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Open Access Research article

Characteristics, changes and influence of body composition during a 4486 km transcontinental ultramarathon: results from the Transeurope Footrace mobile whole body MRI-project

Uwe HW Schütz12*, Christian Billich1, Kathrin König3, Christian Würslin3, Heike Wiedelbach1, Hans-Jürgen Brambs1 and Jürgen Machann34

Author affiliations

1 Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology, University Hospital of Ulm, Albert-Einstein-Allee 23, 89081, Ulm, Germany

2 Outpatient Rehabilitation Centre at University Hospital of Ulm, Pfarrer-Weiß-Weg 10, 89073, Ulm, Germany

3 Section on Experimental Radiology, Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology, University Hospital of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany

4 Institute for Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases (IDM), Metabolic Imaging – of the Helmholtz Center Munich at University of Tübingen (Paul Langerhaus Institute Tübingen), Tübingen, Germany

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Citation and License

BMC Medicine 2013, 11:122  doi:10.1186/1741-7015-11-122

Published: 8 May 2013

Abstract

Background

Almost nothing is known about the medical aspects of runners doing a transcontinental ultramarathon over several weeks. The results of differentiated measurements of changes in body composition during the Transeurope Footrace 2009 using a mobile whole body magnetic resonance (MR) imager are presented and the proposed influence of visceral and somatic adipose and lean tissue distribution on performance tested.

Methods

22 participants were randomly selected for the repeated MR measurements (intervals: 800 km) with a 1.5 Tesla MR scanner mounted on a mobile unit during the 64-stage 4,486 km ultramarathon. A standardized and validated MRI protocol was used: T1 weighted turbo spin echo sequence, echo time 12 ms, repetition time 490 ms, slice thickness 10 mm, slice distance 10 mm (breath holding examinations). For topographic tissue segmentation and mapping a modified fuzzy c-means algorithm was used. A semi-automatic post-processing of whole body MRI data sets allows reliable analysis of the following body tissue compartments: Total body volume (TV), total somatic (TSV) and total visceral volume (TVV), total adipose (TAT) and total lean tissue (TLT), somatic (SLT) and visceral lean tissue (VLT), somatic (SAT) and visceral adipose tissue (VAT) and somatic adipose soft tissue (SAST). Specific volume changes were tested on significance. Tests on difference and relationship regarding prerace and race performance and non-finishing were done using statistical software SPSS.

Results

Total, somatic and visceral volumes showed a significant decrease throughout the race. Adipose tissue showed a significant decrease compared to the start at all measurement times for TAT, SAST and VAT. Lean adipose tissues decreased until the end of the race, but not significantly. The mean relative volume changes of the different tissue compartments at the last measurement compared to the start were: TV −9.5% (SE 1.5%), TSV −9.4% (SE 1.5%), TVV −10.0% (SE 1.4%), TAT −41.3% (SE 2.3%), SAST −48.7% (SE 2.8%), VAT −64.5% (SE 4.6%), intraabdominal adipose tissue (IAAT) −67.3% (SE 4.3%), mediastinal adopose tissue (MAT) −41.5% (SE 7.1%), TLT −1.2% (SE 1.0%), SLT −1.4% (SE 1.1%). Before the start and during the early phase of the Transeurope Footrace 2009, the non-finisher group had a significantly higher percentage volume of TVV, TAT, SAST and VAT compared to the finisher group. VAT correlates significantly with prerace training volume and intensity one year before the race and with 50 km- and 24 hour-race records. Neither prerace body composition nor specific tissue compartment volume changes showed a significant relationship to performance in the last two thirds of the Transeurope Footrace 2009.

Conclusions

With this mobile MRI field study the complex changes in body composition during a multistage ultramarathon could be demonstrated in detail in a new and differentiated way. Participants lost more than half of their adipose tissue. Even lean tissue volume (mainly skeletal muscle tissue) decreased due to the unpreventable chronic negative energy balance during the race. VAT has the fastest and highest decrease compared to SAST and lean tissue compartments during the race. It seems to be the most sensitive morphometric parameter regarding the risk of non-finishing a transcontinental footrace and shows a direct relationship to prerace-performance. However, body volume or body mass and, therefore, fat volume has no correlation with total race performances of ultra-athletes finishing a 4,500 km multistage race.

Keywords:
Magnetic resonance imaging; MRI; Body mass; Body volume; Body composition; Running; Marathon; Ultramarathon; Performance; Adipose tissue; Body fat; Lean tissue; Visceral; Somatic; Topography; Segmentation; Mapping