Does Ultrarunning Help You Live Longer?

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There’s no debate among exercise enthusiasts: running is good for the mind, body, and soul.

Hitting the track or treadmill can drastically improve your health, lift your spirits, and lengthen your life.

But what happens when you transition from running one mile a day to more than 26.2?

The advantages of running far outweigh the risks, but can the same be said when you push your body beyond its limits?

Below, we’ll walk through some of the best benefits, and potential risks, of ultrarunning, one of many sports that might impact your health, lifestyle, and insurance costs.

Ultrarunning by the Numbers

man trail running in the mountainsChances are, you’ve either competed in a marathon or you know someone who has.

The same might not be true when it comes to ultrarunning, a sport that has only recently grown in popularity.

So, what makes someone an ultrarunner as opposed to a runner?

An ultramarathon can be defined as any distance beyond the 26.2-mile marathon.

Most ultramarathons are 50 or 100 miles, the latter of which takes more than 24 hours to run on average.

Ultrarunning Magazine reports there were over 88,000 ultramarathon finishes in 2016, up from just 23, 535 in 2006.

To put the growing yet comparatively small number in perspective, over 26,000 people finished the Boston Marathon alone this year.

Statistically, men are more likely to be ultrarunners, with 2/3 of the finishers in 2016 being male.

While most ultrarunners are men, the percentage of women completing ultramarathons is on the rise.

As ore people engage in this intense physical activity, it’s important to understand the benefits, and detriments, of ultrarunning.

Potential Benefits of Ultrarunning

While the thought of running a hundred miles might be off putting to most people, there’s a reason tens of thousands of people flock to races every year.

Here are some of the benefits of lacing up for ultramarathons.

Improving Your Mental Health

Running is one of the greatest natural mood boosters known to man, inducing a phenomenon known as runner’s high.

When you hit the woods for an ultramarathon, your body releases a stream of happy hormones.

Many individuals suffering from depression and anxiety turn to running to help improve their mood and outlook.

Recent research from the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests running improves your mood, ability to focus, and sleep quality.

While ultramarathons take a toll on your body, sometimes leading to blurred vision, sleepiness, and hallucinations during the race, these issues are temporary.

Ultrarunners can still tap into the mental health benefits of running and more as they build mental endurance and accomplish major achievements.

Reaching New Heights

If you ask ultrarunners why they go the extra mile(s) and put their bodies through the rigors of ultrarunning, you won’t find many citing health as their main concern.

Obviously, individuals who sign up to run tens or hundreds of miles on end are health conscious, but that’s not what pushes them to the extreme end of the running spectrum.

In a recent Guardian article exploring the reasons people turn to ultrarunning, Lindley Chambers, who chairs the Trail Running Association explained,

As our regular, mundane lives become ever more sedentary,” he says, “we have a need for something more.”

While ultrarunning can be painful and utterly exhausting, the breakthrough when runners push past their limits and endure the pain to see the finish line is an exhilarating and wholly rewarding feat.

The health benefits are just icing on the cake.

Staying the Course

Critics are quick to point to the health risks of ultrarunning, which we’ll address below, but they often fail to see ultrarunning as a respite.

While ultrarunning absolutely wears on your body, in some cases, it allows endurance runners to keep pursuing their passion in the face of obstacles.

Most ultramarathons are held in wooded areas, deserts, mountains, and other natural terrains, as opposed to paved roads.

As a result, the impact of running ultramarathons is sometimes less severe than years of hitting the pavement for triathlons and marathons.

This distinction allows injured runners to continue doing what they love at their own pace.

Along those lines, ultrarunning tends to be more focused on crossing the finish line, period, than on your finish time.

As such, it’s a great alternative for competitive athletes who may be burned out from racing.

Reducing the Risk of Cancer

While exercise won’t guarantee you never get diagnosed with cancer or ensure your survival, it can drastically improve your odds.

Studies show that being active stabilizes hormones and enhances physical fitness, reducing your risk of developing several forms of cancer.

