Peak Performance

Every year there are runners who appear to come out of nowhere and are suddenly racing at or near the very top level of ultrarunning’s most competitive events. I don’t think this is a new trend, and likely one that has been occurring for most of the modern history of the sport. As large numbers of new people become involved with any activity there are always going to be people with excessive talent who are able to rise very quickly to the top, especially in a niche activity like ultrarunning, in which less than .1% of the population has ever competed.

What also seems to occur on a regular basis is that the vast majority of these runners who do make their way to the top of the sport are unable to stay there for very long. In this sense it seems to be much easier to get to the top than it is to stay there. This isn’t to say that it’s easy to become a top-level ultrarunner, but rather that it seems that the quicker you get there and the more dominant you are the less likely you are to be able to stay there. The higher you climb, the bigger you fall… or something like that.

Time and age gradually undermine everything we do, and no one stays at the top level of any activity forever, but there does seem to be a much quicker decline in ultarunning than in nearly any other activity you might compare it to. Certainly there are instances of ultrarunners who get to the top level and seem to stay there for a long time, but for every person who stays highly competitive in the sport for more than five years, there seems to be dozens who do not.

I think there are many reasons that this is the case. The most obvious is that ultrarunning is an extremely demanding sport that can be highly abusive to the body and the mind. This however could be said about nearly any sport, and any individuals who are able to work their way to an elite level within that sport. This said, I do think there are a few things specific to ultrarunning that might make it a bit harder to stay at the top than most other sports.

The first of these is that ultrarunning (and running in general), unlike nearly any other sport, does not have a distinct season. There is no official off season when everyone stops competing for several months. Because of this there can become a strong feeling that one must train/race all year long to maintain any edge they have developed. Most runners seem to take a month or two off at some point each year, but if running had a distinct six- or eight-month season (and thus a distinct four- to six-month off season) I think you would see a lot more runners stay at their peak for much longer.

Kilian Jornet is one obvious modern-day example that reinforces this point. To many he may still seem young and new to the sport, but he has now been a top-level competitor for five-plus years, and has shown no sign of letting up. There hasn’t really been anyone who has been a legitimate threat to beat him in a given race who has also been at their peak for this entire span of time. This has in part been due simply to the fact that Kilian is a superb athlete who has a genetic advantage over nearly everyone he competes with, but I think his ability to perform at such a high level for this long can also be attributed to the fact that every year he takes a five- to six-month break from all running. I do not know of any other top-level ultrarunner who does this.

A second reason that I think it’s so unusual for top-level ultrarunners to stay at a peak level for more than a few years is that ultrarunning takes a degree of time and commitment beyond most any other sport. Because of this it isn’t something that you can do with any level of compromised commitment, at least not if you expect to compete at an elite level. Not to say that athletes of all disciplines don’t have to work hard to be at the top level of their sport, but there is really no such thing as a top-level ultrarunner that doesn’t work their butt off. In many other sports it’s not uncommon to hear about the freakishly gifted athlete who does just enough to get by, but is still able to perform at a high level simply as a result of natural ability. Natural ability on its own is not going to allow anyone to win highly competitive 50- and 100-mile races. Without a ton of hard work, the most capable ultrarunner in the world is going to get crushed by dozens of less-talented runners who have worked tirelessly to be ready for that race. When a runner gets tired of working this hard (as we all invariably do at some point) and begins to coast a little bit, it becomes a matter of weeks or months before this begins to show. In many other sports I think top-level athletes can coast along for several years before this starts to show. Because of this I think ultarunning is harder than most sports to stay at an elite level once you have gotten there. As soon as you are of the mindset that you are at an elite level and that you can begin to coast a little bit, there will be several other runners with just as much potential who are working just a little bit harder, and thus replacing you at the top of the sport.

Another factor, which ties in to this previous one, is that it only takes a slight level of compromise to add up to a huge decrease in performance. When you are running 50 or 100 miles, if you are just 5% less capable and efficient than you were previously this will add up to a significant difference in the end. I think this leads to a perception (as compared to many other sports) that someone is losing their ability much quicker than they really are. Or another way to look at it is that in ultrarunning it will show a lot quicker when someone is beginning to lose a little bit of their previous ability. It’s much harder to mask performance decline than it is in many sports.

A final, and perhaps the most significant factor is that most runners don’t end up sticking exclusively to the types of races that best suit them. There is such a huge difference between various events within the sport of ultrarunning that it’s nearly impossible for someone to be equally effective at a 50k as they are at a 100 miler. We all have our strengths and weaknesses as runners, but because any race longer than a marathon gets mixed together into the sport of ultrarunning you end up with most runners regularly doing races which might take five or 10 times as long as other races they do. This just isn’t something you see in other sports. This would be the equivalent of a 100-meter runner also trying to compete at 800 meters. Not that there is anything wrong with someone trying to race everything from 50k to 100-plus miles, but I think this range can and does lead to quick burnout and/or a decline in performance at all of the distances. Most of the runners you see who have been running at a high level for several years are runners who have found what they are good at, and don’t spend a whole lot of time and energy on other distances or types of races. The reality is though, that almost no one specializes in only one type or distance of race. It’s fun to mix it up and try different things, even though it makes it a lot harder to stay at a top level at any one of these types of races.

