Are those who participate in ultra marathons healthier?

There are athletes for whom a marathon is not enough. And then, they aim for an ultramarathon, that is, a race or course that exceeds 50 km / 31 miles. This type of event has become increasingly popular among lovers of intense sports, which represent a huge challenge both physical and mental. You have to be in good physical shape to try and in fact, according to studies, people who participate in them tend to have better health than the average. But still, you have to take precautions.   

Basically, the ultramarathon (ultrafondo or ultradistance), is a race that requires a distance greater than that of a traditional marathon (42 km and 195 m / 26 miles and 639 feet).

There are two types of ultramarathons: those that cover a specific distance (usually 50 or 100 kilometers / 31 or 62 miles), and those that take place during a specific time (for example, 12 hours). In the latter, the winner is the participant who covers the greatest distance in that time.

The popularity of ultramarathons has increased a lot in recent years. In the United States, for example, participation in them has increased from 15,500 in 1998 to more than 63,500 in 2012, according to the magazine UltraRunning . But despite that, we did not know much about the health benefits of this intense form of physical activity. To that end, a long-term study is being conducted on participants in extremely long careers.

The study, led by Dr. Eswar Krishnan, an epidemiologist and professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine , analyzed onlinequestionnaires that were answered by more than 1,200 participants in this type of career. In the questionnaires, questions were asked about the training that followed, their general health and the injuries that could have occurred during the previous 12 months. The researchers plan to track the participants for 20 years.

According to the results obtained so far, published in the journal PLoS One , in general, ultrafondistas are healthier than the average American. During the previous year, they missed work or university only two days due to illness or injury, compared to four days in the general population.

On the other hand, the majority of visits to the doctor of the ultrafondistas (64%) were due to injuries caused by the exercise. More than three-quarters suffered from an injury caused by the exercises in the previous year, and 65% lost at least one day of training due to an injury. As in all runners, most of the injuries had to do with the knees, legs and feet.

It is worth mentioning that the injuries were more frequent among the younger riders, who had less experience. In the next questionnaire, researchers hope to find out if certain knowledge or ways of adaptation help more experienced runners to protect themselves from injuries.

According to Dr. Krishnan, it happens as with the drivers. Novices are more likely to cause accidents than experienced ones. Similarly, ultrafondistas who have just started are more likely to suffer injuries than veterans.

The researchers found something else: 5% of the ultrafondistas had to be hospitalized after a competitive event during the previous year, and in more than half of those cases the cause was dehydration, electrolyte disorder (the body’s minerals) or for a sunstroke. And around 20% was due to fractures or dislocations.

In addition, 11% of ultrafondistas suffered from asthma and 25% allergy, compared with 7% and 8% respectively of the general population, who suffered from these conditions.

However, the highest level of allergies among ultrafondistas may be due to the fact that they spend more time abroad, and therefore have more contact with pollen and other allergens. As for asthma , it could be related precisely to allergies.

As you can see, despite the undoubted advantages for health that derive from running in ultramarathons, not everything is rosy. If you are planning to run in one , you should first do a complete medical checkup to see if your body is able to do so. And if the doctor gives you approval, start slowly and strictly follow the advice of your coach to avoid injuries and other types of health problems that can be prevented.

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