The Myth Of Health Risks In Ultrarunning:
Are Ultrarunners As Healthy As Corporate Media Outlets Are Biased?
On January 8th, sports medicine researchers from Stanford and UC Davis published initial findings from one of the first longitudinal studies on the health of ultrarunners. (A longitudinal study tracks a group of people across a long period of time – 20 years in this case.) It is published online here, which is awesome because anyone can access the data while they’re drinking their morning coffee or scanning their iPhone on their morning run. (It’s actually pretty readable, as far as scientific studies go.)
Ever the faithful stewards of the public interest and proponents of healthy living, NBC News Health quickly picked up on the story and had an article about the study online by the end of the day, delivering the bad news. In their article, "Ultrarunners Aren’t Always Ultrahealthy”, they noted the study’s findings that sometimes runners get running related injuries like stress fractures and knee problems. Also, ultrarunners in the study report higher rates of asthma and allergies than the general population. Sorry ultrarunners – you’re doomed to a life of wheezing and splintered shin bones. Good news if you want to spend your day on the couch reading and rereading the NBC News site though – and no reason to stop being smug in those online comment threads about how healthy people are destroying their bodies doing healthy things!
But darned if the focus of the NBC story wasn’t exactly the opposite of what the researchers focused on in their conclusions! While it is true that they point out an increased rate of running related injuries, and an increased rate of allergy and asthma among ultrarunners, their general tenor is: Hey great news!
Some of their key conclusions were that:
1) Among ultrarunners “there was a low prevalence of serious medical issues including cancers (4.5%), coronary artery disease (0.7%), seizure disorders (0.7%), diabetes (0.7%), and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection (0.2%)”
2) "Compared with self-reported data from the general population, the prevalence of virtually all chronic diseases and mental health disorders appeared lower in the ultramarathon runners"
3) “[U]ltramarathon runners have fewer chronic medical conditions…tend to miss little time from work or school due to illness or injury, and make limited use of the medical care system.”
Aside from the part about not missing work much (averaging 2 days/year vs. the general population’s 4), NBC forgot to mention all of those points. To their credit, they did at least note (as the researchers did) that there’s a reasonable explanation for the allergy thing – spending a lot of time outside exposes you to a lot of allergens. They didn’t say that the increased rate of asthma among ultrarunners is small (3%), and is most marked in relation to exercise-induced asthma – because of all of the pesky exercising. They also didn’t note that injury rates were comparable to shorter-distance runners, or that the average number of days of work lost to those injuries was zero. It also didn’t talk about one of the more intriguing findings in the study, that older runners were actually less likely to report injury than younger ultrarunners. The adage that ultrarunning is an old person’s sport seems to bear out.
Media stories actively and unjustifiably discouraging healthy activities (and promoting unhealthy ones) aren’t anything new, of course. Everyone knows by now that you shouldn’t run (KNEES!), play team sports (CARDIOMYOPATHY!), or do Crossfit (TRAUMA!), but that wine and chocolate are nature’s greatest health foods. It’s also kind of predictable – if you want to generate clicks 1) piss some people off and 2) reinforce common prejudices and preconceptions. But it still seems like a weird, irresponsible phenomenon in an era where people have a hard enough time making healthy life decisions without media assistance.
The good news is, media reports can be ignored. Data suggests that reality is still in favor of engaging in traditional human activities like moving through nature on your own two feet.
Tim Mathis lives in Seattle and has been running trails with his wife Angel for a couple of years. One time they ran across Spain fueled mostly on pastries and espresso. He blogs occasionally at alittlerunny.blogspot.com and has contributed to Uphillrunning.com and Trailrunner Magazine.