Fatigue Resistance and Ultrarunning

AJW's TaproomLate last week, journalist Alex Hutchinson published an article on Outside Magazine which made a pretty persuasive case for the importance of what scientists are calling fatigue resistance in long-distance endurance events. Citing a new scientific study of elite-level endurance cyclists, Hutchinson explains that rather than VO2max, lactate threshold, or running economy, the best predictor of success in long events, particularly multi-day events, is fatigue resistance.

Defined by the scientists as “the extent of the deterioration of the three variables, VO2max, lactate threshold, and running economy, over time,” fatigue resistance was the one consistently noted variable in the most successful elite-level performers and, according to Hutchinson, may hold the key to understanding why some people simply seem to be able to go longer than others before succumbing to exhaustion.

From the time I first came to the sport of ultrarunning in the early 1990s, there was ample accumulated wisdom suggesting that those who slowed down the least during the course of a long ultramarathon would ultimately prevail. And, time and again, the sport has proven to be one of the great equalizers as naturally gifted competitors from marathons and shorter ultras have routinely underacheived when the distances go beyond 100 kilometers. Conversely, those who have relatively pedestrian finishing times at the shorter distances can thrive in the longer ones. There now seems to be scientific support to the assertion that those who are able to perform best when fatigued ultimately enjoy the greatest success in long-distance ultras.

While my experience is certainly just anecdotal, I can attest to the fact that the most successful ultrarunners I know still have “gas in the tank” at the end. Whether this is the result of sensible pacing, disciplined training, or fatigue resistance probably varies from runner to runner. However, what doesn’t vary is how much more enjoyable it is to push through the fatigue and find a way to the finish line.

I recall a time years ago at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile when I was crewing and pacing for a good friend. He was having a great day up until the halfway point, but then between miles 50 and 75, he hit a rough patch. When he arrived at Brighton Lodge at the 75-mile mark, we knew we had to get him to rally. He seemed to have lost all of his energy. After laying around in his sleeping bag for an hour or so, he ultimately decided to cut off his wrist band and call it a day. I’ll never forget the exchange his exchange with the aid-station captain:

“You’re dropping out, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“What’s the reason?” The aid-station captain had a clipboard and the spreadsheet had a place for him to write the reason for the runner’s DNF next to his name. After a long pause, my friend looked him right in the eye and said, “Loss of will.”

Thinking of Hutchinson’s article on the emerging science of fatigue resistance, it would seem to me that those who either come to it naturally or develop it over time may be able to maintain the will to continue longer than those who don’t. I suspect it’s still somewhat of a mystery how one develops and sustains fatigue resistance, but I have a hunch it may be studied quite a bit more in the next several years as runners the world over seek to unlock the secret door of long-distance success.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Stoneface Brewing Company in Newington, New Hampshire. Known for their New England style IPAs (NEIPAs), the flagship of the variety from Stoneface is the Full Clip NEIPA. Slightly malty and darker than most NEIPAs, Full Clip is one of the more full-bodied NEIPAs I’ve tasted and well worth a try the next time you are up in the Northeast.

Call for Comments

  • What does this emergent scientific idea of fatigue resistance mean to you?
  • Have you anecdotally found yourself to have a higher fatigue resistance at certain events than others?