I will close by saying that I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. I think we too often create a narrative that there is a problem with the reality that most top-level ultrarunners have a few years at their peak before they begin to fade, sometimes dramatically. Certainly it is impressive when people are able to stay at a high level for several years, but in my mind it’s no less impressive when someone puts everything they have into the sport and is able to work their way to the top level, even if they are only able to stay there for a couple years. Ultarunning is a hugely demanding and exhausting sport and we should celebrate anyone who is able to reach their full potential. The vast majority are only able to stay at this potential for a short period of time, and I don’t think this is something we should frown upon, or something that is going to change anytime soon.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What do you think of Geoff’s theories on peak performance in ultrarunning and the relative brevity of it as compared to other sports? Do you agree or disagree, and why?
  • Have you seen this in yourself? That reaching your personal ultrarunning peak is a difficult thing to achieve and and even more difficult thing to maintain for any significant period of time?

There are 46 comments

  1. @Baristing

    Ultras are hard. Let's start there. And if you're a newly dominant star, you'll probably want to race lots of them. Maybe six or more in one year. To state another obvious thing: That's a lot. Now, it's not just the racing. The level of training necessary to race at a high level, all the time, can be really taxing. Especially if you're measuring yourself against other high level athletes, and feel the need to get perpetually better, to always put up bigger volume, more vert, faster tempos, etc.

    I think it's useful to look to elite road marathoning, here. In that sport, the top guys race 1-3 times a year, with very few exceptions. And they often take massive risks in training, because they know several other really talented guys are already doing that. Maybe the human body can only take so many 22 mile runs at marathon pace, before burning out. But if that's what it takes, then there will always be people willing to do that. The financial incentive to win Boston is much greater than Western States, granted. But pride – to say nothing of sponsorships and the like – is a powerful motivator too.

    Probably the best lessons can be learned from those who have kept at it, however. Guys like Jeff Browning, Karl Meltzer, Hal Koerner. I wouldn't presume to speak for them, but they've certainly answered the longevity questions in various places around the internet.

    1. @Speedgoatkarl

      I think it' s all burnout. Many of the top guys should/could last alot longer if they once in a while take a break when it's needed. It may be needed at the wrong time of the season, but listening to you're body's signals is the most important thing Ive learned.

      I've also seen so many elite runners throw down 6-10 great performances over a few years, They've won them all, then all the sudden have one bad race and put their tail between their legs and go home, never to return to that great form. Why? Fear of losing. Noone wins em' all, even Matt Carpenter said that. He used to win just about everything, but when he lost (Leadville on his first attempt) He came back and nailed it.

      I personally have been running ultras for 18 years, and simply love the feeling of running well at any given race. I've won alot of them, but even on days I did not do so well, I never went home with my tail between my legs. I forgot about it in about 10 minutes….and I move on to the next adventure.

      Noone has to run fast in any ultra, I don't care if it's Transvulcania or Hardrock, It's about efficiency and if you can nail that part, you'll do just fine and have a very long career.

  2. ClownRunner

    I think guys like Tim Twietmeyer should be looked at as a great example of staying at your peak for a long time. 5 Western States victories, 15 consecutive Top-Five finishes, 25 times under 24-hours, etc. etc. He probably stayed hungry because he wasn't running under huge sponsor/fan expectations, just running for the pure satisfaction of being in the mountains…but of course I can't speak for him…maybe he was earning 6 figures the whole time! :)___

  3. @SageCanaday

    In the realm of MUT Running (and I use "MUT" refer to Mountain-Ultra-Trail events that may be as short as VKs or sub-distance ultras to 100+ milers on the roads/tracks/treadmills/mountains etc.) we see so much diversity and variety not only in distance and terrain but in vertical profile of courses as well. In my opinion (and granted I've only been in the sport for 3 years and I've never run a single 100-miler yet) the actual course profile and terrain (be it mountainous or a flat road) is actually more of a deciding factor in performance that the actual sheer distance of the event. For example, a runner like Kilian can actually go out and win a VK, a "short" 20-mile mountain race like Sierre-Zinal and the Hardrock100 all within a month!

    So I think variety in both training and racing is actually key.
    You wrote: "Not that there is anything wrong with someone trying to race everything from 50k to 100-plus miles, but I think this range can and does lead to quick burnout and/or a decline in performance at all of the distances. "

    -But I actually think racing the same very long distance (i.e. multiple 100-milers in a year) as well as excessive training is what leads to burn-out, unhealthy habits and a decline in performance. I will agree that non-specialization during a short time-span between fairly different MUT Running races will not yield to ideal performances at any one race, but I think it can (and should) be done because the body needs new stimuli for super-compensation, adaptation and improvements in running economy. For example, it's not always fun to enter shorter road races if you are a marathon specialist but it becomes a good speed stimulus and will help you become more efficient for the long haul!

