619km trek across UAE in 7 days: How record-breaking feat impacted expat’s body, mind

Researchers identify biochemical signs of cell damage


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Photos: @seanburgess.me/Instagram
Photos: @seanburgess.me/Instagram

Published: Sun 17 Jul 2022, 1:24 PM

Last updated: Sun 17 Jul 2022, 10:39 PM

The UAE often sees its residents attempt endurance events and set world records. However, what’s often overlooked is its impact on the human body.

A new study conducted in the UAE offers fascinating insights into the physical and physiological impact of a record-breaking distance challenge on a resident.

Sean Burgess, an amateur athlete from the UK who lives in Dubai, covered 619km in six days, 21 hours, and 47 seconds, travelling on foot from Al Ghuwaifat on the UAE’s western border to an east coast beach in Fujairah. Scientists at the Mohammed bin Rashid University of Medicine and Health Sciences (MBRU) and Mediclinic monitored the 34-year-old’s training for two months beforehand, conducted extensive tests, and constantly analysed him during and after the challenge.

Researchers identified biochemical signs of cell damage, inflammation, stress, and plummeting levels of body fat.

The sleep impact

"The physical pain, in general, is to be expected, but the impact of mental strain was quite informative because unless you have completed an endurance event of the same magnitude, it is difficult to grasp exactly the role that the mind plays. Another factor was, for example, the lack of sleep, and how it affects performance,” said Dr. Thomas Boillat, assistant professor of Healthcare Innovation and Technologies, MBRU.

After a few hours into the attempt, Burgess started to suffer from gastrointestinal pain, vomiting, and diarrhoea, which might have been caused by an excess of speed on one hand, and sugar on the other. He slept very little and got only two-and-a-half hours of quality sleep during the first three days of the challenge, thus starving his body of the time and energy required to recharge, recover, and repair.

Post-challenge analysis

The pain does not end at the finish line, the analysis found.

“Aside from shin splints that made walking difficult for the first week after the event, he also struggled with quality sleep, managing only one or two hours per night for the first month. He would wake up with nightmares about having many miles still to complete. That only started to fade after five weeks,” said Dr Tom Loney, associate professor of Public Health and Epidemiology, MBRU.


Training for the attempt started about 12 months prior to the event. Burgess ran five-six hours per week (40-50km per week). Six to nine months prior to the event, he gradually increased his running volume to 10 hours per week (80-100km per week). During the final six months preceding the event, the athlete maintained a running schedule of 15 hours per week (125-150km).

“This case study encourages amateur athletes attempting similar ultra-endurance events to follow a pre-planned hydration and nutrition strategy to maximise performance and minimise the risk of injury,” said Professor Stefan Du Plessis, dean of Research and Graduate Studies and professor of Physiology at the College of Medicine, MBRU.

Dr. Alan Kourie, head of Sports Medicine at Mediclinic Middle East, said it is “vital” to consult a sports medicine physician in the pre-planning stage, complement endurance training with sport-specific strength and conditioning, and “importantly develop psychological skills that will assist in coping with physical pain, discomfort, sleep deprivation, and injury”.

The study results published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine  were based on blood tests taken before and after the event, data recorded by a smartwatch worn during the challenge, and pre- and post-event interviews.


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