Study: Hidden Health Benefits of Ultrarunning

If you’re an ultrarunner, you have probably noticed that our sport has become a little more mainstream in the past year or two. Not 100% mainstream, yet, but definitely more normal. Among runners, the idea of pushing past the marathon is no longer that insane, and many have embraced the idea or added it to their bucket list.

With that new acceptance comes studies and examinations from the rest of the world:

“Is ultrarunning healthy?”

“Are these runners going to live long?”

Here is a recent example: “Is Running 100 Miles Bad For Your Health“? via

Ironically, the article takes a turn many runners wouldn’t have expected by stating, “No, actually, it’s not that bad for your health.” However, I expected that answer, because for some strange reason, the critics are starting to give us a break. But unfortunately, I have to disagree with it. No, I do not, in fact, think that 100 miles is particularly good for anyone’s physical health. Actually, I don’t care too much one way or the other.

SHOCKER. I know. 

I applaud this article, author, those conducting the study, and several others out there like it, for not giving the sport a bad name. However, I can’t help but think this: You’re studying the wrong aspect!

You see, anyone who has actually run a solid stretch of 100 miles straight –and felt the resulting pains, aches, and damages to the body– can tell you outright that it isn’t the optimum form of healthy exercise. In fact, most of us will shout, “I’m never doing this ever again” 90 miles into the crazy thing. And who could blame us? Crap hurts, man..bad! 

And we know why it hurts so bad! It hurts because it’s really not that good for you. Duh. That’s a no brainer. We don’t need a medical team to tell us how stupid we are.

Running for an entire day, and often longer, is horrible on the body. Not only are we killing off brain cells when we go over 36 hours of wakefulness, but we’re also completely overusing and cannibalizing our muscles, placing intense stress on our skeletal systems, and singlehandedly destroying our endocrine system.  This isn’t from a study, people, this is from gathered personal experience. Not only do I feel sore and injured after a race, but my hormones are completely out of sync for at least a month. My sleep patterns get screwed, and I have to recover for roughly 10 days before I feel normal again. I’m not a picture of health post 100, and neither is anyone else.

But here’s the REAL surprise: We like that!!! We LIKE that it feels terrible. We know we are destroying our bodies, and we are perfectly okay with it!

WHY? How could you possibly be okay with that?!!

I’ll tell you why! It’s because running 100 miles is NOT about pursuing optimum health!

Let’s get real, here. If we were running for health related purposes, we would have stopped 5 miles in! We would have gone to the dang park, walked our dog, maybe cranked out some pushups and pullups, and gone back home.

So why are we doing it? Why are we out there destroying ourselves for fun? 

The answer is hidden somewhere in that bodily destruction they analyze to death. It’s in the beat down. It’s in the last miles of that awful race when we experience the rawest forms of human experience & emotion. We do this because it feels good not to quit at something. Humankind was made to suffer, and deep down we know that. We KNOW that long suffering produces the discipline and character we strive for.

The reward isn’t a healthier body! We aren’t looking for 6 pack abs and better cardio here! The reward is The After! It’s the person who comes out of that race. A newer, stronger, person refined by fire and pain. A runner who refuses to accept no for an answer–just to make it to that finish line– is a tougher person. A fighter in life. We know this–we know this because we’ve felt it.

Running 100 miles straight is a huge life lesson rolled into a day of running. It teaches you things you never thought you’d learn about yourself. It forces you to face situations and ideas you need to overcome in life. It allows you to work out kinks and weaknesses in your own personally flawed character.  It carves out a deep lasting well of patience, self control, and long suffering. When balanced and prioritized appropriately in life, it helps create a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, happiness, and well being. The benefits of running long ultramarathons extend far beyond running, and well into the entire spectrum of life.

While I’m sure there are some physical health benefits to be gained in there somewhere, the truth is that no one doing these things really gives a flip. Spend a day running in the mountains alone, or with your friends, and you’ll see that no one is concerned about their Vo2 Max or threshold level.