    In my opinion, the 100m to 800m comparison used to illustrate the differences in race distances isn't scalable. For example, there is actually more of a difference between the 100m (alactic sprint of less than 10sec. with creatine phosphate and residual ATPs being burned first) and the 800m (almost 50% aerobic, but highest concentration of lactic acid produced of any running event ) than between a half marathon and a 100 miler (all surfaces being equal). In events lasting about 90min or more the battle between variables like glycogen depletion, sheer muscle fatigue and dehydration all come into play but are actually quite similar being that they are all over 95% Aerobic events in nature. So we see how the differences in energy systems (between Aerobic and Anaerobic contributions) varies quite a bit more in track events as they are very different energy systems. Of course in a brutal 100-miler in the mountains one is probably going to have all sorts of issues (i.e. nausea) and a myriad of pain that mentally tests their will power for hours on end (a grueling suffer-fest if you will!). But again, unlike shorter distances on a track or road the key variable that I think really differentiates MUT Running events is actual terrain and (vertical) course profile….not sheer distance alone.

    Also, (and again granted I may be on the path to burn-out or injury at any moment..hopefully not), I don't think we want to have the attitude that being at our peak performance for only a couple years at a time is normal or okay! I think there can be a shift in training style and racing schedules that allow for more longevity in the sport for all levels. MUT Running is evolving and course records at all events will continue to be broken every year. We are just scratching the surface of what is possible in the sport. Finally, I believe that calculated, progressive improvements in training can at least lead to more strength (if not more speed as well) and better health/general well-being. Improvements in Vo2max top out pretty quick at a relatively young age, but improvements in running economy (esp. at longer events) can continue for decades. On that note, it's also key to always have fun!

  4. mjlaye

    I don't think that elite ultra runners have any less of a peak than any other athletes. I don't really see where the evidence is? Is this purely observational based on specific people? Is this based on specific races?

    Lets look at the top 10 ultra runners from 2013 (according to UR magazine, could not find any lists from before then) and when they started winning ultras (from ultrasignup, which doesn't even go back too far):

    Mike Morton: 1994
    Brian Rusiecki: 2009
    Joe Fejes: 2011
    Nick Clark: 2009
    Zack Bitter: 2011
    Ian Sharman: 2010
    Tim Olson: 2010
    Sage Canaday: 2012
    Jon Olsen: 2005
    Rob Krar: 2012

    Most if not all of these guys would still be considered "elite" ultra runners. Perhaps in different aspects of ultra running, but elite none the less.

    Now lets compare to other sports. The average career of an NFL player is 3.3 years, NBA is 4.8 years, NHL is 5.5, and MLB is 5.6. If anything "elite" ultrarunners have LONGER careers than those in professional sports. But again it really depends on what you define as "elite" or "on top".

    I think the bias that there are elites who are no longer elite comes from the much greater amount of competition and therefore a dilution in how much coverage or media these people generate and therefore they seem like they are no longer on top. Alternatively even if they are running the same times and putting up the same performances as before the influx of talent at the top can makes it seem like they have lost fitness or disappeared from the scene. However, in reality its not them that has changed, but the sport.

    1. sharmanian

      Matt, I agree that the increase in competition accounts for much of the seeming disappearance of people at the top of the sport after a very few years. I keep improving my times and either staying in the same place or even dropping down the rankings :)

    2. grroes

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I think these numbers actually do a great job of reinforcing the point of the article.

      I've seen these average career numbers quoted before and I think it's very important to realize how different any of these sports are as compared to something like ultrarunning. These are all sports with a finite number of professional "jobs" that hundreds of thousands of kids and young adults are vying for. These numbers are averages that are heavily swayed by the athletes who are able to just break into the pros but are unable to stay there because they aren't good enough. these numbers have nothing to do with the top level players who are guaranteed jobs for 10+ years if they want them. if you considered just those types of players these numbers would need to be doubled or tripled. Perennial all stars in all of these sports almost always play 10 or more years. if you then consider your list of the top 10 ultrarunners from 2013 you have only one runner who has been at it for more than 10 years (and he was recently back from essentially a 12 year break) such that his active career has essentially been about 6 or 7 years. 8 of the 10 runners on this list had been racing for 4 years or less in 2013.

      An equal comparison would be if you looked up the top 10 players in the MVP voting for each of the mentioned sports and how long they have been in the sport. I think you'd find many more players who have been at it for a lot longer than this list of runners. I did a quick look at the NBA MVP voting for the same year 2012/13 and 7 of the 10 players had been in the league since 2005 or earlier. i would guess that things would be quite similar in the other sports as well.

      1. grroes

        The larger point of my previous comment being that in the mainstream professional sports you mentioned you almost never see a player who becomes one of the top 10 or 20 in that sport that is unable to maintain at least a solid 10 year career. Sure it happens, but it is not the norm. In ultrarunning I think it is much more common to have runners who make it to the top 10 or 20 in the sport that do not maintain a 10 year career in which they are competitive enough that they would still have a "job" in the sport if it had a finite number of space the way these other sports do.

        1. mjlaye

          This is exactly why I used "elite". To me being in a major professional league makes you elite as only 1-2% of college athletes make it professionally, with baseball being an exception because of the minor leagues. (http://www.businessinsider.com/odds-college-athletes-become-professionals-2012-2#football-17-of-college-players-play-professionally-008-of-high-school-players-do-2). I don't quite agree with the approach of comparing absolute numbers there.

