Ultra Running: Is It Good For You Physically? Mentally?

Ultra running is defined as anything longer than 26.2 miles, or the marathon distance.  I recently joined the ranks of ultra running by participating in 4 different events over the months of February and March.  The distances covered were 50k (31.1 miles), 50 Miles and 100 Miles.  In the past these distances would have been daunting.  As a matter of fact the 100 mile distance is still daunting and will probably always give me pause before hitting the register button.  The 100 mile race has the opportunity to present so many obstacles, especially on the trails and in the middle of the night, that it is the race that I think I will always question my preparedness just before the start of it.

The question of ultra running being ‘good’ for you physically came up earlier today when Regina posted a video and tagged Jeff and I in it.  I watched the video and found myself shaking my head at every comment the athlete made.  All of it made so much sense to me except for one comment:  “I have a lot of fun doing this but I don’t think it is necessarily good for you.”  It was this comment that started a conversation amongst us, including Kevin.

The consensus seemed to be that running this distance, in the video the athlete is running 135 miles, is not good for you physically.  At first I agreed but then I started thinking a bit more about it.  At what point is there diminishing returns on a race of this distance?  Athletes are not necessarily going into Zone 3 and Zone 4 in their heart rate, so what is the taxing portion?  Is the question more about being sleep deprived?  What about those in the armed forces that are up for longer periods of time?

More questions than this popped up but the reality, for me, is that this is not a scenario in which you are looking to improve fitness.  Your fitness is achieved in the weeks and months leading up to the event.  Your body is then restored during the recovery phase, which for me is currently at the end of Week 2 from Lake Martin 100.  Did I gain any fitness over the course of 28 hours?  I highly doubt it but I did gain something much more valuable at this point and for the future.

What I gained from ultra running was a mental advantage and that is priceless and will pay dividends going forward.  When I first took on this challenge I looked at the miles that I would be running on a daily and weekly basis during the training.  Weeks that included 85 miles and 90 miles.  Back to back days of 31 miles and 20 miles were staring me in the face.  They seemed so daunting but as the training continued these became commonplace and while not ‘easy’ they were no longer frightening.  My mental ability to comprehend the distance, break it down into manageable parts and then achieve the goals improved from Day 1 through the start of the race.  During the race I was able to rely on the fact that I had put in 18 weeks of training that involved 1,000 miles of running and I was prepared, both physically and mentally.

Today I am looking at a race schedule for the start of 2015 that includes a 100k, 100 miler and 50 miler all in the course of a month.  3 months ago I would have laughed to keep from crying.  Today I smile and say:  Yes, I can do this.  Today I think to myself about how awesome it is going to be to go through the training and accomplishing the daily goals and race goals.  This mental edge will allow me to perform day in and day out and to achieve even better physical fitness.   This to me is far more of a benefit than any detriment that may or may not come from running 100 miles in a given day.

A year ago there was an article on TriathleteMagazine.com regarding what happens to the human body during an Ironman.  This was an interesting look into the physiological process that takes place.  An Ironman is hard, but running a 100 miler is harder so this take can be changed in terms of the physical tolls.  All that being said the following line from the article is what makes me think that the mental gains far outweigh the physical toll that takes place during these endurance events, including ultra running:

Fortunately, though, those years are restored to you within a few weeks. Then it’s time to start thinking about tickling the reaper again.

I would sacrifice a few weeks of non-activity to recover in order to reap the benefits that the sense of accomplishment brings.

Do You Think Ultra Running, Or Endurance Events, Are Good For You?

 

For reference here is an article from The New York Time that is also interesting reading.

New York Times Blog: What Ultra Marathons Do To Our Body.

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Comments

  1. Pummell says:

    Our local paper re-ran this story lately… Adds to the story.

    http://www.bendbulletin.com/home/1934824-151/too-much-running-may-backfire-on-you#

    • Jason Bahamundi says:

      It is an interesting study, but unless I missed it I did not see the number of people studied. I saw it was 1 marathon a year for 25 years and the age was in the 50s but not how many were actually in the study.

      In addition to that is is a cross-section of the population? There are so many variables that need to be taken into account. Should the study be ignored? No, but it also needs to have a deeper dive taken into it.

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