Ultramarathoners suffer injuries but most may be minor, a study finds

Ultramarathoners go to extremes, but their rate of major injuries may be somewhat moderate.

A study of 396 ultramarathoners found that while many suffer injuries throughout the course of their race, the vast majority of them are minor. Researchers looked at medical data on runners who competed in Racing the Planet 4 Deserts series, a four-part ultra-race that takes place over seven days in rough terrain on four continents. Runners travel 150 miles per race.

Medical tents are set up throughout the course and at the finish line. For the study, medical staff treated 1,173 injuries and illnesses among 257 runners, categorizing their maladies as a medical illness, a musculoskeletal injury or a skin disorder. Most of the runners (79.2%) were male, and the average age was 40.

The vast majority of the injuries -- about 95% -- were minor. Among those, 74.3% were skin-related disorders (such as foot blisters or hematomas), 18.2% were musculoskeletal injuries (such as tendonitis) and 7.5% were medical illnesses.

Being older came with an advantage -- every 10-year increase in age was associated with 0.5 fewer illnesses and injuries, 0.2 fewer musculoskeletal injuries and 0.4 fewer skin disorders. Women had 0.16 more medical illnesses than men.

Researchers noted that skin and musculoskeletal injuries peaked during days three and four of the race, but runners who were able to work through the pain and inconvenience had few injuries in the last and toughest stage of the race. This could be, they said, because these athletes are more resilient or that by this time they've learned to medically treat themselves.

The slowest runners had about the same injury rate as the fastest runners; although they spend more time on the course, the study authors said, they may stop or slow down to take care of their wounds.

As ultra races increase in popularity, more research is being done on the athletes who compete in them to better understand the physical demands of the events, and how the body responds to them. This study was published in the December issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise.

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