Purpose: Ultramarathon running offers a unique possibility to investigate the mechanisms contributing to the limitation of endurance performance. Investigations of locomotor muscle fatigue show that central fatigue is a major contributor to the loss of strength in the lower limbs after an ultramarathon. In addition, respiratory muscle fatigue is known to limit exercise performance, but only limited data are available on changes in respiratory muscle function after ultramarathon running and it is not known whether the observed impairment is caused by peripheral and/or central fatigue.
Methods: In 22 experienced ultra-trail runners, we assessed respiratory muscle strength, i.e., maximal voluntary inspiratory and expiratory pressures, mouth twitch pressure (n = 16), and voluntary activation (n = 16) using cervical magnetic stimulation, lung function, and maximal voluntary ventilation before and after a 110-km mountain ultramarathon with 5862 m of positive elevation gain.
Results: Both maximal voluntary inspiratory (−16% ± 13%) and expiratory pressures (−21% ± 14%) were significantly reduced after the race. Fatigue of inspiratory muscles likely resulted from substantial peripheral fatigue (reduction in mouth twitch pressure, −19% ± 15%; P < 0.01), as voluntary activation (−3% ± 6%, P = 0.09) only tended to be decreased, suggesting negligible or only mild levels of central fatigue. Forced vital capacity remained unchanged, whereas forced expiratory volume in 1 s, peak inspiratory and expiratory flow rates, and maximal voluntary ventilation were significantly reduced (P < 0.05).
Conclusions: Ultraendurance running reduces respiratory muscle strength for inspiratory muscles shown to result from significant peripheral muscle fatigue with only little contribution of central fatigue. This is in contrast to findings in locomotor muscles. Whether this difference between muscle groups results from inherent neuromuscular differences, their specific pattern of loading or other reasons remain to be clarified.