The Ultra-Marathoner

I was asked last week to blog about running and the dangers of running too much. Specifically, what about running 100 miles? Ultra marathon runners can’t get enough. They like to run – a lot! More than the average runner. Ultra-marathons are usually 50 to 100 (or more) mile treks. While many fit athletes work hard to compete in a standard marathon (26.2 miles) there is a smaller subset of athletes who think that is just not enough. Are they insane ?! You might say yes, but they’d say there is nothing like it! These patients of mine who go to such extremes have special health concerns.

The health benefits of exercise are well known and running or jogging is often a part of this. There have been many studies documenting improved cardiovascular function and well-being. There is little data, however, on the effects of huge volumes of physical activity – good or bad.

A recent study at Stanford University looked at over 1200 ultra-marathoners. They interviewed these athletes about their physical condition, training, injuries and illnesses. The results were compared with sedentary adults and recreational runners.

The results did show definite changes in the ultra-group. There was in low incidence of high blood pressure and irregular heartbeats reported in 7.5% of runners. Less than 1% had been diagnosed with heart disease or had a stroke or cancer. Skin cancers were the most common malignancy (1.6% of runners – outside all the time in the sun – don’t forget the sunscreen). These values were lower than age-matched more sedentary adults.

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There was a higher incidence of breathing trouble with about one-third complaining of allergies or asthma. More than half of these advanced runners said they had an injury in the last year to keep them from running. These included knee problems and stress fractures. The injuries were most common in the less experienced younger athletes.

runawayRunning pace was typically slower than routine marathoners. Despite the time commitment, it was fascinating to see the ultra-runners were less frequent to be absent from work and rarely needed to see a doctor. Often, they would ignore their musculoskeletal complaints and had a lower risk of developing most diseases.

Overall, running 50 to 100 miles on a weekend is not a normal activity, and the chance of bone and joint problems is high, however there are health benefits to running that seem to be present in this aggressive exercise group.