          I used 2013 to see whether those runners were still "elite" in 2015 not to count backward from that point in time. Its not fair to judge those runners assuming that they will not still be "elite". The last point I would make is that runners are judged on whether they are "elite" on an extremely small sample size. They only compete several times a year versus other which makes running performances inherently less reliable. To me the jury is still out and while I'm not convinced either way, but appreciate the lively discussion.

        2. ebaratz

          The finite number of NBA roster spots is over 300 though, with soccer, football, baseball, etc even greater. Just about anyone in a top 10 or top 20 list of ultrarunners could maintain that level for a decade if the economics were in their favor like it is in mainstream sports.

    3. Ben_Nephew

      Winning an ultra does not necessarily indicate you are at the top of the sport, or even your own personal peak. A more useful comparison would be how long people stay in the top 10 list at UR. If you look at the individual peak of an ultra athlete, it is common to see a good year or two, and then a decline. Even if you account for the progress of the sport over recent years, this is still true for many athletes when you look at their best performances at specific races over time. A more relevant confound may be the fact that some runners don't get into ultras until late in their running career. However, we are now seeing short peaks from much younger runners in recent years. Even when you look at the someone like Mike Wardian, an outlier of longevity in many respects, his top ultra perfomances were over a relatively short period, 4 years at most. It is possible that Geoff is basing his opinion more on male data? Females seem to be more successful at maintaining a longer peak. I'm not sure I understand the relevance of comparing ultrarunning to baseball and basketball rather than professional running. I doubt baseball players compare career lengths with runners.
      http://www.americanultra.org/halloffame.html

      1. grroes

        I would agree 100% that women tend to be more successful at maintaining longer peaks. I should have touched on that point in the original article.

        1. Ben_Nephew

          Funny how they are better at race pacing and maintaining longer peaks! I'm sure they are completely unrelated!

      2. mjlaye

        Thanks Ben and Geoff. Interesting debate. So if women are indeed better at maintaining their peaks then what is the reason for this? I don't think anyone would say that they don't push themselves in races or train as hard as the men. Its just as hard for them, if not more so as they typically are out there for longer than the men. I also don't think that racing frequency is a major contributor as the top 10 men from 2013 and 2014 averaged 6.65 (ultra)races a year while the top women averaged 6.25 (Note: total racing distance will likely show a larger gap and of course this does not count all the marathons that Ian or Kaci did).

        My personal thought it similar to Ian's. The influx of talent on the mens side makes it seem like people are falling off, but in reality they maybe running at a similar level as before. Not to say there has not been an influx of talent on the womens scene as well, just to a lesser degree.

        1. Ben_Nephew

          The short answer is that they race and train smarter than men. A female vs. male race may be a microcosm of an ultra career. More likely to have a rational racing schedule, less likely to race while injured. To get at the question of the role of racing frequency, I think you would need to look at race frequency in men with short and long careers over a period of several years, do the same with women, and compare all the groups. Not sure ultrasignup is going to be reliable enough, as you note.

        2. grroes

          Women on average race way more patiently than men… and I think they also race/train over time much more patiently than men. I also think that on average there is a larger need for men to push themselves to a higher degree to be competitive at the top levels. This is not meant at all to take away from women in the sport in any way, but there is a simple reality that there are significantly higher numbers of men who take part in ultrarunning, in this sense if you want to be a top 5 or 10 athlete in the sport you will likely need to work a lot harder if you are male. Not to imply at all that top women in the sport don't work hard, but in many cases there may not be quite as much of a need to push the body at an unsustainable level to be a very top level athlete. For most men I think it has become almost neccessary to do so.

  5. Mike Anthony

    I think the reasons are much more obvious when you look towards the history of the sport and the changes it has undergone. There have been plenty of ultrarunners in the sports history who have remained at the top for years, Bruce Fordyce, Yannis Kouros, Newton. The runners of old basically. And whats the key difference between the exceptional runners of yesteryear and the runners of today?……two things….the amount of racing the top guys do nowadays….and the other is the excessive training mileages. Look at Fordyce for example, he peaked for one race a year…Comrades, and thats why he dominated it for 10 years. He run one other key race and the was London to Brighton. He understood that the body has finite reserves for producing peak performance. Compare someone like that with a runner today who makes it big, gets sponsored then goes and runs 3 hundreds a year and a bunch of fifty milers and 50ks, then trains 130 miles a week too. Its easy to see what the problem is in my opinion.

    Once you arrive at the top, the opportunities and incentives to race come flooding in ten fold and thats why so many top runners end up burnt out and overcooked within a year or two. Its sad but its almost becoming standard. There are a few who seem to be wise to it, Rory Bosio for example who follows the example of people like Fordyce and chooses her peak race for the year UTMB say and works for that one big effort, not 8 or 10 a year. Its no surprise shes sticking around whilst many of her contemporaries male and female are falling off, beat up and broken.

