhance its athletic performance is called genetic doping. Anticipating this issue, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited its use back in 2003, but how could it be tested? Nowadays there is not enough knowledge to test it or know if it has already happened.

As history has sadly proved us, if something can be done, it is done, no matter the consequences. We can be sure that genetic doping will happen, even with all the potential risks that could be associated: what would be the future effects on athlete’s health?

Despite gene doping potential is clear, genetic testing could also be useful to identify the most suitable runners among the young athletes. This tool would allow to optimise training and improve marathon running performance. Therefore, the increasing interest in this research area.

It is important to know that besides genetics there are other factors involved. Nobody will start running sub-2h marathons because his/her good genes are good. Training, diet and mental strength must be also considered. Additionally, there are more than 100 thousand genes in the human genome, all of them interacting among themselves and with the environment. Maybe is not a unique gene necessary to improve your running performance, but a combination of them.

We would love to read your comments.

Thanks for reading.



Genes and Elite Marathon Running Performance: A Systematic Review.

Moir HJ, Kemp R, Folkerts D, Spendiff O, Pavlidis C, Opara E.

J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Aug 1;18(3):559-568.

Image by Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

THE GAME CHANGERS (2018, 108min, Louie Psihoyos)

“When I transitioned over to an entirely plant-based diet, I became like a machine”

Dotsie Bausch, cycling silver Olympic medallist



“Someone asked me, how could you get as strong as an ox without eating any meat? And my answer was, have you ever seen an ox eating meat?

Patrick Baboumian, multiple strength world records holder


Pros: eye-opening information in a fast-moving documentary.

Cons: maybe some view from the “other side”.


It is a 2018 documentary produced by James Cameron, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Novak Djokovic and a long etcetera of other known celebrities. We follow UFC fighter James Wills as he is trying to recover from an injury in both of his knees.

In his search of a healthy diet to help a quick recovery, he comes across a lot of information as why we have been “pushed” to eat meat, in the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and strength (meat equals energy). We are confronted with the fact that many successful athletes are vegetarian. Many also has achieved their best career results after transitioning to a plant-based diet. For example, Patrick Baboumian, a force of nature with multiple strength world records, the cyclist Dotsie Bausch, who got a silver medal at 39, three years after transitioning to a vegetarian diet, or the ultra-runner Scott Jurek, in his breaking of the Appalachian Trail running record.

We also know of the amount of resources needed to produce meat, and how it is an unnecessary intermediate step for our diet, because most of these animals eat plants to start with. We could eat directly the plants they are eating. Even more, proteins coming from plants are better quality than those coming from meat. Plant proteins carry antioxidants, while meat proteins carry inflammatory molecules that counteract sports recovery. We can see the results of eating a meat-burrito versus a plant-burrito, and how some health markers change in the short term.

But the documentary doesn´t stop there. We are also given anatomical evidence. For example, our teeth are not designed like other carnivorous predators, but more like vegetarian animals. Thanks to new archaeological techniques capable of studying micro fossils, we know that our ancestors were primarily vegetarian. The old misconception came because of the bones found in archaeological sites: they could be conserved for long while plants weren´t.  It almost seems obvious, as vegetables were readily available, and much easier to get than hunting.

James Wills recovers fully following a diet based on plants. His diet change also settles with his family, as his dad suffers a stroke despite carrying a healthy lifestyle. Meat is pointed out as guilty. We come to know that a plant-based diet is surprisingly capable of reversing many of the deleterious effects of stroke and cardiac diseases, with meat linked also with a higher risk of many cancers.

Many of the publicity resources that were used by the tobacco industry for years, moved recently towards the food industry, with a lot of confusion. Although not so remarkably, besides meat, it is also the suggestion of reducing our consumption of dairy products and eggs.

Not being a vegetarian, I didn´t found so difficult to replace meat for other plant alternatives lately. And I haven´t missed it much. Do you think is not easy? You can find easily quinoa, leguminous plants (lentils, chickpeas, etc), nuts and avocados, with more options available every day. Maybe you don´t need to go full vegetarian. I doubt I will leave cheese or eggs in the short term, but as Schwarzenegger says in the documentary, we could start by trying to keep one day meat-free per week.

Watch it and take your own conclusions. We would love to read your comments.


For more information check directly the documentary official webpage: