Whilst regular exercise is strongly associated with numerous health benefits, less is known about the health impact of extreme levels of exercise, and there’s nothing more extreme than an ultramarathon!
An ultramarathon is any event involving running and walking longer than the traditional marathon length (26.2 miles), with the most common distances being 50 kilometres, 100 kilometres, 50 miles and 100 miles. I’m sure ultramarathon runners have heard the same thing time and time again ‘you must be doing more harm than good’, however a recent study of 1,212 ultramarathon runners might suggest otherwise.
Unsurprisingly, ultramarathon runners were found to be healthier than the general population, as well as having fewer medical needs (except for those related to running!) A low prevalence of serious medical issues amongst ultramarathon runners was also found, including a low rate of cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes. Whilst the most common medical conditions were found to be hay fever and asthma, potentially due to greater exposure to airborne allergens and drying the airways during exercise.
The study also found ultramarathon runners to report fewer missed work or school days due to illness or injury, missing an average of 2.2 days in the 12 months prior, whilst the average employed American misses 3.7. The runners also reported an average of just one day in the past 12 months in which they spent more than half of the day in bed due to injury or illness, compared to 4.7 days reported by adult Americans! These findings suggest that ultramarathon runners are much healthier than the general population. However many other factors could also impact this association, as ultramarathon runners have been found to have higher levels of education and may lead healthier lifestyles than the general population.
However it may come as no surprise that ultramarathon runners were found to experience common running related injuries, with more than 60% of participants reporting an exercise related injury in the previous 12 months. Interestingly, those who sustained these injuries were younger and less experienced.
Whilst the study relied on self-report data which can be unreliable, it does add further support to a growing area of research, suggesting that any activity is much better than none.
Adie Blanchard – Researcher
Hoffman, M. D., & Krishnan, E. (2014). Health and Exercise-Related Medical Issues among 1,212 Ultramarathon Runners: Baseline Findings from the Ultrarunners Longitudinal TRAcking (ULTRA) Study. PloS one, 9(1), e83867.