Studies on human physical performance in extreme environments have effectively approached the investigation of adaptation mechanisms and their physiological limits. As scientific interest in the interplay between physiological and psychological aspects of performance is growing, we aimed to investigate cardiac autonomic control, by means of heart rate variability, and psychological correlates, in competitors of a subarctic ultramarathon, taking place over a 690 km course (temperatures between +5 and -47°C). At baseline (PRE), after 277 km (D1), 383 km (D2), and post-race (POST, 690 km), heart rate (HR) recordings (supine, 15 min), psychometric measurements (Profile of Mood States/POMS, Borg fatigue, and Karolinska Sleepiness Scale scores both upon arrival and departure) were obtained in 16 competitors (12 men, 4 women, 38.6 ± 9.5 years). As not all participants reached the finish line, comparison of finishers (FIN, n = 10) and non-finishers (NON, n = 6), allowed differential assessment of performance. Resting HR increased overall significantly at D1 (FIN +15.9; NON +14.0 bpm), due to a significant decrease in parasympathetic drive. This decrease was in FIN only partially recovered toward POST. In FIN only, baseline HR was negatively correlated with mean velocity [r -0.63 (P.04)] and parasympathetic drive [pNN50+: r -0.67 (P.03)], a lower HR and a higher vagal tone predicting a better performance. Moreover, in FIN, a persistent increase of the long-term self-similarity coefficient, assessed by detrended fluctuation analysis (DFAα2), was retrieved, possibly due to higher alertness. As for psychometrics, at D1, POMS Vigor decreased (FIN: -7.0; NON: -3.8), while Fatigue augmented (FIN: +6.9; NON: +5.0). Sleepiness increased only in NON, while Borg scales did not exhibit changes. Baseline comparison of mood states with normative data for athletes displayed significantly higher positive mood in our athletes. Results show that: the race conditions induced early decreases in parasympathetic drive; the extent of vagal withdrawal, associated to the timing of its recovery, is crucial for success; pre-competition lower resting HR predicts a better performance; psychological profile is reliably depicted by POMS, but not by Borg fatigue scales. Therefore, assessment of heart rate variability and psychological profile may monitor and partly predict performance in long-duration ultramarathon in extreme cold environment.
Keywords: cold; exercise performance; extreme environments; fatigue; heart rate variability; mood; subarctic ultramarathon; ultra-endurance.