Running the Tor des Geants is not for the faint of heart. Widely regarded as one of the world’s toughest endurance events, the 210-mile (336-kilometer) foot race climbs through some of the steepest and wildest terrain in the Italian Alps, taking runners up and over some 25 major mountain passes and involving a total of more than 80,000 feet (24,000 meters) of vertical elevation gain.
The rules are simple. This is not a stage race. Whoever gets to the finish line first is the winner, simple as that. From the moment the starter’s gun goes off in the mountain village of Courmeyeur, in Italy’s Aosta Valley, competitors have 150 hours to complete the course. How, when, where, even if they get any sleep during the race is completely up to them. The focus is solely on getting to the finish.
Only the fittest and most tenacious can see it through. Last year’s winner completed the course in just under 76 hours, running day and night along a tough mountain track, pausing along the way for a mere three hours or so of catnapping.
So how can it be that the finishers of this gruelling race end up experiencing less muscle soreness and fatigue than similarly fit athletes who compete in races less than half the length?
It appears that sleep deprivation and pacing strategies play key roles in protecting an athlete’s muscle tissue in extreme endurance events, according to a new study by researchers at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Lausanne, in Switzerland, which appears this week in the open-access journal Plos One.