Study: Ultramarathoners are Healthy, But Frequently Injured

If you’re an employer who hates it when workers call in sick, you could do worse than to hire a bunch of ultramarathoners, suggests new research on the health and injury rates of ultra runners.

The research is based on a survey of 1212 active ultramarathoners, 94.7% of whom had completed at least one race of 50km or longer in the prior year. Also in the prior year, the runners had missed an average of 2.2 days of work because of injury or illness, compared to the national average of 3.7 days. Ultramarathoners are also exceptional in their approach to bed rest – the survey participants averaged 1.0 days per year of spending more than half the day in bed with injury or illness, compared to the national average of 4.7.

In the past couple years, there’s been a lot of debate about whether more running necessarily brings more health benefits. The findings of this survey of ultra runners appear to be in the affirmative. “There was a low prevalence of serious medical issues” among the ultramarathoners, the researchers write. For example, 4.5% reported having had some form of cancer at some point of their life; the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says the equivalent figure for the general U.S. population is 8.2%. Among the ultramarathoners, the self-reported incidence of diabetes and coronary artery disease was 0.7% for both conditions.

There were two exceptions on the health front: 11% of the ultra runners had asthma (compared to 8% of the general population) and 25% had allergies or hay fever (compared to 7% of the general population). These findings weren’t particularly surprising. “[A]sthma is more common among endurance athletes, most likely the result of drying of the airways during exercise,” the researchers write. “Additionally, the prevalence of allergies in recreational marathon runners was recently shown to be higher than in the general population, possibly due to greater exposure to airborne allergens.”

In line with most surveys, the ultramarathoners’ injury rate was high. In the prior 12 months, 64.6% had been injured badly enough to miss training (for an average of 14 days total over the year). The overwhelming majority of injuries were overuse rather than acute, with the knee the most common site of injury. The younger, less experienced runners among the study participants were more likely to get injured, and women were more likely to get stress fractures than men.

The research was published in the online journal PLoS One.

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