Background: Long-endurance exercises like ultramarathons are known to elicit various metabolic and physiological changes in the human body. However, little is known about very long-duration exercise at low intensities regarding healthy human subjects.
Aim: The purpose of this study was to evaluate changes in body composition and metabolism in long-endurance but low-intensity events.
Methods: Twenty-five male and 18 female healthy recreational athletes (age 34.6 ± 8.8 years; BMI: 22.4 ± 2.0 kg/m2) of the "100 km Mammutmarsch" were recruited for participation during the events in 2014-2016. Other than classical ultramarathons, the "Mammutmarsch" is a hiking event, in which participants were required to walk but not run or jog. It was expected to complete the 100-km distance within 24 h, resulting in a calculated mean speed of 4.17 km/h, which fits to the mean speed observed (4.12 ± 0.76 km/h). As not all participants reached the finish line, comparison of finishers (FIN, n = 11) and non-finishers (NON, n = 21) allowed differential assessment of performance. Body composition measured through bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) was determined pre- and post-event, and serum samples were taken pre-event, at 30, 70, and 100 km to determine NT-pro-BNP, troponin T, C-reactive protein (CRP), cortisol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL), high-density lipoprotein (HDL), triglycerides, total cholesterol, total creatine kinase (CK), CK-MB, aminotransferase (AST), ALT, and sodium levels. Nineteen participants wore actimeter armbands (SenseWear®) to gain information about body activity and exercise intensity [metabolic equivalent of task (MET)]. Sixteen participants wore mobile heart rate monitors to assess mean heart rate during the race. Serum parameter alterations over the course of the race were analyzed with mixed-effects ANOVA and additional t-tests. All serum parameters were analyzed for correlation concerning different MET levels, speed, age, BMI, baseline NT-pro-BNP, mean heart rate during the race, and sex with linear regression analysis.
Results: We found significant elevations for muscle and cardiac stress markers (CRP, CK, CK-MB, AST, ALT, cortisol, and NT-pro-BNP) as well as decreasing markers of lipid metabolism (cholesterol, triglycerides, LDL). Although the intensity level demanded from our participants was low compared with other studies on (ultra-) marathons, the alteration of tested parameters was similar to those of high-intensity exercise, e.g., NT-pro-BNP showed a fourfold increase (p < 0.01) and LDL decreased by 20% (p = 0.05). Besides the duration of exercise, age, BMI, training status, and sex are relevant parameters that influence the elevation of stress factors. Notably, our data indicate that NT-pro-BNP might be a marker for cardiovascular fitness also in healthy adults.
Conclusion: This low-intensity long-endurance walk evoked a strong systemic reaction and large cell stress and shifted to a favorable lipid profile, comparable to higher intensity events. Despite increasing cardiac stress parameters, there were no indications of cardiac cell damage. Remarkably, the duration seems to have a greater influence on stress markers and metabolism than intensity.