Is Running A Lot Good for You?

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Originally posted on May 22, 2014.

Runners pop up everywhere. They run alone, in pairs, and in mass hordes through major cities. Running can improve health. But what about extreme running? Is 100 miles too far?

I get this question a lot. I run ultramarathons. An ultramarathon is any foot race longer than a standard 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) marathon. In the past year, I’ve run nine ultramarathons. This includes two 50 kilometer (31 miles) races, one 60 kilometer race (a little over 37 miles), a six hour timed event where I officially ran 40 miles (I got lost and ran a couple “bonus” miles, too), three 50 mile races, and two 100 mile races.

When people learn about my running, they often ask two questions. The first is, “Why do you do that?” I like the challenge, they make me feel good physically and emotionally, and I love the camaraderie. The second question is almost always, “Is that good for you?”

Many people think running isn’t good for you. “It’s bad for your knees,” many people tell me. When it comes to extreme running, the possible harm only increases, right? “Didn’t you hear about the ultrarunner, Caballo Blanco, from the book Born to Run? He died while running. That proves it.”

Before we rush to judgment, let’s look at the data. When we do that, we’ll find two things. The first is that we don’t really know much. There aren’t many people who run ultramarathons. The sport is growing, but we’re a niche group. In late April, I ran a 100 mile race. 185 people started. Compare that to the most selective American marathon, the Boston Marathon, which in 2014 had 35,671 starters!

The second thing we’ll learn is that ultrarunners have pretty good health. In one recent study, ultrarunners, compared to the general population, had better physical health, mental health, and missed fewer days due to illness. They do tend to have more allergies and asthma, which is probably due to wheezing from the gorgeously pollinated trails they traverse. Other research shows that ultrarunners have longer telomeres – DNA strands at the end of chromosomes that often shrink with age. With longer telomeres, ultrarunners may be less vulnerable to disease.

So, we now have a better perspective on whether ultrarunning is good for you. You don’t have to run 100 miles to reap the benefits of running. Simply take one more step today than you did yesterday.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”