    If runners want longevity they need to think long term and not get caught up in the fanfare that comes with a victory and sponsorship. Easier said then done right but look at the alternative….for every Killian or Wardian who can hammer the body year round we have scores of our top runners out injured or no longer able to compete like they did in there true peaks, those who burnt bright then one day, just no longer were there. Unbreakable was the film who got me into the sport to begin with and its sad but.only one of the 4 actually competes at top level racing right now. In no other sport would we accept that. Other big names similar story…olsen, hawker etc and I see many other top runners halfway there right at this moment.

    1. grroes

      Mike, Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with most of your points, but not with your underlying idea that this reality is primarily a bad thing. Most runners I know (myself included) who had a prominent short peak (5 years or less) knew that the amount they were running/racing would not be sustainable over the long haul. I made a very conscious choice to put 110% into my running for a period of time and get as much as possible out of my body for a few years, knowing that i would not be able to maintain this level very long. My body ultimately gave out on me much more acutely than I ever would have expected, but I never once had the illusion that I would be able to or want to train/race at such a high level for more than about 5 years. Nowadays, because of how competitive these races have become most runners need to take this approach to make it to the highest levels within the sport, and the vast majority choose to do so knowing that this is not a recipe for longevity. Some people would rather be pretty fast for 10+ years while others would rather be as fast as their bodies will possibly allow for a few years. The vast majority of people are not able to have both. neither one is in my mind better or more admirable than the other, but simply a personal preference.

      1. Mike Anthony

        Thanks Geoff, I do not believe that the choice is to be as fast as you can by really hammering it for a few yesrs now or to take a more long term approach in order to have many slightly lesser but still really good performances. I think its more to do with when and how frequently you demand those top top peak performances from the body. So the choice might be do I spread them over the course of a career or over the course of a few years, every 8-12 weeks. I think there is an obvious problem with the latter in that this relatively quick and excessive demand on the body to produce many all out performances has proven for so many to be a catastrophic model. These same athletes could have certainly had longer careers, with many top top performances….if they had have raced far far less, but its perhaps not what you want to hear when you are breaking the top tier of the sport. I can see how easy it would be to convince yourself in that situation you wont end up as THAT athlete, that you know your body well enough for it not to happen to you.

        Its the wild west nature of our sport right now, races everywhere and no real order to what we do. Thats a good thing in many many ways but it also has its pitfalls. Consider for example if we were in an Olympic event or we had a yearly world championship that athletes subscribed too….i think there then would be the kind of structure that promotes a more tempered approach such as once a year peaks, 2 a year peaks and of course cycles of peaks between championships. When I used the example of Bruce Fordyce you get a sense of the more professional approach I mean, he saw Comrades as the world championship. It was all that mattered and he treat it with such respect that he felt he could only win it by focussing solely on peaking for that one performance. He felt pushing it to two or three a year even was too much.

        The sport is of course a very different landscape for a runner who makes it big right now. There are just so many opportunities to race that adopting a really measured peaking model is not going to be very attractive . Not when they have the promise of sponsorship and access to all the top races, along with what we might consider to almost be the expectation to follow the model of serial racing.

        As a fan, its getting hard to watch however. To see these runners rise suddenly into that same trapping before seeing the fall that comes a few years later is not always comfortable to be a part of. Yes its an individual choice but a part of me cant help but think this choice is often not always fully informed, that many runners feel they have only one choice if they are to be a top runner, perhaps there is also a feeling of necessity that if they are to maintain a top position in the sport they have to be racing hard many times a year. Its a real divergence however from the the knowledge base of running though, at no other time in our sport was we running this way and seeing the kind of problems we have nowadays. We have created a unique model. One that unfortunately make it so many of the sports top athletes tear it up for a few years then simply disappear. Is that really what they are choosing to do? I am not so sure.

  6. Joey

    I think it all boils down to the balance of everything. Ultrarunning is taxing in both the physical and mental worlds and I don't see many people, elites and non-elites, respecting that. I see it more often than not, someone finishing a 100 miler and then lining up for another ultra within a month or two.

    If elite marathoners peak for only 1 or 2 races a year and also have access to the best massage therapists and chiros, trainers and coaches, then take ample amount of time to recover from key races, then shouldnt that mean others should take even more time off from running that do not have the special access that they do?

    But no one does.

    We are constantly searching for the next thing, but never taking the time to listen within and to find a balance that works for ourselves.

  7. @eLLiejG

    I've not thought about this long enough to fully consider this discussion but an amazing example of longevity in ultrarunning – Elena and Olesya Nurgalieva. http://news.comrades.com/comrades-winners, 10+yrs of dominant performances (and not simply due to to lack of competition, but due to maintaining amazing fitness). Interestingly though, as far as I'm aware, the Nurgalievas have focused almost solely on 2 races a year during their ultrarunning career – Two Oceans and Comrades

    1. Mike Anthony

      Thats the same model Bruce Fordyce followed in his training although he said two oceans was always a jog with friends, comrades was the only true race effort of the year. Similar too Elena and Olesya his peak lasted many years.

  8. Ben_Nephew

    I'm not sure I would say that elite level ultra training is more difficult than elite level marathon training, or long distance running in general. Many are coming to the conclusion that marathon or even shorter distance type training leads to strong ultra performances. A few factors that may be involved in short ultra careers are:

    1. Runners who get into ultras without much of a background in running at other levels. This type of runner may read a popular blog, follow what that person is doing, and get injured.

