On January 8th, 2014, Dr. Marty Hoffman and his colleagues gave us a glimpse of some findings in his longitudinal study on 1,200+ ultrarunners. The result? Ultrarunners are healthier than your average person for the most part, with the exception of asthma and injury.
For those who don't know Dr. Hoffman, he is an avid ultramarathoner with plenty of Western States finishes under his belt, and one of the most dedicated medical researchers on everything ultra. He's also just a great guy - back in 2005, he taught me how to run down hills during one of my first ultras. If you've ever given blood at the end of the race for "scientific purposes", he's likely the guy crunching the data. This most recent study has Dr. Hoffman working with Dr. Eswar Krishnan and fellow scientists from UC Davis and Stanford to understand the general health profile of ultrarunners.
You may have caught the slightly-sensationalist version that NBC released earlier this week, Ultrarunners Aren't Always Ultrahealthy. This coverage correctly pointed out about one in 20 of the runners reported a stress fracture in the past year, and 11% of these ultrarunners reported asthma (vs 8% for the general population), and 25% reported allergies. All of these are higher than normal, but as Krishnan says this is likely because ultrarunners spend more time outside than most of us. “We are all potentially allergic to many things, but we don’t see symptoms because we don’t come into contact with these allergens,” he says.
After reading the research, I found myself more fascinated with where ultrarunners are showing better than average health indicators and where our injury types are common. For example:
- Ultrarunners miss 60% less work (2.2 days vs 3.7 days for average). This includes the average 0.3 days lost to exercise-related injury. Ultrarunners also go to the doctor less.
- Average days spent in bed due to sickness was 1.0 days vs 4.7 days for the general population. That's huge! But may also be indicative of a largely white/more affluent sample.
- Ultrarunners score lower on virtually all chronic diseases and mental health disorders.
- 52% of ultrarunners have had a least one injury that derailed their training, and that skews to ultrarunners who are younger and less experienced. The chief culprit - the knee, which accounts for 15% of injuries.
- Stress fractures are less common in the leg relative to shorter distance runners, but more common in the foot; researchers point to terrain as the main variable, where asphalt and cement may affect legs more and the varied terrain of ultras put more pressure on the foot.