Does Ultraunning Promote Health and Fitness?

Tired runner

It’s my contention, especially after having varied my activities greatly over the last few months, that while there is great variety in ultrarunners and ultrarunning participant intent, none of it really has much to do with health and fitness.

“What? He’s an idiot”, you might be saying. That’s ok, you’re kinda right, I’m not very smart, but I digress…

50-Mile Ultramarathon

Let’s look at a 50-mile ultra. While there is an elite field, typically of very small, efficient runners, running continuously for the duration of the event, and doing so without tremendous trauma to the body, the majority of runners on the course are either shot-out by 30 miles in, walking a ton, maybe limping, or at the very least, working around some kind of overuse injury that’s flaring up.

They may or may not choose to continue to endure this trauma until the finish.

Depends on how bad they want it.

Fitness or Fight?

In my opinion of one, this is not participating in activity for health and fitness benefit. Nor is training like this a key to improved health and fitness.

Does it make one stronger?


Depends on your definition of “stronger”. If stronger means both physical and mental ability to endure pain, then yea, I guess so – but if stronger means better and more efficient adaptation to perform well, then I would say, no. Instead, you put yourself in a position of needing more recovery, allowing for less quality workouts, and thus a sort of stagnant athletic performance improvement.

Room with a View

Standing on the outside a little now, I see the close relationship between ultrarunning and addiction. NOT EVERYONE, but I do see the undertones that I perhaps did not recognize before. From the social aspects, to feeling a need to abuse oneself within a venue of others, who are also absuing themselves and thus making it seem ok – or even better, “as an extreme sport”

But like the Jurek article showcased a few years ago in Runners World, its hard to view it as sport from the outside perspective, late in a race, when physical bodies, in poor, untrained physical shape, are walking and leaning, barely covering ground, and simply enduring for hours on end.

It’s a resilience and determination worth applauding, but is it athletic sport? Is it performance?

This is the grey area where a lot of ultrarunners stand up and start screaming - “who are you to tell me how to enjoy my sport?!” – and - “Ultraunning is very personal and can be defined however I want”

And flames start between the “yea, leave us alone” crowd, and the “well, you know, 15 hours on a 50 mile course is not racing” crowd.

Fragmentation of “Sport”

I believe this is what makes ultrarunning a very fragmented, varied sport. Less respected by athletes of the popular definition, and way respected by those who only have a very small understanding of what true ultra event participation isreally like, and what really goes on.

In the end, I guess its true. It’s a personal thing. Some, like me and my experiences, have addictive personalities and dove head first into ultrarunning, seem to progress a little, but suffer a lot, and flame out over and over (just like Rob Y. warned me).

Others, take to the sport, learn they have a knack for it up front, in the elite pack, and choose to become racers – but always struggle with the “when will we be recognized as real athletes with real winnings?” — interestingly, there appears to be a lot of burn-out and injury here, too.

Then, there is a more “life long” crowd. These people stay attached to the sport because they genuinely like it – the people, the challenges, the long excursions outdoors – but they never seem to take it too seriously. The non-addicts. They jump in and out when the feeling hits, try to train reasonably for a finish, and rarely judge the performance based on anything other than how they felt about the entire experience.

I guess, in 2013, this is the ultrarunner I strive to be. There are some events, like Zane Grey 50-mile, like Fuego Y Agua 100K, that I want to do for very personal reasons, knowing full well I will have a mind-blowing experience that will wreck me to complete exhaustion, regardless of how well I’m trained.

But, not for one single second will I believe that any of my training beyond 20 miles is really fitness training – and in fact, I will view it as counterproductive to becoming the strongest, fittest and healthiest that I can become.

With regards to physical movement (i.e. exercise), strength, fitness and optimal health comes from a variety of functional training, from a variety of styles and adaption, and NOT specialization in one movement or activity.


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@Jason: are you just trying to get to me with skateboarding? Seriously J-DAAAAAWG, nice response. I get that sentiment as well.

Great Questions ! Hell , I have never even considered Ultra Running a sport , much like skateboarding, ultra running found me . It was buried in my soul and needed to come out and I find great pleasure in running long distances through the mountains , it soothes me and makes me smile from the inside, I don’t care about what time i finish or even if there is a race. I just need to be in the woods with some friends climbing mountains. So I don’t run for fitness, I don’t even exercise. What I do is wake up everyday and satisfy my soul whether that be by running 15 miles or bombing a hill on my skateboard because it is the soul that breathes for you when you don’t have a breath left.

@Jimmy: man, thanks for weighing in, Jimmy. We’ve been in touch since Above the Clouds, and I have enjoyed your approach, both from shredding Angeles Crest and Miwok over the years, to how you train people and organize your club and volunteer at events. A valuable perspective from someone whom I respect greatly. Cheers!

Nice piece, brutha. Asks some HARD questions, comes up with some honest answers. I’m an addict, no doubt. My argument for (continuing) doing this is more about the moderation in training to create health benefits, while RACE DAY itself can be destructive, training (when NOT doing insane back-to-back 6-hour runs EVERY WEEKEND) can be moving one’s health and well being forward. Enjoyed reading this…

@BickelBonkers: first, waaaaaas up, speedy? Long time, man… Thanks for commenting.

Second, I get that and feel much the same way with regards to UR peeps and vibe and all that. Shoots, how else would I have met Weezy? That, in and of itself, is worth every sufferfest I endured. BUT, I’m asking the question regarding our sport, the sport of ultrarunning, and if it in fact promotes health and fitness responsibly. Not, “do we get good shit out of it?” cuz clearly we all can atest that we do – but does our sport promote health and fitness well, or are there better approaches? And if so, is it possible that more varied activity is better for our overall health and fitness in the long run (no pun intended). Hope to see you at Fat Ass in January.