The world will never stop analyzing the physical, because we are a world obsessed with outward image and prolonging life.

“Will this make me fitter?”

“Will this help me live longer?”

“Will this cure disease?”

I don’t know, and I don’t care. I just really like how incredible my body feels during a run. And I bet any runner would tell you the same thing. I love the amazing sense of accomplishment I feel after finishing something as stupid as running 100 miles straight.

So no, it’s probably not that healthy for me. I’m probably not going to have knees later. Or maybe I will, and maybe I will have some amazing cardio benefits, and a bangin’ body at 90— but all of that is simply irrelevant.

I am here, and I am now, and I am present. I enjoy the miles, and I enjoy the benefits of the pain.

So if you’re looking to analyze the health benefits of a runner tackling 100 miles, don’t examine their heart muscle. Don’t analyze their body fat, or compare their longevity to others.  Just lace up your kicks, and run a few miles with them on a beautiful blue sky day.

You’ll learn all you ever need to know.

92 Replies to “Study: Hidden Health Benefits of Ultrarunning”

  1. That was really nicely said. You only live once and you have to be you. I am more worried about the long term cardiac implications of distance running, and so while I’m committed to one ultramarathon this year, I’ll be doing more marathons and shorter trail runs to see if I can find satisfaction at a healthier level of intensity.

    1. I had to find that same balance. I was pushing myself far too much so that the joy no longer spilled over into other areas of my life! I found now that I can handle about two 100’s a year with ample rest in between and I am happy in life with that. Thx for the comment! Enjoy your running:)

  2. Yes!! Well said! I didn’t look at my ultra runner friends bodies and say, “I wanna look like that.” I saw what they had mentally, the fun they were having, the joy and drive they had, and said, “Gosh, I want that.” So I joined them!

  3. Great article – I’m no where near 100 (in fact, I’m only just getting back to running after 6 months of couch-ing) but you reminded me that I feel the same way whether I do 5k or a marathon – it’s about the finishing, not the intermediate. Thanks for the inspiration!

        1. Definitely ONE STEP AT A TIME! Susan, not even 7 years ago I could not run on the treadmill for 5 minutes straight without stopping it in an asthmatic fit of defeat!!! Keep moving forward.

  4. Well put. Of the many answers I have to the question of “why do you run 100 miles” I have never once said “It’s good for you.” I have ran beyond that point when you know you are causing damage. I love the journey. I love the views. I love to run.

  5. As someone looking forward to running Ultras, and wondering if I have a 100-miler in me, I really love what you have to say here (and in the comments). From my first mile in 2010 to my first Half in 2011 to what will be my first marathon this April, and on into the future, every “race” is about finding out what I’m made of… Finding my limit, digging deeper, reaching farther and pushing past it. The question keeps popping into my head – do I have it in me? And I’m driven to find out.

    1. I LOVE this comment, Jenni! Thanks for posting it! Every runner has it in them. If it’s in your brain, then it’s likely in your future. When I first started contemplating a 100, a friend told me “When you get that 100 mile itch, don’t be afraid to scratch it.” 🙂 Good luck with your running adventures. Have fun!

  6. This is an Extremely well done piece. I clicked a FB share thinking I was going to read the study…I wanted to read the study…But now I don’t give a flip what the study says! Thanks Ashley!

  7. Hey @ashruns100s. You. Are. Amazing. At age 13, I weighed 319 pounds, had bad skin, low self esteem, and no self respect. Now, I eat success for breakfast! With skin milk. Pounds are gonna fly and fat is outta here, Mister! And we’re gonna do it together!

  8. This post is amazing. You realize that when the day comes that I finally do my first 100-miler and people ask why, I’m going to point them to your blog and say “She made it seem so amazing, that’s why.”

