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?