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Sports scientists help athletes tackle Sahara desert challenge


The University of Hull brought the brutal environment of the Sahara desert to Yorkshire for five local athletes who are competing in the toughest foot race on earth – the Marathon des Sables.

To prepare for the crippling dehydration and high temperatures they will face in the six-day race across the Sahara, the athletes trained in the University’s environmental chamber in the Department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science.

Sports scientists at the University are currently investigating the effectiveness of short-term (4-day) heat acclimation on exercise in hot environments – and the long-distance runners were the latest athletes to benefit from the latest research findings and facilities.

The University has a heritage of high-calibre research in sports science – which it is envisaged will become integral to its recently-announced six-year exclusive partnership with Team GB, borne out of a synergy between the University’s ambitions and beliefs and those of Team GB.

The five athletes are taking part in the Marathon des Sables (2019), a 251km race which started yesterday (Sunday 7 April) and is approximately equivalent to six consecutive marathons in the Sahara desert. 

Under the direction of Dr Andrew Garrett,the heat acclimation programme for the Marathon des Sables competitors coincided with their final preparations for the 251km race. 

Dr Garrett, who has been researching the mechanisms of fatigue in heat stress conditions for 15 years, said: “The heat chamber at the University enabled us to prepare the athletes for the challenge ahead. The race takes place across rough terrain, in hot desert and is challenging for the athletes on so many levels: cumulative fatigue, sleep deprivation, dehydration, high solar loads and limited shade. Competing and training in hot weather is not without risk – so we were keen to build on our existing research by helping the athletes to adapt to heat stress in advance of the event.” 

Thermal image Marathon des Sables

Thermal image of one of the athletes in the University’s heat chamber

Beneficial adaptations include: a lower body temperature, reduced heart rate, increased sweat rate for cooling and an increase in human performance. 

The five male competitors underwent 90 minutes heat exposure, with no fluid intake, for four consecutive days at 39.5 degrees centigrade and 60% humidity.  During each acclimation session there was approximately 30 minutes cycling exercise, controlled by maintaining body core temperature at 38.5 degrees centigrade.

Before and after the 4-day heat acclimation, the participants took part in an exercise test that consisted of 90 minutes cycling exercise in hot conditions (35 degrees centigrade and 60% humidity), followed by an endurance performance test to exhaustion. Non-weight bearing cycling was the preferred mode of exercise, as a strategy for injury prevention before competition. This heat acclimation programme took place within 7 days before the start of the 2019 Marathon des Sables to ensure the competitors retained any adaptation to the heat.

This short-term heat acclimation method for four days was effective for physiological adaptation in a hot environment for the Marathon des Sables competitors. Lower body core temperature, reduced heart rate response, perception of exercise intensity and increased endurance performance was observed. 

Dr Garrett said: “Therefore, given the various problems of preparing and performing in an ultra-endurance race in the Sahara desert - the potential detrimental issues of prolonged heat exposure have been prepared for.”


“We have really enjoyed having research participants who have real and definitive goals in mind, directly benefitting from the work in a race situation.”

Jake Shaw, MSc research student

Dr Andrew Garrett paid tribute to the team of academic staff and students who helped the athletes to prepare for their challenge: Dr James Bray, Dr Andrew Simpson, Rachel Burke and Damien Gleadall-Siddall; as well as postgraduate students Jake Shaw, Cory Walkington, Edward Cole and Angus Williams; and final year undergraduate students Joe Leftley, Layton Jackson, Lilly Green and Meghan Hughes who have also contributed throughout the course of the project.

This research is part of an extensive range of exercise-focused work in the University of Hull’s Faculty of Health Sciences.


“It has been a really good opportunity applying an understanding of the human body in a practical situation. I have really enjoyed speaking with the individual competitors, who have all been really keen on learning about how their own bodies adapt to the heat.”

Cory Walkington, MSc research student

The department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science aims to enhance understanding of practices and processes that support active lifestyles, health, well-being, sporting performance and coaching practices. It includes three groups focused on research related to the rehabilitation of chronic diseases and long-term conditions to transform the lives of people living with chronic diseases and long-term health conditions, such as amputation, peripheral vascular disease and osteoporosis; sport psychology and coaching concerned with the wellbeing of both athletes and coaches; and personal technologies including smartwatches.

Dr Andrew Garrett has published an article on this research in The Conversation; "Marathon des Sables: how we rapidly acclimatised five runners for the gruelling race"


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