    I don’t run anything like those distances now but I do get a bit of the “what the hell are you doing THAT for?” as a marathoner, and I hear my share about my knees, my enlarged heart, my supposed increase of risk for heart attacks, and my answer is the same as yours – that if I was just trying to be healthy, there are a zillion easier ways to achieve that than running around for hours at a time. At some point it becomes about something more than just the simple pursuit of health. Your post articulates that beautifully. 🙂

    1. Hahaha thanks, Caitlin. I would LOVE if you started running 100s– the blog commentary would be incredible!! There will always be a critic out there talking about bad knees and a weak heart– why not the shins and the lungs? So much of it is just repeated nonsense IMO. Glad to be unfazed by it, as I think most runners are. Thanks for the comment always good to hear from you!

  9. Great read Ash. Glad I found your blog. I started running in 2010, and ran my first 100, last September. It was exactly as your friend told you about scratching that itch, I wasn’t afraid of it. Am now training for my second 100. A big part of it for me is the training, I love the weekly high mileage. But nothing beats toeing that start line and just running one foot in front of the other, for what seems like forever, with no other care in mind other than doing what it takes to finish.
    Your writing about why we do it rings oh so true. Of course it is not healthy, in fact, some studies say our lives maybe shortened from running these kinds of distances. I say, if it brings me the happiness running gives me, then bring it on!
    Question: Is your profile picture above anywhere near Sedona, AZ? Those red rocks look all too familiar.

    1. Love this! I was just telling a friend about that “no care in the world part”.. It really does feel like everything else ceases to exist. YES Sedona! I had an adventure there with my best friend in 2012. It left a life changing mark on me.

      1. Yes, Sedona does that to people. I lived in Sedona for 9 years. I looked at your other pics and saw you crossing the creek at Red Rock Crossing. My husband laid those rocks at the crossing about 9 years ago, after a flash flood wiped out the wooden foot bridge we had there for eons. Cheers…

  10. There is a whole lot to digest here, and I’m glad I’ve had time to think about it since I first read it this morning.

    First thought:You’re right on the money on the “health benefits.” There are plenty of studies out there that say running 10-20 miles a week is optimal. Why we go further: Because we want to and because we can. That’s my reasoning. Sure, there were benefits in terms of health and performance, but all I really wanted to do was see if I could get this slow frame faster and push through the full mary. Ultra in the future? I don’t know. But there is something to be said for pushing your limits and exploring how tough you can be. 100-milers take it further than most of us.

    Second thought: There might be a fear that when you age, your body will be toast. Interestingly, however, are other studies that show you can actually *increase* performance well into your late 30s and early 40s when it comes to endurance sports. As an aside, I know more than a few ultra runners and 100-milers who have plenty of years on me, and I’m not exactly young anymore. None are performing at your level, but they are hitting that century mark.

    So here’s to a future of pushing limits. Great post, Ash.

    1. Thanks, Bob!
      Yeah- wear and tear is highly doubtful, despite the studies. When I started running ultras there were hardly any people my age, everyone was a lot older. There are still several ultra studs cranking out 100’s well past 60 & 70. I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve always figured that bodies in motion stay in motion.

      PS. You should totally run one. You know you want to….;)

  11. You are so awesome, Ashley! I loved every word. It is so true. We beat the crap out of our bodies, embrace and conquer the suck factor, and we destroy the doubt that screams at us. When that happens and we cross the finish of 100 miles, nothing compares. We know we can, because we did. We know that we are stronger than we were at the start line. I don’t care what the long term physical affects are. I know the long term mental changes are a game changer. Forever. It brings me back for more!

    1. I love you more Shawna!!!!! AHHHHH I love hearing from you! We connected on this topic around the dinner table before BWSS, remember? I love your words above.We are one & the same.Shoot me an email with some updates!!

  12. hi there,

    my first ever ultra is coming up at the Way Too Cool 50k! I was so scared when I signed up on the waiting list; yesterday I was selected, I’m not so scared anymore—I’m terrified! This is a great article. What an affirmation. Thanks!

    karen o

  13. My first and only 100 miler was last Sept. I wished I would have made it to 90 miles without saying “ill never do this again” but I was saying that at mile 20. The only thing I remember thinking at mile 90 was….”Sh*t if there is any more down hills my quads are going to rip off!” Its hard to explain why we do these things to non runners……. unless you say free beer afterwards!

