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The rise and rise of ultra running – and led by women

female ultra runner
Women are leading the way in the growth of ultra running (Image credit: Getty Images)

A new study reveals a huge increase in ultra running over the last quarter of a century – and, in particular, in the last decade. 

The research, carried out by RunRepeat in collaboration with the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), also shows that female ultra runners (what is ultra running?) are faster than male ultra runners at distances of more than 195 miles. The longer the distance the shorter the gender pace gap. 

The survey, the largest of its type yet, analyzed more than five million results from some 15,500 ultra running events (85% of ultra running events worldwide), making this the largest study ever done on the sport. 

male ultra runner

Participation in multiple ultra running races each year is on the up  (Image credit: Getty Images)

Key results include:

There have never been more ultra runners. 

There have never been more female ultra runners. Almost a quarter (23%) of runners in events are female compared to 14% 23 years ago.

Participation in ultra running events has increased by 1676% in the last 23 years from 34,401 to 611,098 yearly participations – and by 345% in the last 10 years from 137,234 to 611,098. 

More ultra runners are competing in multiple events annually. Between 1996 and 2021, the runners taking part in more than one race each year rose from 14% to 41%.

The fastest ultra running countries are: South Africa (average pace 10:36 min/mile), Sweden (11:56 min/mile) and Germany (12:01 min/mile). 

The average age of ultra runners has decreased by a year in the last 10 years from 43.3 years to 42.3 years.

Surprisingly, all age groups have a similar pace, around 14:40 min/mile.

A record number of people travel abroad for ultra running events, with 10.3% of people travelling overseas for an ultra compared to 0.2% for 5ks. 

It's clear the sport that sees people running distances longer than 26.2 miles, including trail runs, mountain runs, and road runs, is here to stay as a popular activity.

Fiona Russell

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors.