I’d be a wealthy man if I got money every time I heard the question, “Am I too old to start [insert sport of choice here]?” Since I am beyond what most people consider my prime as an athlete myself, I understand why it’s such a common question. It seems as though there is such a thing as too late when it comes to athletics.
However, it looks like our beliefs about when to start, how much to train, where to train, and so forth might not actually hold water. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers looked at the habits of 1,345 ultramarathoners. While it is known that ultramarathon participation is on a rapid ascent in recent years – there was a 22% increase just from 2011 to 2012 – very little is known about the ultramarathoners themselves and their training habits.
Age is one of many factors the researchers considered. The average age to run an ultramarathon for the first time was 36, which has held fast for decades. The second most common age to do an ultra for the first time was forty, and the average participant was 43. Over 10% of the participants were over fifty years old when they ran their first race. That means ultramarathons are not a young (wo)man’s sport.
The researchers looked at a lot of other demographic information as well, including gender and nationality of ultramarathon runners. 31.7% of the participants were women. A majority of the participants (87.7%) were American, with most of the rest coming from Europe and Canada.
On average, the athletes had been running for sixteen years. So, on average, they began running regularly in their late twenties, but not necessarily competing. However, 25% of the participants had only been running for three years or less before their first ultramarathon. Inexperience could account for some of the injuries seen, but this data also indicates that the sport is safely and commonly started relatively late in life, compared to other sports.
The researchers also looked at how much the runners trained. The average running distance in the prior year amounted to 3,347km. Since most of the participants were American, that might be better understood as averaging about forty miles of running per week. This volume didn’t show a significant decline with age, nor was it any different between men and women.
Training intensity, surface, and race frequency varied, but the researchers did note some trends. 61.9% of the runners’ training time was spent at a moderate intensity, meaning enough to break a sweat in ten minutes, which would be about race pace. About half of the time was spent on a trail, with another 42.5% spent on concrete or asphalt. On average, the runners did three marathons or shorter races and three ultramarathons in the prior year.
With an advanced training age and so many miles put in, we might think injuries and burnout would be common. However, out of everyone who had not completed an ultramarathon in the last year, most of the athletes intended to run again and cited other commitments as the main reason for not competing. For those who stopped running altogether, injuries were the main reason (accounting for only 2.7% of total participants), but commitments and unrelated medical issues together were more commonly cited.
The only group in which injuries were truly the most common reason for no longer competing was the group that still ran regularly but would not compete again. There were only eight people in that group, out of the 1,345 studied.
While novices need to be careful when competing for the first time, it seems that ultramarathons can be safe competitions for athletes of any age, sex, or experience level. Might be time to give it a shot.
1. Martin D. Hoffman, et. al., “Exercise Habits of Ultramarathon Runners: Baseline Findings from the ULTRA Study,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a1f261
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