  14. If you notice the top 10% is fit and fast. The other 90% isn’t. Most don’t realize the oxidative damage they are doing to their bodies. Most don’t train properly. I change up my training from year to year, Ultras 1 year, short the next, and I supplement with great products, with proven results on health, not weight loss or gain.

  15. Ashley, that was a great read I am still paying for not taking enough rest time after my 2012 Pinhoti finish, because I had a 2013 full of injuries, but the mental benefits of knowing what I can push myself through if I want it enough were more than worth the down time. Now that I’m getting my mojo back, I’m pondering the idea of what to do once I get back to the fitness level that I enjoyed immediately before that hundo, when I was running marathon and 50K distances every single weekend with no real effort. Part of me is tempted to get back to that level of fitness by training for another hundo, and then keeping that level of fitness by not showing up at the hundo…if that makes any sense. Of course, buckle fever is tough to resist.

    1. HI JASON! Speaking of Pinhoti, was nice to see you there and chat briefly this past year. You know, in addition to all you wrote, you were obviously happy that day, you said you were excited to be running portions of the course. That, in itself, speaks volumes. — and yes it all totally makes sense. If you wanna run, run. If not, no big. Do what you love, right?

  16. There is nothing else to say because you have captured every detail, thought, and emotion that embodies hundos. Your words are literary sex for my brilliant mind. And I want to read all night.
    I praise you.

  17. Hello Ashley-
    My name is Darren Walker and I would like to speak with you regarding the possibility of using this post, and future posts, in a publication. What is a good email address to reach you? Thanks.

  18. LOVE this. I have only done a 3 100’s so I don’t have a ton of experience but this was so spot on. Thanks for putting into words what I couldn’t (must have killed too many brain cells with lack of sleep :)). Awesome post.

  19. Great article.. Could not have said it better.. thank you for so eloquently spelling it out.. Now go lace up your shoes and enjoy some dirt.. 🙂

  20. Just arrived here from the weekly stoke. Great, great post, really enjoyed reading. You have a gift for writing and running it seems!

  21. Ash, you nailed it. I strive to run 100 even in my 60’s (got one buckle in 12′) because the deeper I run into the wild the more I run to the very core of me. I might blow out my knees along the way, but I am never as alive as when I strive to reach beyond me. Never play it safe, but always play.. Trail running to me is play. God, I love it!!

    1. What a cool comment. Thanks for chiming in! It’s always cool to see people in their 50s,60s, & even older cranking out 100s. It’s inspiring for those who want to get fit later in life to know that they still can! Glad you’re having fun:)

  22. Thanks for saying it so well. I think I’ll just print the URL to this post on a card and hand it to everyone who asks me, “But WHY???” when I tell them I’m training for an ultra. :_

  23. I ran my first marathon last weekend and signed up for my first ultra this morning. And this is exactly why I did both.
    I started running because I was unhealthy. Now that I’m healthy, I keep running because its awesome.

  24. Hi Ashley —- will you marry me? OH WAIT, I’m already married (to a non runner – what was I thinking???)….

    GREAT Article…..thanks for writing it… summarized my feeling much better than I could have…


    1. my word Ash runs. A marriage proposal via twitter…….I guess he hasn’t seen Dan’s posts……he could twist John’s melon off. Don

  25. I ear you, you can put in words a lot of things I cannot explain. But there’s a disturbing detail: In fact, I destroyed my knees. And now, I can no longer compete, or even run at a decent pace. To be a guy with knees (and don’t ultra run) or not to be (and do ultra run), that’s the question…

  26. You nailed it!
    The best and truest perspective to look at this conundrum.
    Thanks, I start training for my next marathon and first ultra tomorrow morning.
    It’s been a two year layoff but I now think I have my priorities in proper order.

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