    2. The combination of high mileage, living at high altitude, and long races. This is very stressful in many respects, and makes recovery more difficult.

    3. Accumulation of physiological insults from long races. It is relatively common for top ultrarunners to end up in the hospital or have very prolonged recoveries after a race compared to elite level marathoners, and many of these ultra runners are not professional athletes. While this is often downplayed by describing DNF's as due to "health issues" instead of rhabdo and suggestions that coffee colored urine is no big deal and you just need to drink more, no one really knows the long term effects of these types of events. Even if it results in a 2-3% decrease in performance, that is often the difference between winning and being out of the top 5-10.

    Geoff, any thoughts on the recent growth of very young runners doing very long races?

    1. grroes

      Ben, I actually wrote an entire article on that topic a while back… if you look through the archives in iRunFar you should be able to find it.

      I think it will be interesting to see 5 or 10 years from now if you have a bunch of runners who started really young and are still at the top of the sport 10 or 15 years later since they might only be 35 at that time. My guess is that this will not be the case. I think if you start at 20 or 40 most people are still only going to have 5-10 years (at the most) in which they will perform at their peak level.

      1. Ben_Nephew

        Right, forgot about that. It is certainly interesting to contrast the progression of some young ultra runners with top high school, collegiate, and post collegiate runners. There are tons of high school kids who could run impressive times for a half or full marathon, but few involved with running at that level would suggest it. There certainly aren't much data on teenagers doing 100 milers, but there is support for a gradual progression in training and racing through high school and college being more optimal than excessive mileage and longer race distances. Sure, some can thrive on that, but those are outliers.

  9. Toddrunzslow

    Too many elites doing too many races. It's not rocket science. And because of this what we will see is young people being influenced by their favourite elite racers getting burnt out by following the poor example set by many of the top ultra runners in the world. 1-3 key races a year is a formula that seems to extend the longevity of ultra runners and elites should be setting the example (because whether you elites want to aknowledge it or not you have a huge influence on people entering the sport). Also, sponsors should be discouraging/limiting their athletes from racing too much.

    1. Mike Anthony

      I think to a sponsor you're basically a glorified billboard despite what we are told. The more you are out there the more exposure they get. There will always be new runners coming up for them to sponsor if you end up broken and on the scrap heap. I think if change is gonna happen it has to come from the athletes themselves

    2. Ben_Nephew

      It may not be rocket science, but I also don't think it is as simple as racing too much. We have a sport that clearly selects for OCD. Many athletes get injured soon after getting a sponsorship that allows them to train full time, whether or not they are racing frequently. You can get hurt training too hard just as easily as racing too hard. In terms of hard days per year, if a runner is tapering and recovering properly, someone who races often may easily have less hard days than someone who only races 1-2 times a year. A couple of races poorly spaced can do more damage than several races that allow for proper recovery. Similarly, running a race that you are not trained for, but race because you got a free trip, that is also a recipe for disaster.

      People talk about the advantages of long blocks of training, but those can also lead to injury and/or fatigue. Sure, most training plans have easy periods built in, but those periods are typically not as long as a decent taper and recovery around a race. Not tapering seems to be celebrated, and while Kilian can get away with that (to some degree, I wonder how rested he was from some of his FKTs), most cannot.

      1. Toddrunzslow

        Great response. While I might not agree I certainly appreciate other folks perceptions. This is what will help elevate our beloved sport, people with a wide range of ideas and backgrounds all trying to make it better. Here's to long and injury free running lives! :)

        1. Toddrunzslow

          Also, the term OCD refers to a personality disorder. It gets used incorrectly. The term I would use to describe many ultra runners would be Type A behaviours. :)

  10. @runcamille

    Based on my very early thoughts transitioning to ultras– I think marathons are physically harder/more painful, whereas ultras are more a mental and metabolic grind. After my first 100K road race– it was the least sore I've ever been after any race. However, in terms of sleep and metabolism– I felt a bigger toll, as if the body goes into overdrive (endocrine system!) to rebuild more than just sore muscles. Having done so many back-to-back marathons, it does get easier to recover faster– I can do 2-3 quality marathons close together… beyond that it starts to get harder. I'm not alone on this either– some people have the ability to squeak in a few more peak efforts close together (Bill Rodgers, Yuki Kawauchi, those who have done the classic Comrades-Western States double…). Maybe with ultras it's the same, or maybe not (given the metabolic hit)? It could depend on the individual and a multitude of important recovery factors (~sleep, diet, how one trains, being at sea level vs. high altitude). Regardless though, it generally does take a well rested body (and mind!) to get a peak effort– beyond a certain point (for each individual), you start to play with fire.

    Women tend to have longer careers because of the protective impact of estrogen.

    I agree with the sentiment to stave off mental/physical staleness you need to train and race a variety of ways. Slugging out slow training/racing mega miles up in the mountains is going to wear on you. I'd love to see more ultra runners mixing it up in legitimate road races and working on speed and all the energy systems.