There’s even more good news for ultrarunners, as research suggests some forms of exercise are better at fighting cancer than others.

Paul Williams’ 2014 International Journal of Cancer study, which analyzed a large pool of female walkers and runners over a span of 9 years, found that women who ran were less likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than women who walked regularly.

It also found that women who ran after diagnosis had better odds of surviving breast cancer than women who only walked after being diagnosed.

Whether you’re running a 5k or a 50k, running regularly is a great way to fight off cancer.

Losing Weight

This benefit of ultrarunning is a no-brainer.

Running is an excellent form of cardio for burning fat and getting in shape.

While running at a glacial pace burns calories, when you take it up a notch, your workout can be even more effective.

Intense running can cause your body to kick into afterburn, an event where your body burns even more calories in the hours following your run.

Although you don’t have to go to the extreme of running an ultramarathon to lose weight, it’s a great way to keep extra pounds off and stay in peak physical shape.

Boosting Cardiovascular Health

Several studies, including a recent one conducted by the Mayo Clinic, suggest endurance exercise could lead to heart damage.

According to Dr. James O’Keefe and the team at the Mayo Clinic,

Chronic training for and competing in extreme endurance events such as… ultramarathons… can cause transient acute volume overload of the atria and right ventricle, with transient reductions in right ventricular ejection fraction and elevations of cardiac biomarkers.”

The research suggested these issues regulate themselves within a week of the exercise event but can lead to atrial fibrillation, arrhythmias, stiffening of the heart’s walls, and artery calcification after years of repeatedly running ultramarathons.

While these concerns definitely warrant further research and some careful consideration, “lifelong vigorous exercisers generally have low mortality rates and excellent functional capacity.”

In other words, while it may do more damage long term than running at a less intense level, ultrarunning is far more beneficial to your heart than staying sedentary.

Living Longer

With all of the evidence above, it probably comes as no surprise that running in any capacity, including ultrarunning, can lead to a longer life.

As you lessen the effects of killers like obesity, heart disease, and cancer, you increase your odds of living a long healthy life.

In a recent article in the Netherland Heart Journal, cardiology professor EE Van der Wall explored recent research on the overall health effects of ultrarunning.

The result?

Ultramarathon runners are generally healthier and take less sick time than the rest of the population.”

Moreover, Dr. Martin Hoffman of the University of California’s study found that while ultrarunners suffer more asthma and exercise-related injuries, they have fewer instances of cancer, diabetes, seizure disorders, HIV, and heart disease than the general public.

While running double the length of a marathon won’t necessarily double the health benefits, it shouldn’t diminish them too much, either.

If you’re passionate about running and want to take it to the next level, you could still add years to your life as a long-distance runner.

Ultrarunning and Risk

When you run regularly, be it 5 miles or 50, you unlock a whole host of health benefits.

While runner’s high, weight loss, and the potential to lengthen your life are phenomenal, the rewards of running don’t end there.

Being an ultrarunner may impact your finances today and your family’s financial future, by helping you to secure lower life insurance rates.

How?

More than any other insurance product, life insurance focuses on your health above all else.

The amount of life insurance coverage you qualify for and the premiums you pay hinge on the level of risk you pose to the company.

While ultrarunning touts some impressive benefits, it also comes with health risks, which intensify when you push beyond 26.2 miles.

Risks of Ultrarunning

When you put your body through extreme tests of endurance, you run the risk of doing some damage.

A recent Washington Post article outlines some of the main risks associated with ultrarunning.

