Ultra Marathons Will Not Make You Dumb

This post from the Smithsonian summarizes some research from the Trans-Europe Footrace on the physical effects of ultra marathons. The click-grabbing headline tells us that ultra marathons will shrink our brains. But, actually reading the article shows this to be grandstanding at best.

Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.
Mountain runners play with their watches while starting a race.

According to the article, these researchers studied 44 runners in the 64 day/2,788 mile race performing MRIs and other tests on them before, during, and after the race about every 900 kilometers. These scans and blood/urine tests were used to judge changes over time for these runners.

While noting that cartilage broke down over the course of the first 2500km of the race, the researchers discovered that it began to regenerate even while the runners were still pounding across Europe. Previously, it was believed that cartilage would only regenerate at rest when the load was removed.

Then, there’s the big headline that some of the runners showed signs of brain shrinkage over the course of the race. The researcher don’t know why this happened but malnourishment, dehydration, lack of stimulation, or actual remapping of brain function are posited as possible causes. Basically, nobody knows and the sample size is so small and research so sparse that we aren’t likely to ever really know.

So, now we’ll be reading jokes and breathless blog posts about ultra marathons making us dumb. Let me be clear, ultra marathons are not going to make anyone dumb.

When we realize that this race is really much more than an ultra marathon and represents one of the more extreme running events currently happening, it stands to reason that these changes almost certainly don’t apply to your shorter 50k or 50 mile race. Even this research showed that all the changes were reversed within six months. So, like the sore muscle or the tweaked ligament, these changes go away with rest.

It’s great that this sport is starting to have some research focus on it to help make it safer and potentially more approachable for more people. Thus far, the sport’s icons and most of the business around the sport is focused on the highest achievers. Where 5k runs have generated large mass appeal, it would be great to have some percentage of that attention on ultra running.

For me, the benefits of lessened anxiety, mitigated depression, weight control, and personal time will easily outweigh any temporary drawbacks of brain changes. I imagine if I were to drink a beer the brain damage is probably similar to finishing the Trans-Europe Footrace. I’m highly unlikely to do either of those two things.

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