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Between changes in elevation, terrain and weather, athletes who compete in mountain ultra-marathons can expect an extreme test of endurance and grit while running these 50-kilometer (~31 miles) races. But is there a way to predict the type of athlete that will post the best finishing time? New research presented today at the Experimental Biology 2016 meeting in San Diego suggests that a runner’s pre-race anaerobic fitness capacity may be a key factor in determining who will have the fastest finishing times.

Researchers at Simon Frasier University (SFU) in British Columbia observed two measures of fitness among the mountain marathoners: aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Aerobic fitness refers to how the body uses energy when there is enough oxygen, such as the energy burn that occurs when running at a comfortable pace. Anaerobic fitness refers to the body’s ability to exercise when there’s not enough oxygen, such as during a sprint to the finish line at the end of a race.

The research team assessed 10 healthy male mountain marathon competitors of similar age, weight and height. Aerobic capacity was measured by having the subjects run to the point of exhaustion on a treadmill, while anaerobic capacity was assessed through seated cycling ergometer.

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