Most people are familiar with the term marathon. It is a race that covers a distance of more than 26 miles (41.8 kilometers). Sounds pretty extreme, doesn’t it? For those people who think that running 26 miles is not enough, there is an even longer race, an ultramarathon. An ultramarathon is technically any race longer than a marathon, but many ultramarathons are 80 kilometers or more. For this reason, these races are intense and potentially dangerous, even more so than traditional marathons.
Our bodies react in strange ways when covering that kind of distance. Below, we’ll go over ten things that happen to your body during an ultramarathon. So drink some water, stretch your calves and get ready as we look at some crazy things that can happen to your body during an ultramarathon.
Related: 10 surprising ways to hack your body
10 Soreness (DOMS)
The first item on our list is probably not that surprising. After all, soreness is a typical response to any exercise. However, soreness associated with ultramarathons can be particularly intense. Ultramarathon runners – sometimes called ultrarunners – experience an extreme type of soreness called DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This means that ultrarunners will have delayed soreness that can persist for days or even weeks after a race.
This is caused by hours (many hours) of eccentric contractions. Soreness usually manifests in the lower leg, but in other cases, runners may experience pain in the knees, hips or feet. Professional ultrarunners must deal with soreness during and after ultramarathons.
If you plan to run an ultramarathon, plan to be sore. The bottom line is that our bodies aren’t built to run these types of distances, and there’s no way to avoid bone fatigue (and the resulting soreness) in an ultramarathon.
As ultra runners continue to push themselves physically, blisters are a common problem. Mind you, these runners are sweaty and moving fast. Even with the world’s best pair of shoes and socks, there will be some chafing. Add to that the likelihood of sweat (or even rain or puddles) getting into your shoes, and you have a surefire recipe for blisters. Ultramarathon runners routinely get blisters on their toes, ankles and heels.
Unlike soreness, however, blisters can be avoided if the runner is prepared. Some runners try to combat blisters by taping up their feet before running. Other runners may try to avoid painful blisters by changing socks, shoes or other clothing during the race.
If you are considering an ultramarathon, it is very important to be aware of the humidity, temperature and other conditions. This allows you to plan for your run to be as pain-free (hopefully blister-free) as possible.
8 Heart problems
Exercise is supposed to be good for your heart, right? Regular exercise can improve your heart health and even make you less likely to get cardiovascular disease, but ultramarathons are not regular exercise. They are… ultra. The strain on your heart during these long runs is extreme.
Generally, this strain occurs in one of two ways. If you run in very hot weather or if you are dehydrated, your heart rate may increase. On the other hand, if you are extremely tired, your heart rate may actually decrease. Neither is ideal.
After an ultramarathon, runners often feel dizzy. In extreme cases, runners even faint. This occurs when blood flow to the heart is disrupted. Experienced ultrarunners can monitor their heart rate through a smart watch to avoid this problem. If that’s a little too tech-savvy for you, maintaining appropriate hydration levels can help you curb (or avoid) these dangerous heart problems in the long run.
7 Hyperthermia or hypothermia
Because ultramarathons are so intense, your body can react in two different ways, depending on the conditions. You may experience hyperthermia (the condition of having a body temperature far above normal) or hypothermia (the condition of having an abnormally, dangerously low body temperature). This just illustrates again how difficult these races can be.
Hyperthermia occurs in runners when the weather is particularly hot. It can cause headaches, blurred vision and dizziness. Runners with hyperthermia may stop sweating completely, a very dangerous sign. The worst cases of hyperthermia can result in heat stroke.
The other extreme is hypothermia. As you might expect, ultrarunners experience hypothermia when running in colder conditions. High altitudes, wind, snow or constant rain can cause hypothermia. Extreme changes in temperature or altitude can cause either hyperthermia or hypothermia. Hydration and proper equipment can help you avoid these potential dangers.
6 Pain in the foot
Running starts and ends with the feet. Every step you take, even on a normal day, involves complex movements of your feet. Feet have more than 100 moving parts. With every step during an ultramarathon (and there are quite a few), you put significant pressure on your feet. Because of this, ultrarunners are susceptible to foot pain and foot injuries.
