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What happens to the body and mind during extreme sports?

A team of researchers including extreme sports enthusiast Ciara Burns embarked on a 42-day Atlantic rowing adventure in 2021 with a team of twelve. The goal of the expedition was to explore the connection between physical exertion and mental strain under extreme conditions.

“Unassisted rowing across the Atlantic Ocean is an extreme undertaking challenging the human body in every possible way. The reported rowing journey lasted for 42 days in a small vessel with 12 rowers, each rowing for 12 hours a day, broken into 3 hour shifts,” wrote the researchers. 

“This schedule disrupts the natural circadian cycle and autonomic balance, affecting subjective and objective wellbeing and sleep quality, that lack continuous empirical quantification.”

Biomedical sensing 

Over the course of the expedition, Burns recorded her heart rate variations with specialized sensors and documenting her subjective well-being. 

Professor Eugenijus Kaniusas heads the Biomedical Sensing and Therapy research group at TU Wien and provided scientific support for the project. 

“You can derive a lot of interesting findings from the heart rate recordings,” said Professor Kaniusas. “The variability of the heart rate is particularly important for us. From it, you can infer the general state of fitness, sleep quality and how well someone can regenerate during sleep.”

Strenuous routine 

However, Burns and her team adopted an unconventional sleep routine throughout their Atlantic endeavor, with members alternating between three hours of rowing and three hours of rest around the clock. 

Burns highlighted three strenuous phases within this regime: the initial adjustment period, the mid-journey realization of the immense distance remaining, and the tantalizing final stretch where the destination was in sight but not yet reachable. 

These periods corresponded with measurable dips in sleep quality, emphasizing the strong link between psychological states and physiological parameters.

Protective mode 

In addition to these observations, data revealed a progressive decline in the body’s ability to toggle efficiently between sleep and wakefulness as the journey unfolded. 

Despite this, the body seemed to instinctively adopt protective measures to prevent heart overload.

“At the same time, the body seems to enter a kind of protective mode to protect the heart from overload,” explained Professor Kaniusas. “The average heartbeat slows down, and the activity of the parasympathetic nervous system, which plays an important role in controlling the internal organs, increases.”

Study significance 

Studies like this are rare, and collecting scientific data amid the challenging oceanic conditions makes them even more unprecedented. 

“Ciara Burns has done highly precise work here with unprecedented dedication,” said Kaniusas. “The project was also reviewed by the ethics committee of TU Wien and supported in an exemplary way.”

Study implications 

Following rigorous analysis of the gathered data, the researchers suggest future extreme athletes might benefit from a gradual transition into intensive rhythms instead of abrupt changes. 

In addition, introducing rewards or enjoyable activities at the mid-point of similar extreme endeavors might provide much-needed morale boosts for participants bracing for the journey’s second half.

“Maybe some special, enjoyable activity that lets you celebrate that you’re halfway through the effort and comfort yourself over the realization that there is still a long way to go,” said Professor Kaniusas.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology

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