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Cornell Student Articles on Topical Affairs

Ultramarathon Participation Doubles In a Decade

Nowadays, running a standard marathon for 26.2 miles is not impressive anymore. In fact, a lot of people regard standard marathons as an option for lazy people. Instead, people have started opting for the ultramarathon – any running event that lasts for more than 26.2 miles.

What are ultramarathons?

The sport may seem like something that has become an overnight sensation, but history suggests that ultra marathons have lasted for a far longer time than that. For example, before the sixteenth century, Native Americans would get around on foot for food and supplies, and often cover long distances in short periods. Tribal warriors also ran barefoot with little to no food as a mark of masculinity. Ultra marathons gained momentum in the 18th century when people would place bets on how much a person could walk for 24 hours.

This is the central idea that has developed into what we now know as ultramarathons. The main purpose of the marathon is to see the extent to which the human body can go without breaking- a form of extreme sport. 

Ultramarathons are usually run by those who want to test their threshold of pain and exhaustion. While the concept of pushing oneself to breaking point was once the domain of standard marathons, this feat is better achieved in an ultramarathon. It is the best type of race for anyone chasing the proverbial runner’s high. 

How popular are they?

According to statistics, over 90,000 people in the United States have started running ultra-marathons in recent years, while this number was only 9,000 in the late 1990s. Among the people who have participated, only 25 per cent were female, while the rest were male. This goes to prove that ultrarunning continues to be a masculine domain. However, since the number of female ultrarunners has increased significantly in the last 25 years, there is hope that there will be more female participation in the races.

Is it bad?

Here is the million-dollar question- is excessive running good for the body? The answers might surprise you. While doctors have agreed that running, in general, does not pose a threat to the body, excessive running may cause some serious damage. Of course, one significant medical issue that almost all runners have to bear with is the hardening of the heart tissue through scarring. 

However, here’s the catch- while ultra-running is conducted over longer stretches of space, it is also of a far lower intensity than a standard marathon. Many runners switch to ultrarunning because the low intensity and effort actually decrease heart scarring, making them quite safe overall.  

Anyone can run an ultramarathon!

A lot of people live under the misconception that only a certain section of people with a certain body type can run an ultramarathon. This could not be farther from reality. It is possible for people of any shape, age or size to run an ultramarathon simply because the race has more to do with strategy and planning than with your physical features. 

The key to success in an ultramarathon is definitely pacing. Ultramarathon runners pace themselves strategically, deciding beforehand the time and speed they should aim for between subsequent aid stations on the course. 

As for the physical characteristics of an ultrarunner, the stereotype calls for a slim body with long, built legs. However, it is not only the physical characteristics that change- ultrarunners tend to suffer a lot less from physical and mental disorders. The only acute distress they develop is allergies and breathing trouble, something that doctors attribute to spending more time in the open. 

The mental influence on an ultrarunner’s performance

An ultrarunner may develop the correct pace and time them perfectly- but their efforts will not be fruitful if they do not have the adequate mental strength to go with it. The importance of patience, high thresholds of pain and grit has been highlighted in the success stories of many ultrarunners. The ultimate performance is dependent on the mental state of the runner as much as it is on his physical condition.

How to train for an ultramarathon?

Here is a comprehensive workout regime that you can follow while training for an ultra:

  1. Of course, you have to practice your running, but also add strength training, hiking, and cycling to your list of activities for cardio. 
  2. Any areas of your body that you find are weak should be strengthened. For example, if you feel that your arms are weak, so an extra set of curls every day for optimum results before the race. 
  3. Expect to be exhausted and make room for it. Do not overwork your tired muscles without giving them an adequate break in between.
  4. Develop a pace that you can run the whole day at. Remember, ultrarunning is not about speed, it is about finding the right tempo for you to continue running the whole day. You could also use a heart rate monitor if you are unable to fix an easy pace for yourself. 


Ultrarunning is not for the faint of heart- doing it to gain bragging rights among your friends would probably not be the best of ideas. However, if you want to test your body and see what it is capable of, then you should definitely give this sport a try- the results are bound to be quite rewarding.

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