Are ultra-runners less pain sensitive?

As a runner, I often wonder if ultra-runners are more pain tolerant than ordinary runners and non-runners. We’re talking about people who consider a marathon to be a “short” run, compared to the 50+ miles(80 km) they normally run. Although I haven’t run a marathon yet, I’ve been beyond the 20 mile(32 km) mark a bunch of times and I remember it felt awful the first few times. Actually, it is a little more complicated than that, since you can feel wonderful while at the same time your legs almost feel like they are getting tortured. Everyone has their own unique reaction, and as a joggler I do know my legs feel far worse than my arms toward the end of very long runs.

How some people can run beyond 50 or more miles is mind boggling to me. Do they just not feel pain as much as others, or do they feel it but don’t react to it as much? Or are they masochists? Is this due to genetics or is it the training?

Research into this is complicated by the fact that pain is a subjective phenomenon. It is virtually impossible to measure pain objectively.

That said, I did manage to find some fascinating research that attempts to answer some of these questions. According to the Department of Diagnostic and Interventional Radiology, University Hospitals Ulm, Germany, in Ultra-Marathon Runners Are Different: Investigations into Pain Tolerance and Personality Traits of Participants of the TransEurope FootRace 2009:

CONCLUSIONS:

Personality profiles as well as pain tolerance of our sample of TEFR09 participants differ from normal controls and-as obtained in previous studies-probably also from chronic pain patients. Low pain perception may predispose a person to become a long-distance runner. It remains unclear, however, whether low pain perception is cause or consequence of continuous extreme training.

It looks like what many of us suspect about ultra-runners is true – they are mutants! They do seem to experience pain differently, they don’t seem to feel it as much. But we still don’t know if this is due to genetics or training. Or a mixture of both. There is so much more to learn when it comes to the glorious sport of running.

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