Why Ultramarathons are Easier Than Marathons

I’m sure there are business parallels in the idea that ultramarathons (runs of as much as 50-100 miles) are easier on you than mere marathons, but it’s just plain interesting in itself:

I’ve heard people say ultras are easier on your body than marathons. How could that be?
From the intensity standpoint, it’s easier. You’re going at a moderate rate over a longer period of time. You’re stopping at aid stations, you’re getting something to eat, refilling your water bottle. In marathons, you go, say, three and a half hours at the exact same pace over pavement. Most ultra courses have a variety of terrain, so you’re using different muscles. Even the outlook is different: I’m going to walk for 30 minutes, then I’m going to run downhill for 40 minutes. That’s completely different from I’ve got an hour and 15 minutes of First Avenue ahead of me.

[via Runners World]


  1. Ever read The Long Walk by Stephen King, writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman?
    This guy may be right, but presumably there’s a limit somewhere.

  2. I have run a number of 26.2 and 50 milers and I generally agree. The distance is somewhat irrelevant, thoug. The important point is how much effort you put forth, and how close to maximum effort. For instance, someone who killed themself to run a 3 hour marathon (call it 100% effort) would be a physical wreck for a week. That same person could run a 4 hour mararthon a few times a week, a 5 hour marathon every day for a week, etc. Same point for running a mile – I could kill myself to run a 5 minute mile and be exhausted, or fairly easily run 10 miles at an 8 minute pace.
    Because 50 mile courses vary greatly in difficulty and there are not well established standards for what is a “good” time, people generally perform at a lower threshold. If you ran an ultra at 100% effort, as the winners generally do, you would be more trashed than if you ran a marathon and it would take proportionally longer to recover.
    My guess on the conversion rate of times is about 2.75 – 3x. Anyone who could run a marathon in 4 hours could easily finish a 50 miler in 12 hours.

  3. I’m an avid marathoner and ultrarunner, and would agree that ultramarathons are a bit easier on the body. I would also add that it’s tougher on the brain, however.
    Here’s one big reason why. When you run 50- or 100-miles, you have to keep a pace that allows you to burn calories from fat. Otherwise you won’t make it to the finish (believe me, I know). This keeps you at a pace that is much easier on your body than say, going out hard for 2-3 hours in a marathon. I’ve been much more sore from fast marathons than 50-milers.
    That being said, the mental challenge of an ultramarathon is in a league all of its own. Your body is hurting, you may even hallucinate, but you have to dig deep and find a way to keep moving forward. One of the great challenges of an ultra is that it is guaranteed you will hit at least one wall, probably two or three. Go 100 miles and you will find out a lot about yourself, for sure.
    There are tons of parallels to start-ups. The SJ Biz Journal recently did a story on me trying to tie the two together – you can read it here:
    Love your blog, Paul!

  4. Of course, it is all relative. I also run marathons and ultras. When I asked my ultra training buddy why he is so obsessed as to tack an extra 0.2 miles onto his 26 mile long run on Sunday, he responded: “Because, some people do a marathon as a once-in-a-life-time achievement. I do one every Sunday for fun.” For those who have done one marathon, and never will again, I’m sure it hurts just as bad as an ultra does for my training buddy.

  5. “When you run 50- or 100-miles, you have to keep a pace that allows you to burn calories from fat.”
    That’s “heart rate zone” junk science based on basic misunderstandings of statistics and it’s a shame runners continue to perpetuate this.

  6. Business parallels could be many.
    I think variety is the spice of life; their following new terrains gives them new challenges; at work, a variety of challenges – big and small, tasks and activities keep the mind stimulated using different capability sets each time.
    They have accepted they are in for the long haul so they remain committed; it is not as if one comes in as a consultant and goes away without being held responsible for outcomes.
    They are the kind who have run marathons so they do not mind the hard stuff and will sometimes work over a longer haul for satisfaction. This is kind of obvious.