10 Uncommon Facts From The World Of Ultrarunning
The ultrarunning scene is quickly gaining traction in the running community, transforming from events that have (relatively) few participants, to sold-out races and lotteries. There is no question that ultrarunning attracts a group of exceptional people, and here are ten uncommon facts about their sport.
1. Ultrarunners have better all-around health than the general population
An unprecedented study termed Ultrarunners Longitudinal Track Study (ULTRA1) followed over 1,200 ultrarunners over the course of 3 years to determine exactly how the sport of ultrarunning affected the body. Many scientists have assumed that ultrarunning is harder on a runner’s joints, muscles, and ligaments due to the extra stress, and that the immune system is likely more compromised.
However, ultrarunners did not significantly differ from their non-ultrarunning peers. Not surprisingly, they also displayed far superior health in comparison to those who do not run recreationally. For instance, only 7.5% of ultrarunners reported hypertension, while cancer rates were exceedingly low. The most common form of cancer to affect an ultrarunner was Basal cell carcinoma, with 1.6% reporting this condition. These statistics are significantly lower than average, with 33.4% of men and 30.4% of women over the age of 20 being hypertensive, while 41% of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life.
2. Older ultrarunners experience fewer injuries than their younger peers
The ULTRA study also looked at the incidence of injury among ultrarunners. The prevailing hypothesis was that older ultra-athletes would likely experience more injuries, due to decreased strength and weakening of bones and joints. However, the opposite was found. Masters runners (40 and older) were less likely to become injured than their younger counterparts.
The reasoning behind this statistic? Older runners tend to be more cautious in their training by decreasing their intensity. The younger runners were more likely to increase volume and speed, which is a common recipe for strains and stress fractures. Interestingly, ultrarunners had similar injury rates as runners of non-ultra distances.
3. Ultrarunners have more breathing problems
Although ultrarunners enjoy the benefits of better general health, they have a tendency to experience more asthma and allergies, with 25% reporting allergies and 13% reporting exercise-induced asthma, according to the ULTRA study. While an ultramarathoner’s lungs are commonly considered their best asset, the reality is that these athletes spend a greater proportion of their time outdoors during routine training runs.
In comparison to marathoners, whose races are primarily on roads, ultra-distance races are commonly held on trails. Therefore, allergens encountered during training and races are likely to be of a different variety than for people who train primarily on bike paths and sidewalks.
4. After a 100 mile race, ultrarunners feel less pain
One study2 looked at an ultrarunner’s pain tolerance after completion of Western States, and the results were surprising. Twenty-one competitors (and 11 control subjects who did not race) subjected themselves to a pain test before and after the 100-miler via a device that delivered painful pressure to the hand. After pressure was applied, subjects were asked to rate their pain from a scale of 0 – 100, with 100 being excruciating.
Prior to the race, the fastest runners (finishing times less than 24 hours), described the pain as an average of 53 on the pain scale. After the race, their pain perception markedly decreased, reporting the same pressure to be 39 on the scale. Interestingly, there was no significant change in pain perception for the slower runners (finishing between 24 and 30 hours) nor the control group. Exercise has been shown previously to produce an analgesic effect in athletes.
5. Ultrarunners suffer more foot injuries than other runners
Although ultrarunners suffer injuries at the same rate as other non-ultrarunners, the types of injuries experienced are not the same. During the ULTRA study, researchers found that ultramarathoners are more likely to develop injuries in their feet, particularly stress fractures. This phenomenon may be caused by the increased likelihood of uneven terrain during ultramarathon races and training runs.
6. Like fine wine, ultramarathoners get better with age
Researchers from Switzerland analyzed 10 years worth of results from a 100k race near Bern, Switzerland and found an interesting correlation: Unlike shorter distance races, ultramarathoners improve as they move up in age group. This trend was observed up to the 45-49 age group in men, and 50 – 54 age group in women. While the reasoning is unclear, this statistic may have to do with the fact that older ultrarunners experience less injury, or that many people try ultrarunning only after first competing in marathons.
7. Ultrarunners temporarily lose brain mass following their events
One of the more alarming bodies of research has looked at brain mass following an ultramarathon event. A unique study3 followed 44 runners through the 2009 Trans Europe Foot Race, which covers 2,800 miles over the course of nine weeks. At check points along the way, scientists subjected the competitors to a series of tests, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The MRI scans revealed that at the end of the race, brain mass had shrunk an average of 6.1%. However, in follow up studies, no lasting effects on the brain were recorded. While dehydration and fatigue certainly played a role, researchers also believe that lack of mental diversity throughout the race affected brain size.
8. Body fat percentage doesn’t matter in ultrarunning, but upper arm size does
The same researchers that discovered the effect of age on ultrarunning performance from Switzerland also studied the effect of body metrics on finishing performance. Interestingly, body fat percentage had little to no effect on overall finish time; however, the circumference of an athlete’s biceps (but not calves) was a better predictive variable. As it turns out, strong arms may be dead weight, instead of propulsion.
On the same note, running form may be a crucial factor to success.
9. Ultrarunners experience vivid hallucinations
Another alarming side effect of ultrarunning is the propensity to experience illusions during these long events. While it is well known that dehydration and exhaustion can cause a person to hallucinate, the fact remains that this phenomenon is far more likely during an ultrarunning event, particularly one beyond 100 miles. While no formal research has been performed, a student from the University of Texas at El Paso wrote a thesis on the subject, after reporting that 30%
Badland’s 135 participants experienced hallucinations during the event. While most people may guess that the runners dreamed of seeing water stops or the finish line, the result was far more disturbing. One participant reported visions of rotting corpses and the physical sensation of being grabbed. Types of hallucinations reported included auditory, visual, tactile, or combinatory sensations.
10. Alcohol at aid stations is not uncommon – and may enhance performance
Aid stations present an oasis for runners, offering beverages hot and cold, supplements, candy, solid food, and soup. At many races runners also find themselves with the opportunity to take a shot or two of alcohol. While no formal studies into alcohol and ultrarunning exist, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that libations are present. If nothing more than a placebo, alcohol can calm nerves, reduce pain, and take the edge off of fatigued and anxious runners, while also promoting a sense of camaraderie. While alcohol may be an odd part of the sport, it certainly is not uncommon.
1. Hoffman MD, Krishnan E. Health and Exercise-Related Medical Issues among 1,212 Ultramarathon Runners: Baseline Findings from the Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) Study. Lucia A, ed. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(1):e83867. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0083867. Link
2. Hoffman MD, Lee J, Zhao H, Tsodikov A. Pain perception after running a 100-mile ultramarathon. Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. 2007;88:1042–1048. Link
3. Freund W, Faust S, Birklein F, et al. Substantial and reversible brain gray matter reduction but no acute brain lesions in ultramarathon runners: experience from the TransEurope-FootRace Project. BMC Medicine. 2012;10:170. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-10-170. Link