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Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1999 May;31(5):723-8.

Marathons in altitude.

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Marathon Sports Medical Center, Brescia, Italy.



We examined the effect of altitude up to 5200 m on marathon (42,195 m) performances.


Eight elite and four good runners participated in a marathon at 4300-m altitude (A1), and five elite runners participated both in A1 and in a marathon at 5200-m altitude (A2). The maximal aerobic power (VO2max) was determined indirectly in altitude during A1 and A2 expeditions from the scores of a 12-min running test. The fractions of VO2max utilized during both races were calculated from the linear relationship between running speed and VO2 described by Costill and Fox (1969).


VO2max significantly decreases with altitude (P<0.001). We found a linear relationship (R2 = 0.73, P<0.001) between the speed of each participant in the sea level marathon and the speed of A1. The mean difference between the sea level and the A1 speed was 35+/-9% (P<0.001). In A1, elite runners utilized 63+/-8% whereas good runners utilized 52+/-8% of VO2max (P<0.001). The five elite runners utilized 74+/-6%; 67+/-1% (P< 0.01), and 71+/-3% (P<0.01) of their VO2max at sea level, A1, and A2, respectively. In Al, the mean heart rate (HR) was higher in elite than in good runners (P<0.001), whereas the percentage of maximum theoretical HR was 83+/-3% and 81+/-5%, respectively (P>0.05).


Marathon performance in altitude is mainly affected by the lower VO2max. The better performance of elite marathoners in altitude compared with good runners was related to the higher % of VO2max maintained during every marathon. The differences between the expected and the observed performances at high altitude depend on the uneven running path and on a poorer economy of running that is related to the higher mechanical work of breathing. The fractional utilization of VO2max seems lowered by acute exposure to altitude and slightly increases with acclimatization.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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