a marathon runner running through mountains

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Researchers discover evolutionary evidence in ultra marathon runners

The brains of ultra marathon runners taking part in gruelling long-distance races may hold clues about our evolutionary past, a new study has found.

Researchers from Loughborough University discovered that athletes who lose weight during these events, which often last days and cover hundreds of miles, show significant adaptation of cognitive function to promote foraging ability.

This may increase ability to find food and increase survival chances during periods of energetic stress.  It is believed that these changes appear as the athletes’ brains remodelled to counteract a negative change in environment. 

Dr Danny Longman, a Lecturer in Physiology based in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, explained: “Throughout the human evolutionary journey, our ancestors regularly faced food insecurity and energetic stress.

“Here, we worked with ultramarathon runners to study how our brains might adapt during conditions of energetic stress. In runners covering distances of 250km (155 miles), we found a significant increase in performance in cognitive tasks linked to foraging ability. This has clear adaptive value, as an improved ability to find food would increase survival chances.”

data captured from Dr Longman's study.

I‌mage caption: Data captured from Dr Longman's study.

The study – delivered in collaboration with Professor Jay Stock (Western University, Canada) and Professor Jonathan Wells (University College London) focused on a cohort of ultra-endurance athletes participating in two 5-day 250km footraces in Jordan and Sri Lanka.

The journal article on the study be viewed in full by visiting the American Journal of Biological Anthropology website here: www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajpa.24820

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 23/122

Loughborough is one of the country’s leading universities, with an international reputation for research that matters, excellence in teaching, strong links with industry, and unrivalled achievement in sport and its underpinning academic disciplines.

It has been awarded five stars in the independent QS Stars university rating scheme, named the best university in the world for sports-related subjects in the 2023 QS World University Rankings – the seventh year running – and University of the Year for Sport by The Times and Sunday Times University Guide 2022.

Loughborough is ranked 7th in The UK Complete University Guide 2023, 10th in the Guardian University League Table 2023 and 11th in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2023.
Loughborough is consistently ranked in the top twenty of UK universities in the Times Higher Education’s ‘table of tables’, and in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021 over 90% of its research was rated as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally-excellent’. In recognition of its contribution to the sector, Loughborough has been awarded seven Queen's Anniversary Prizes.

The Loughborough University London campus is based on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and offers postgraduate and executive-level education, as well as research and enterprise opportunities. It is home to influential thought leaders, pioneering researchers and creative innovators who provide students with the highest quality of teaching and the very latest in modern thinking.