Participation in running events of extreme lengths, known as ultra-marathons, has become increasingly popular in the last 30 years. Not unexpectedly, distances of up to 100 miles or durations of 24 hours impose extensive physiological and psychological strain on the body, placing these events among the toughest tests of strength both for the mind and body.
Extended periods of vigorous exercise cause significant muscle damage, clear by elevations in creatine kinase and inflammatory markers, it can disrupt electrolyte homeostasis and impair endocrine and immune function (Kupchak, Kraemer, Hoffman, Phinney, & Volek, 2014). It is not uncommon for finishers to become ill with infection or virus in the days following an ultra. What’s more, neuromuscular fatigue which refers to the decline in muscle power and force is a consequences of prolonged endurance exercise and is characterised by transient but significantly reduced maximal voluntary activation and muscular strength (Millet et al., 2011). Remarkably, complete recovery has been reported to occur in as little as 9 days after significant neuromuscular fatigue following extreme running events in experienced ultra-marathon runners (Freund et al., 2013). However, it is not uncommon that competitors face back to back events, pushing them further without the necessary recovery. It is clear that embarking on and ultra-marathon is no easy feat, but what possess these individuals to endure such challenges?
The popular opinion is that pushing one’s self during an ultra-marathon tests ones physical limits to the maximum, a challenge like no other; completion of such brings an immense sense of empowerment and accomplishment. This may be particularly so for those who are frustrated and cannot achieve this in other parts of their life. This may relate to a mechanism of control where the competitor knows they are responsible for completion of that race which may not be the case in the work or family life. Some are in it for the discipline; in order for runners to finish the long distances, many are religious in sticking to laid out training and nutrition plans which allow people to feel in control of their success.
An alternate theory resides in that ultra-marathoners can be highly successful in other aspects of their life, often entrepreneurs or leaders in their profession, yet are not satisfied with their achievements. Moderation is considered boring, and one can always push themselves further. These sorts of people are often identified as having high levels of persistence and motivation and lack fear. It has also been suggested that these individuals are of a particular personality type duly named ‘T’ types for thrill- seekers. One particular endurance event, the TransEurope FootRace, involves participants running a remarkable 2789 miles over 64 consecutive days. Among these ultra-marathoners, investigators found they had significantly higher pain thresholds and were able to tolerate higher levels of discomfort compared to recreational runners (Freund et al., 2013). In the same study personality traits were assessed finding these individuals were less dependent on gaining rewards, were less worried of how others perceived them and more individualistic.
Addiction could be viewed as another stimulus for training and competing in ultra-marathons. Exercise dependence is queried when it takes priority over other important aspects the participators life and must be endured to avoid feelings of withdrawal. It has even been suggested that repeated large volumes of exercise could help provide a mechanism for abstaining from other forms of addiction, with increasing physical activity being successful in maintain recovery from smoking, substance and alcohol abuse (Hausenblas & Symons Downs, 2002). In other cases, individuals embark on such distances in an effort to achieve gains in health and wellbeing or ideal body image’s that we associate with an active lifestyle. It remains unequivocal however, if such high doses of physical activity are in fact detrimental to health. It is likely that optimal levels of activity vary among individuals where one person’s limits could be far exceeding that of another.
The psychological mind-set of ultra-endurance athletes could be considered extreme whether it’s to empower, gain a sense of achievement or control or are simply thrilled by the prolonged pain and sense of commitment entailed in endurance events to this level, but most ultra-marathoners agree that without pushing yourself to the breaking point, you may never know how far you!
Freund, W., Weber, F., Billich, C., Birklein, F., Breimhorst, M., & Schuetz, U. H. (2013). Ultra-marathon runners are different: investigations into pain tolerance and personality traits of participants of the TransEurope FootRace 2009. Pain Practice : The Official Journal of World Institute of Pain, 13(7), 524–32. doi:10.1111/papr.12039
Hausenblas, H. A., & Symons Downs, D. (2002). Exercise dependence: a systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3(2), 89–123. doi:10.1016/S1469-0292(00)00015-7
Kupchak, B. R., Kraemer, W. J., Hoffman, M. D., Phinney, S. D., & Volek, J. S. (2014). The Impact of an Ultramarathon on Hormonal and Biochemical Parameters in Men. Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2014.03.013
Millet, G. Y., Tomazin, K., Verges, S., Vincent, C., Bonnefoy, R., Boisson, R.-C., … Martin, V. (2011). Neuromuscular consequences of an extreme mountain ultra-marathon. PloS One, 6(2), e17059. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017059
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Tags:EnduranceExercise PsychologyExtreme sportPsychological LimitsPsychology of SportSport PsychologySports PsychologyUltra-marathon
About Juliette Norman
I am dedicated to promoting physical activity for optimal mental and physiological health. I am currently studying for a PhD investigating the impact of physical activity and inactivity on musculoskeletal health across the lifespan at the University of Liverpool. I am passionate about long distance trail running, swimming and cycling and am excited to be competing in my first half ironman event in the summer!