  11. grroes

    As i mentioned near the end of this article, and in a couple of the comments I've made in response to other's comments, I don't think there is an inherent reason we should assume short peaks are a bad thing. I think it may simply be that it's a very demanding sport, that takes huge amounts of physical and mental focus to achieve your highest potential. The vast majority of people are not able to put this amount of attention into the sport and maintain their top level of results for more than 5, or maybe 10 years.

    Many of the comments here seem to be made under the assumption that this is a problem that needs fixing. I don't see it this way at all. For most people there is a lot more to life than running and racing. It's not like runners who peak for a few years and then seem to disappear from the racing scene are unable to still thrive and prosper in other areas of life. Some people choose to make racing at as high a level as possible a life long goal/passion, but the vast majority of runners I know are happy to race for a handful of years and then move that energy to something else in their lives (including other types or styles of running).

    1. Toddrunzslow

      It's interesting to hear your thoughts on this subject Geoff, especially in light of your recent illness and long recovery. Do you think racing so often contributed to your illness? Do you think (if you wanted to) that you could have prolonged your racing career had you not raced as often as you did? I'm not saying or assuming that elite racers all want long careers in racing, I'm simply saying that racing less frequently and training smart are ways in which I feel folks can prolong their running and racing lives. As a side note it would be interesting to look at Type A behaviours in ultra runners In respects to injury rates and running with injuries (or the lack of ability to rest and recoup). There is some interesting research out there (albeit not much) about this subject and I think it'd be a great article to write about. Keep writing, as you always seem to get great conversations and debates going and I feel this is important to the sport.

      1. grroes

        I have no idea if my racing/training contributed to my health issues. It's quite likely it did. It's also quite likely that I have dealt with some other totally unrelated virus/disease/condition. However, if we assume for the sake of conversation that this was caused by the physical stress of racing/training, then yes, I think it would be safe to assume that I could have prolonged my racing career had I not trained/raced in the way that I did. I also think it's safe to assume that I would not have gotten to the level I did had I taken an approach that was focused primarily on longevity. This was an approach I chose to take and that I think many other runners choose to take. Again, it comes back to the question of whether you want to pursue a few years at your absolute highest level or you want to pursue several years at a high (but somewhat lesser level)? I think ultrarunning is so demanding of a sport that the vast majority of people are not able to have it both ways. Sure, anyone can mention a handful of peope who seem to be able to have it both ways, but they are very much the exception and not the norm. for each of these people there are dozens who are not.

        1. Toddrunzslow

          Thanks for your reply Geoff. And I agree, if a runner wants to peak and race at the highest level possible and that only lasts a few years and that is what that persons intent was then it's all good. I also agree that we will see this trend continue for the other reason, the fact that so many fast and eager runners are entering the sport every year making it difficult to stay at the top for very long. I also see some runners doing very well within the sport after they have peaked but in another manner (coaching, writing, starting a business that relates to ultra's), which I believe also elevates the sport we love so much. Thanks again

        2. me

          Wait – I think I am confused – maybe not confused but possibly dumbfounded. Are you saying that had someone told you, you could compete at a very high level for a few years and then struggle with running for the rest of your life (and I know this isn’t really the reality, but until you return to ‘normal’ this is the rest of your life)or compete at lesser of a level but do it forever you still would have chosen the path you chose? What for? Sponsorships and writing a column on a website, putting on training camps in Alaska, and having a movie made about your accomplishment at Western States – which is all wonderful, but then I’d have to ask – why exactly do you run? Isn’t it for how it makes you feel, and seeing what you see, and being able to do that without the fear of wondering how the run will go that day? Or was it for the notoriety? I will never be as fast as you, but I can without a doubt say, I would not trade what I intend to be a life time of mid-pack results, for a year or two of winning some races. There is no question to that. This sounds harsh as I re-read it and I mean no disrespect, but I’m just trying to wrap my head around what I think you just said – and it’s mind-blowing and hardly what I thought you would say.

          1. grroes

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

            I think it comes down to the reality that every runner has a different interest in running, and especially racing. I never once thought that racing would be something that I would want to do long term, thus it made more sense to me to jump into it with all of my focus and energy and ride it out for the time that I felt like I wanted to. I have never had any desire to race regularly in any capacity in which I wasn't focused and driven to be as fast as possible. This doesn't mean I will never again run an occasional race here and there (primarily for the social aspect), but if i'm not training with the primary focus to be as fast as possible on race day then I would generally rather not race and just do runs on my own and with friends. I know this mentality can rub some people the wrong way, but it's really just a case of personal preference.

            This however doesn't mean that I don't continue to have, and don't plan to continue to have, a substantial, vibrant, and long term relationship with the activity of running, only that racing is not really where I envision much (if any) of my energy going. My body/mind doesn't currently feel like it would be able to handle the stress load of training to race at or near my highest potential, but it is perfectly suited to get out and enjoy a healthy, satisfying, and sustainable amount of running. I'm easily able to put in 50+ mile weeks in the mountains on a regular basis and feel as satisfied with my running now as ever. I'm not entirely opposed to ever racing regularly again in my life, but there are so many other exciting things out there that I would say the odds are pretty low.

