Thursday, October 23rd, 2014

Five Universal Truths of Ultra Running

AUTHOR: Andy Jones-Wilkins

Anyone who has been running long distances for any length of time invariably gets questions from those outside the sport:

“Doesn’t that ruin your knees?”

“Isn’t running that far bad for you?”

“Are humans actually meant to run that far?”

And, often in response we tend to drift toward a blend of justification and excuse-making with an occasional reference to research or some guy we know who is 98 years old and still runs three miles a day every day before breakfast.  But, whatever the truth is, there is something alluring and mysterious about running long distances.  And I, over two decades of long distance running, have come to understand five universal truths:

1. Running is both good for you and bad for you. It’s up to you to figure out to what degree. Many runners with whom I have spoken tend to go in waves when it comes to balance.  When things are going well, they are feeling good, and the miles are drifting by, everything seems lovely.  But, when the inevitable niggles set in or life gets in the way, the downward spiral can be profound. Finding ways to calibrate the tidal nature of running will go a long way toward the fulfillment of a long and successful running career. 

2. Experience is every bit as important as training and preparation.  Especially when it comes to figuring out when to take a step back. I have heard countless stories of runners who have read articles and race reports, talked to veterans, and studied splits and training programs only to get to Race Day and have the wheels inexorably fly off. Essentially, the reason for this, is that in ultramarathoning more than many other sports, experience is an essential component of success. No matter how much advice and support a runner can soak up, there is absolutely no substitute for simply getting out there, getting moving and getting it done.  Simply put, the more you do it the more you can do it!

3. Listening to your body alone is not enough, you also have to hear what it has to say.  Too many runners think they’re listening and in the process they develop “deaf spots.” Listening to your body is one of the often repeated clichés in running.  And, for good reason. Ignoring the body’s signals can be a death knell. However, so too can not hearing the voices of the body.  Runners who I have spoken with who have made quick entrances and even quicker exits from the sport have told me that if they had just heard the warning signs a bit more acutely they could have avoided the pifalls of diminishing returns. Sadly, once deaf spots have been developed they are almost impossible to remove. 

4. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is actually a genuine affliction.  You need to set priorities and stick to them. Following the crowd inevitably leads to burnout. As ultramarathon running has boomed over the past five years many runners have embraced the sport for healthy, well-meaning reasons.  However, the social dynamic and the allure of certain high profile events have impelled many to fall prey to the dreaded FOMO. It is too easy to get lulled into the whims of the group, especially when you come to an activity late in life that is at once motivating and inspiring. However, diving in too deep has meant that some folks have gotten unmercifully spit out the other side into a downward spiral of overtraining, injury, illness, and depression.

5. The positives far outweigh the negatives when it comes to the emotional and psychological benefits of running. Be sure to not let the physical toll bring that part of you down. When we look in the mirror and see the pounds coming off, muscle definition developing in our legs, and the overall healthy “look” of the runner coming across our faces, it is inevitable that we think it will just keep getting better.  Thus, when we realize the overall benefit to our overall well-being what’s not to like? That said, when the shine wears off, the mental impact of not running or failing to advance can be devastating.


In the end, it seems to me, to all be a simple matter of balance. Finding a way to balance the competition within us and around us can keep us healthy and sane and can also, dare I say, not only make us better runners, but better people, as well.

About the Author: Andy Jones-Wilkins is an elite ultra runner, educator and Opedix user. Andy, better known as "AJW," has finished the notorius Western States 100 Mile ten times with seven consecutive top-ten finishes. You can get more advice in his weekly column, the AJW Taproom, on

About Opedix: Opedix produces scientifically engineered apparel that helps keep athletes, like Andy, moving. To learn more about how Opedix products work, please visit this link. 


Photo: "UTMB (158)" by Akunamatata licensed under CC by 2.0

Photo: "UTMB (277)" by Akunamatata licensed under CC by 2.0