Here are a few of the most common ailments, some of which are more concerning than others:

  • Blisters: Ultramarathoners usually run through rough terrain. Mud, rocks, rain, and friction can lead to this annoying and painful occurrence.
  • Asthma/allergies: As mentioned above, respiratory conditions are common in ultrarunners as they inhale dust and other particles in the air for prolonged periods of time.
  • Hallucinations: When you run from sun up to sun down and then some, sheer fatigue may cause you to suffer from hallucinations.
  • Blurred vision: The longer the race, the higher the chances of you experiencing blurred vision. Fortunately, this issue is a temporary one.
  • Stomach problems: Extended races can lead to all sorts of gastrointestinal problems, like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and stomach cramps.
  • Cramps: Muscle cramps are common in races, affecting several leg muscles. The more exhausted your body gets, the more likely you are to cramp up.
  • Fractures: One of the most common risks for runners, in general, is fractures. While foot fractures are the most common, long races put your pelvis, femur, and other bones at risk.
  • Hyponatremia: Hyponatremia occurs when you over-hydrate. Drinking too much H2O or sports drinks waters down the sodium in your blood, swelling the cells and leading to potentially life-threatening illness if untreated.
  •  A-fib: Research suggests the extreme duress ultrarunning puts on your heart can increase your chances of atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rate that can lead to cardiovascular complications.

Though ultrarunning can result in some negative health conditions, these ailments aren’t likely to impact your life insurance.

Most of the conditions above aren’t life-threatening, and as research suggests, many of them subside on there own once the race is over.

You can also work to prevent and reduce the risk of incurring these ailments with careful planning and measured attempts at ultrarunning.

While some risks like atrial fibrillation and hyponatremia are more severe, Dr. Martin Hoffman suggests,

There is no good evidence to prove there are negative long-term health consequences from ultramarathon running.”

Risk Factors Underwriters Consider

While underwriters won’t be focused on blisters and broken bones, there are a number of health-related factors they will use to determine your rates.

Take a look at the factors life insurance companies use to determine just how risky you are:

  • Weight: Underwriters use BMI to determine your life insurance eligibility. If you are overweight, or if you’ve had a sudden major weight loss, it can negatively affect your rates. Fortunately, ultrarunning can help you to shed pounds and maintain a healthy weight.
  • Heart health: Poor cardiovascular health puts you at a higher risk of death and steeper life insurance rates. Ultrarunners regularly work to strengthen their heart’s function, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease long term.
  • Hypertension: High blood pressure is another condition that heightens your risk and the cost of coverage. Hitting the woods for ultramarathons can help to reduce hypertension.
  • Cholesterol: Underwriters will undoubtedly look at your cholesterol, which you can improve when you run, raising your good cholesterol, HDL, and bringing down your bad cholesterol, LDL.

When you live an active lifestyle, you lower your risk of mortality, thus lowering the risk you pose to insurers.

It’s important to note, however, that some underwriting factors are harder to change by running than the ones listed above.

In addition to the health factors above, underwriters will factor in your age, gender, your family’s health history, and your own conditions and medications.

They’ll analyze your lifestyle and career as well. While ultrarunning isn’t considered a high-risk hobby, activities like base jumping and flying are.

Can Ultrarunning Save You Money on Life Insurance?

Based on the considerations above, ultrarunning puts you at less risk, rather than more, to life insurance companies.

And reducing risk ultimately leads to saving money on life insurance. But there’s even more good news for life insurance shoppers on the run.

With a company like Health IQ, you could be rewarded even more for your dedication to fitness.

Health IQ works with leading life insurance companies to get active people lower life insurance rates.

For instance, the company uses alternate weight models to reward runners who may have a higher BMI due to muscle mass.

After you answer a few underwriting questions and verify your activity level, Health IQ puts your info to work, getting you special runners rates on coverage.

Final Thoughts

Ultrarunning is a rewarding, exhilarating sport that challenges runners to push through barriers and reach new heights.

While physical fitness may not be the main goal of all ultrarunners, it’s certainly a rewarding offshoot.

Ultrarunning puts your body to the test like no other exercise, and with conscientious planning, it can contribute to a vital healthy lifestyle.

It could even save you a significant amount of money on life insurance.

Running can put you on the path to health and happiness, and if ultrarunning quenches your thirst for adventurous challenges, the risks may be well worth the rewards.

Author:

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Parker King

Parker King is a researcher and editorial writer with a Masters in Professional Communication from Clemson University. She has years of experience in the nonprofit sector and writing in the world of personal finance, insurance, and other topics.

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