            I think it's easy to lump running and racing into the same category, but for me they have always been two very different aspects of the same activity. Had I hoped to race regularly for decades I would have had to take a very different, more patient approach, and would almost certainly not have been able to get my body to perform at the level that it did . For many people this more patient approach is the preferred way to go, but it never was in any way part of my plan with racing. My path from where I was 3 years ago to this point wasn't exactly what I envisioned, but I am now pretty much where I intended/hoped to be with my running at this point.

            This might seem totally alien to you as it sounds like you have a very different perspective, but I can also say without a doubt that I would never trade the 6 years of high focus racing I did for a lifetime of racing with the sustainable, patient, lower stress approach that would be required to race such demanding races for that long. i'm not at all implying that one is better than the other, only that for me i am much more content to go all in with something for 5 or 6 years and then move into other areas/activities. I have always been this way. My ultra racing career was in fact my second ~6 year stint with racing after a 10 year break in which I dove deep into several other activities (mountain biking and rafting being the two most prominent). The 6 years of ultra racing I did was awesome, but honestly I am very content to be done with it, and am stoked for the space that it's absence gives my running and everything else in my life. who knows, maybe 10 years from now the racing bug will come back around for me, but if not it will likely be because I will be distracted with some other exciting activities.

            Sorry for the run on response. hope it makes things a bit more clear. happy trails.

  12. lucy4321

    A number of points I take exception to.
    1) You mention that, compared to sports such as NFL, NHL, etc, ultra runners careers are relatively short (at the top 10 end). Surely that is because, as you mentioned, ultra running is such a niche sport and so does not attract the best athletes? Surely if there was much more money involved the best would be drawn to it and then we would see 10+ year careers?
    2) Furthering the point about money, we here all the time about the damage football does to athletes' bodies, and that those veterans of 10 years have to live with the repercussions for the rest of their lives. Why do they do it? Because of money. I'm sure that if you told a runner that he only had to brutalise his body for another 5 years in order to earn $80MILLION(!!!!) that he would do so, and thus we would see longer careers. Currently, there just isn't that much incentive to continue past a certain time.
    3)You mention that other sports don't work as hard as ultra runners because of 'genetic freaks who can get by'. Well, apart from science, as of yet, being unable to prove the role of genetics in sport performance, you also mention Kilian being a genetic freak, surely it goes both ways. Also, the whole 'don't work hard' thing only applies to GAMES (baseball, soccer, etc), not true sports (running, rowing, swimming, cycling)(I.e. those where the skill component is a minimal part, and physical fitness is the main determiner). Take a look at Chris Hoy's training regime, or Phelps', or an olympic rower, and then tell me they don't work hard! If anything, they work harder. And whilst you'll argue that those sports don't have the same pounding of running, you have to account for the fact that they do significantly more hours, which more than compensates for that element.
    4) Finally, surely you hold a heavy bias for this subject.

    1. grroes

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      As to your first point I think that if there were more money in ultrarunning top level careers would be even shorter than they are now as individuals would need to push themselves to an even more extreme level to be at the top. The more money the more motivation to push the body to an unsustainable level, which is essentially the point of your second point.

      I do agree with your second point in that I think you would see longer careers if there was more opportunity to make money but i do not think you would see longer stretches in which runners were at their peaks. I think these stretches will become shorter and shorter as more money comes into the sport. In baseball, football, basketball, etc you see players all the time who seem to be in their "prime" for 6, 8, even 10 years. This is something you hardly ever see in ultrarunning and if there was more money involved I don't think you would see it more, but rather less.

      your 3rd point is spot on, and i should have been more clear about that in my original post. team sports (or games as you call them) apply to my original point here, whereas most individual sports do not. It's also worth noting that i'm most certainly not talking about everyone in a given sport when I say that some athletes in other sports are able to coast through years of peak performance. in this sense it doesn't really mean much of anything to mention individual names of people who work like crazy. i would never for a second say that the vast majority of athletes at the top levels of any sport don't work their tails off, only that ultrarunning is one of the handful of sports, where no matter how talented you are you are not going to be able to achieve top level status without putting in 100% effort and focus.

      To your 4th point: yes, i suppose i do, but everyone interested in a conversation this specific likely has some level of bias about it, being that it is a topic which effects any avid runner to some degree.

      1. lucy4321

        All fair repossess and I appreciate your viewpoints. Maybe, as you say in your last point, everyone has a bias and as I am relatively (compared to you) young in this sport, I am naive about the subject. Either way, I wish you the very best for the next chapter in your life and hope you are still able to enjoy the paradise that is the mountains.

  13. American Pharaoh

    “In many other sports I think top-level athletes can coast along for several years before this starts to show”…if a horse doesn’t train it will show immediately in their performance. #TripleCrown

    1. Ben_Nephew

      At a very basic level, improved performance comes from the proper balance of stress and recovery. Maybe ultrarunners are less adept at finding the proper balance compared to other types of running? Even sprinters have lengthy careers these days. OK, so that may be drug induced and there is a massive difference in training volume, but I think the violence and injury risk of top level sprinting is similar to the wear and tear of distance running.

      Another interesting point this article reminds me of is the recent trend in minimal time off in elite marathoning. While Kilian takes time off from running, he is still training and racing hard with his ski-mo. In many instances, I think the period when runners are trying to get back into shape from a long layoff has the highest risk for injury.

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