C-dollar; For some, it’s about talking about what you can do and how awesome you are. For others, it’s about LIVING and LOVING what you do and can be. If I am smiling and happy about what I am doing, I don’t really care if it makes me live a longer life or cuts out a few days. Cherish the days you have.

You are spot on that the sport attracts a bit of an addictive personality. But I’d take that addiction any day and twice on Sunday. Many of the best people in my life are from the ultra community.

Do what makes you happy and you will be fulfilled.

@JR: (ex)Big Cat, you are a special, special case. You know that I am a HUGE supporter of you and all you have accomplished, so don’t take this wrong, BUT within your tremendous weight loss success, and speaking purely from a strength and fitness perspective only (not the touchy-feely ultra stuff), is it possible that you could have obtained your goals much faster, and with better muscle tone and development with less super long distance, and the addition of fast speedwork and strength training? I say yes.

BUT, all that said, and I also agree with Run Bum Blanton, the little freak, that “epic” is a key part of ultrarunning. We all define epic differently, but I am assuming you mean to rugged, tough and/or beautiful courses that stand out above the rest. This is now my MAIN ultra focus – no circle jerks, no repeats just cuz they are local, no expectations; just kick-ass new experiences, in “epic” locations, on epic and new and challenging terrain. If I’m gonna suffer, there’s gotta be more to it than gummi bears and trail conversations.

@Jeff: Congratulations on your first 50-mile completion. Thanks for commenting

Good read, Christian!

It’s no secret that I participate in ultramarathons for reasons other than pure fitness and health, since I have done the “death march” at some point during every single one of my ultramarathons and since the recovery from these races can sometimes be counterproductive to my fitness goals.
To quote Run Bum Sean, I like the idea of doing something “epic” from time to time as escapism from my underwhelming normal life as a middle-of-the-road civil servant, and ultramarathons are adventures, through and through. A trail ultramarathon is the best adventure one can have in this day and age. I rough myself up a bit in the process, and I’ll come home with the scars and pains to show for it, but that’s a small price to pay for having a great adventure and a great story to tell for the ages.

However… The body adapts. The body adapts slowly, but surely. Last year, I had a DNF at Mile 75 of Pinhoti 100, and I could not run, nor did I really want to run, for a few months. This year, I showed up in better shape, I finished the 100, I earned a personal record at a 40-miler less than a month later, and, aside from some IT band pain the next day, I had no soreness to speak of from that 40-miler. I barely felt as though I had gone for a run at all.

I love the way that one of my ultrarunning heroes, Steve Michael, explained it to me a couple of years ago during a GUTS Tuesday run, when I was talking about my never-ending back-of-the-pack finishes at races. Steve told me, “If you just keep participating in ultramarathons and stay with it, then you’ll have a good race sometimes.”

Steve was right. In the midst of all my death march finishes, my DFL experiences, and my struggles, I have two top ten rankings (A Stroll in Central Park 12-Hour in 2011 and Georgia Jewel 50-mile in 2012) and a few other finishes of which I am truly proud.

This is what it’s all about for me. It’s worth being the bug 90% of the time to be the windshield just 10% of the time. I stick with it, let my body slowly adapt to the endurance, and I sometimes pull a decent performance out of my hat.

Practice will never equal perfect in the world of ultramarathons, but practice does equal increased tolerance, and, with increased tolerance, comes improvement.

Besides, my current banged-up and scarred 180-pound self is still healthier than my well-rested 400-pound self used to be.

Well analyzed introspection Christian. I just completed my first 50 miles in a 24hr timed event and though I took it very slow I just sat back and enjoyed the experience.

But yes I believe you are right in that past 20 miles is not so much about fitness but about proving to yourself and to others how much inner strength you have.

@Christopher: as always, the smooth soul. Thank you for your comments. I get it completely.

Christian, Great article and topic. Introspection is a strength in my opinion. If you define health in cardiovascular terms and prevention is your number one goal you will need to address diet, exercise, sleep, stress reduction as factors in the equation. Health in America with it for profit health economy is enormously complex and difficult to define.
I feel that my participation in ultra activities slow as it is is leading to my overall health and fitness as is my daily xtraining of Tai Chi Chuan, meditation, yoga, prayer.
I think the book Indian Running a tradition and history most closely associates the social communion I experience on the trails or track for hours and hours and hours.
Addiction is part of our society and I like the words mediatized and singularities. We are fascinated by all manners of media but until we develop
the singularity within each of us that connects us to all that is we will not rise above our addictions.

Ah, my man, Sully.

It t’aint the half-cocked attitude towards the distances. It’s a discussion on health and fitness, big daaaawg. My ultrarunning passion is strong, yo — I’m just trying to sort out what the true intent is. Why I chase it? …and toss out what offends my soul. Is it health and fitness? I say, “no.” But do I love it, Yes, I do cuz I have serious issues. :)

…and, quit responding just to promote yo’ carolina blog

Speaking from my experiences and yours. Why in the world are you going into these races with a half cocked attitude about the distances?

It sounds like you are heading down the DNF road to me. I wouldn’t do either of them and stick to what you believe to be best under 20 miles.

Either way, its time to shave yo’ head again…

Well thought out reply, Christian. But, *LOUD WHINE* it sucks to be a non-elite non-genetically gifted woman endurance runner.

The original article and this article it linked to: made me terribly depressed. Yes, I see myself there; slow and fat.

But yet I don’t want to give it up. Once upon a time, I may have started running to lose weight, but that isn’t why I continue to do it years later. I like what long distances do to my head and spirit (if not my body). I like the sense of achievement and of being part of an extreme community.

Am I addicted? Perhaps. –h

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