Distance runners deal with different types of foot injuries, including plantar fasciitis (turf toe), Achilles tendinitis, stress fractures, metatarsalgia, and more. Experienced runners have several techniques they will use to mitigate these dangers, such as:
- Wear properly fitting shoes and socks
- Bring another pair of socks
- Stretching appropriately before the ultramarathon
- Monitoring of pain in the foot or lower leg
Even the most cautious and fit distance runners still experience foot pain. Although the pain is somewhat unavoidable, be sure to consider your long-term health before going through it.
5 Weight loss
Well, everyone can’t be bad right? Ultramarathons will make you lose a lot of weight and fast. Although it is an extremely difficult way to lose a few kilos quickly. The average ultramarathon runner will lose between four and six pounds in a single race. Wow. However, it is usually not a sustained loss.
Runners who complete an ultramarathon sweat profusely. Despite their best efforts to hydrate, ultrarunners are usually severely dehydrated by the end of the race, so this weight loss is generally considered “water weight” lost as sweat.
There doesn’t seem to be much runners can do to avoid weight loss (although proper hydration is always a good idea during any run). Usually, after a week or so of a typical diet, your weight will stabilize. Although it may be the hardest way to lose weight, at least it is effective!
4 Glycogen depletion
Glycogen is how our bodies store glucose (our main source of energy). It is stored in skeletal muscle and liver. When our bodies run out of glycogen, we also run out of energy. This can happen in two ways: from a lack of calorie intake or intense exercise. When our bodies run out of available energy, we tap into glycogen reserves. When your body runs out of glycogen, you may feel the following:
- Like you’ve “hit a wall”
- Extreme fatigue
- That it takes an excessive effort to keep running
Because ultramarathoners often burn more than 400 calories an hour, glycogen depletion is a serious problem. You can avoid some of the problems associated with glycogen depletion by eating plenty of carbohydrates right before the big race.
3 An upset stomach
Well, I said I’d eat a lot of carbs, didn’t I? It is important to keep everything within reasonable limits before your race. Otherwise, you may be dealing with another common affliction of ultrarunners: an upset stomach. In general, before a race, ultramarathoners should avoid consuming the following:
- Caffeine, including coffee, tea and soft drinks
- All dairy products
- Spicy or unfamiliar food
- Beans, legumes and other fiber-rich foods
Any of the items on the list above can irritate your digestive tract. Keep in mind that your stomach (and its contents) move up and down as you run. Stomach pain can manifest itself in several ways. The most common is called running trot. This is the immediate need to defecate (poop) – either during or immediately after running.
Other runners may experience nausea, while still others may experience stomach cramps. You need your body to get you through the race, so be sure to fuel it properly and at the right intervals or you may not make it.
2 Joint pain
The joints are the small points on our bodies where our bones come into contact. As you might expect, an ultramarathon puts extreme strain on all of your joints, especially those from the waist down. The most common joints that ultrarunners experience pain in are the hips, knees, spine, ankles and toes.
Joint pain is common for marathon runners, but as the distance increases, so does the risk for the participants. While this pain may be somewhat unavoidable, it is interesting to note that most joint pain occurs on the downhills of a race.
1 Lack of sleep
While you might be able to refuel with a small snack or hydrate with a quick sports drink, there’s simply no way to take a nap during an ultramarathon. Because of this, most runners experience sleep deprivation and the symptoms associated with it.
Ultramarathons typically take 24 hours or longer to run. It is only natural that the body craves sleep at that time. This can present itself in several ways; dizziness is a common complaint, while other runners experience disorientation. Some ultramarathon runners may even experience hallucinations in the most extreme cases.
Getting adequate sleep before a race can make you feel more prepared, but all runners will have to deal with the dangers of sleep deprivation at some point during the ultramarathon. On the bright side, it gives you something to look forward to: Imagine how well you’ll sleep after your race!
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