Study on multi-day ultra-marathon injury rates offers up surprises

Ultra-marathoners may be subjecting their bodies to one of the world’s most daunting tests of endurance, but the races may not be as rough on the body as they sound, according to new research published this month in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.

The intense races, in which runners may traverse 150 miles over several days, have in recent years emerged as an increasingly popular sport for competitive long-distance athletes. But relatively little has been published on the rates of injury among people who participate in them.

To figure out if the races were as hard on the body as they sounded, researchers from the University of Washington in Seattle and the UC Davis Sports Medicine program in Sacramento tracked 396 ultra-marathoners (representing 303 individuals) in several ultra-marathon races. They found that the rate of injury was 3.86 per runner, but that 95% of the injuries were minor -- and that they were mostly skin-related issues (think foot blisters) than anything else. Runners were more likely to have a medical issue (like hyperthermia or altitude sickness) on the first day of the race than in later days and more likely to have skin and musculoskeletal issues on days three and four. Oddly enough, people who were 10 years older had 0.5 fewer injuries.

“Serious injuries / illnesses are relatively rare, but when they do occur they are often related to dehydration,” the authors write.


The researchers did say there were some caveats. Since the races they looked at were off-road, rougher terrain could explain the high rates of skin injuries. Since they were multi-day rather than continuous, runners were encouraged to report issues earlier in the race, which could have affected the results. Nonetheless, a multi-day ultra-marathon may not be as potentially injurious as it sounds.

Want to find out what it’s like to run one? Check out today’s chat with 60-year-old ultra-runner Marshall Ulrich, who has completed 120 ultramarathons.

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