Ultrarunning: Paying The Price

By Andy Mouncey, July 25, 2017

You’ve probably noticed some of these symptoms already:

• Feet wont win any beauty contests

• Toenails either a nice shade of blue-black or absent without leave

• And if you’ve come from a triathlon background you will no doubt be missing your biking quads, toned upper half and shaved legs

Welcome to our world, dear reader. 

It’s quite fun here but admission costs and there’s always a price to be paid. You might be able to defer payment for a while but beware the small print: Rates of interest can get extortionate the longer you leave it, and The Big ‘G’ upstairs reserves the right to re-possess the goods if you default. 

Ain’t no such thing as free fun, and odds are that if you ain’t paying now you will pay later.

Unless you start making some deposits to redress the balance.

Why bother? Because on the face of it we have all the ingredients for a Perfect Storm:

• A repetitive weight-bearing activity

• A repetitive weight-bearing activity completed over a very very long time

• A repetitive weight-bearing activity completed over a very very long time by highly motivated people

• A repetitive weight-bearing activity completed over a very very long time by highly motivated people who believe that pain is just information and quitting is a dirty word

• A repetitive weight-bearing activity completed over a very very long time by highly motivated people who believe that pain is just information and quitting is a dirty word – and where, on many fronts, the science is lagging behind the athletes experiences

In other words we don’t know what we don’t know and we can’t prove much of it yet either. 

A Perfect Storm in the making for the runner it may well be. It’s also - to put it bluntly - a coaching nightmare. (Or a challenge, as we prefer to call it):

A sport where many of the normal rules of training don’t seem to apply and where at least part of success is down to the ‘more is better’ rule. It’s practiced by highly motivated and pain-resistant people with a big work ethic who are making it up as they go along at least in part because the science is lagging, and the sport is only now starting to see the first full cycle at the elite end of breakthrough-dominate-retire – and thus the full truth and cost of that success.

So pay attention if you want to be in this and enjoying it for the long term: What follows is for you.


Balance exists in a theory – in an equation. In real life I suggest to you it’s about managing an imbalance of your choice and being clear that you will and can pay the price. Think of it as the cost of an action/inaction/habit/behaviour – a cost that accumulates interest over time.

Cyclists will talk about the Cost Of Energy: In other words, you could choose that gear ratio/cadence on that climb – but how much energy would you have to expend in order to do so? And what would that do to your overall chances? All of which means that at least some of the key considerations in all this are:

• How proportionate the cost?

• How long you could sustain the cost?

• How willing you (and others who are affected) to pay the cost?

And the clincher: What’s the price of payment? 

Short-medium-long term? 

For your running, other areas of your life, and your close personal relationships?

‘Anyone getting depressed yet? Oh, don’t worry – think of this as the bitter-tasting medicine you take on first signs that prevents the real nasty stuff later.

For those of you who like equations I’ve translated as follows:

The Model: Training + Recovery = Performance

The Reality (for most of us) Family + Work + Training = Performance

The Privilege (for the elite) Training + Peers/Teammates + Sponsors + Recovery = Performance

And for those of you who wont get the message till you see how IMBALANCE creeps in: 

1. More Training

2. Lots More Training

3. Lots More Training & Big Hard Races

4. Lots More Training & Big Hard Races Again & Again & Again

5. Lots More Training & Big Hard Races Again & Again & Again plus Work plus Family

Oh, and don’t forget the other stressors: 

Guerilla Warfare: Work-Family-Life

Nuclear Strikes: Illness, bereavement, job-loss, lotsa big hard races (bonks included)

Remember my favourite ultra running twins ‘Compound’ & ‘Cumulative’ – in this game it’s never just one thing one time: Problems happen as lots of different stuff builds and combines over time again and again and again.

In A Nutshell

The big one is Over Training Syndrome.

(There are of course, all the kidney-related problems that can come with getting it horribly wrong in big races either by overdosing on painkillers or messing the nutrition up big-style. Park those and stay with me on the ‘ultrarunning lifestyle-related’ stuff).

OTS: Persistent poor performance and disturbed mood that can easily lead to depression – and it’s a function of over-training AND racing. (Think ‘sadness without purpose’ ) It’s ‘untreatable’ and recovery can take years.

Most of the high profile ultra running cases that have come to light have been men e.g. 

Geoff Roes

Anton Krupika

And Steve Birkinshaw after his monumental Wainwrights Round a couple of years ago 

Whether that’s simply a function of more men in the sport than women or whether it’s specific bloke-wiring is another matter. (As a coach, I know it’s the latter at least as much as the former – but that’s another article). All the cases above make for sobering reading and yet there is one unshakable truth to take comfort from:

OTS is absolutely utterly preventable.

All it requires is a big picture perspective, a willingness to put protective measures in before you need ‘em, and a mindfulness to pay attention and make adjustments when the warning lights start to flash.

All this of course, pales into insignificance in light of the most crushing news of all. Gentlemen: Your sex life will take a nose-dive. And the science is right up to speed on that one.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Find out more...
Copyright Andy Mouncey 2017 - 2022
Photo Credits: Phil Coates.tv   Summit Fever  and  Racing Snakes