Scientists have recently become interested in the biomechanics of a very unusual activity: skyscraper run-ups.

Competitors in this extreme sport ascend the steps inside the world's tallest buildings, the winners often scaling thousands of steps in just a few minutes. The study of these athletes could shed light on the metabolic profile of athletes and impact on studies of ageing.

"The wide age range of participants, from teenagers to those approaching their centenary, has improved our knowledge of the decline in body performance as we get older," Professor Alberto Minetti from the University of Milan explains. "Industries involved in cardio-fitness could also include the algorithms that we have developed in heart rate monitors, to help athletes maintain their best possible performance throughout races."

Another very useful medical implication comes from previous work looking at differing gradients, which suggests that heart failure patients should rehabilitate by walking on a treadmill at a 10% downhill incline and at a slow, self-selected, speed.

Professor Minetti's research team used a very tiny but highly sophisticated digital altimeter to measure the speed of competitors climbing the Pirelli building in Milan. The results gave the researchers interesting insight into the best strategies run-up athletes should take.

"Because of the relatively short duration of run-up events, both anaerobic and aerobic energy resources are involved. By finely measuring the ascending speed during the race we noticed that some subjects had to suddenly reduce their speed somewhere in the middle of the race, suggesting that at this point anaerobic metabolism was negatively affecting aerobic respiration. Our studies suggest that the best athletes are those who do not show any sudden speed change, and therefore that athletes must wisely dose their initial effort in order not to jeopardize the rest of the performance," he concludes.

Minetti will be presenting his results on Wednesday 9th July at the Society for Experimental Biology's Annual Meeting in Marseille [Session A2].