South Africa Has The Fastest Ultra Runners In The World, Study Finds

The results are clear: South Africans certainly love a challenge!

RW Editors |

In what is considered the largest study ever done on the sport of ultra running, the popular athletic footwear review website RunRepeat, together with the help of the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), analysed 5,010,730 results from 15,451 ultra running events over the last 23 years and last week published the results.  And they are fascinating.

The growth of the ultra

While traditional running races have seen a decline in participation over the past few years, one category within the running ecosystem which has been seeing incredible growth over the past few years, is that of ultra running. 

According to Paul Ronto, one of the researchers responsible for the study, ultra running, or racing anything over 42.2km, was a fringe category 25 years ago, with under 35K competitors signing up for various ultras annually around the world.  Today, ultra distance events abound, and with over 600K registrants worldwide in 2018, the sport is continuing to see strong growth.  

RELATED: Two Oceans Ultra 2020: Training Starts Here!

The state of ultra running

The report (which can be viewed in full here: The State of Ultra Running 2020) gives a unique view into a sport that’s no longer filled with trail junkies and extreme athletes. More and more first time ultra runners are signing up for extreme-distance events, and an all time record number of ultra runners are running multiple races a year. 

The marathon is no longer king in the bucket list of endurance events, 50Ks and 50 mile races have both seen a large influx of participation as people strive to complete something unique and challenging. 

SA came up tops for speed

This study is filled with insights, but the most notable from a South African perspective is that the data shows that SA is the fastest country in the world when it comes to ultra running, with both female and male competitors being faster on average than any other nation (at an average pace of 6:35 min/km) . And what’s really interesting is that the women from South Africa are faster than the men from all other countries, apart from the men of South Africa.

The below graph is depicted in minutes per mile but gives you the idea:

rankings countries ultra running

[Side note: we had a questions as to why Kenya was not on the above list. The reseachers responded by saying that in the country analysis, the report only included the top nations with the highest participation, since many countries have too low participation to make reliable findings. Kenya being one of those countries. However, the report does include all countries when it comes to gender, pace, and so forth.]

The report also states that overall participation has increased by 1676% in the last 23 years from 34,401 to 611,098 yearly participations. There have never been more ultra runners than there are today.

Out of the top 20 nations that participate in Ultras, SA has the third highest proportion of the world’s ultra runners.

rankings countries with most participants

RELATED: Fuelling For An Ultra So You’re Not A Bloated Mess

More interesting stats

The demographic of those signing up for ultras has changed over time as well and there have never been more women in ultra running. 23% of participants are female, compared to just 14% 23 years ago. 

The data also shows that the average speed of all runners has been trending slower. The average pace in 1996 was 7:11 min/km, and currently, it is 8:14 min/km which is a slowdown of 15%. This tends to happen as sports become more mainstream, and more entry-level competitors sign up. It’s a clear sign that ultras are not just for the elite athletes anymore, anyone and everyone can and is signing up for them.

Although most runners are becoming slower, the report shows that South Africa has slowed down considerably less than other ultra-running nations. Over the last 10 years the average pace in SA has only slowed down by about 19 seconds a km, placing SA second only to China in average slow down. 

The results are clear: South Africans certainly love a challenge! Looking for an ultra to tackle? Take a look at our Race Calendar, choose one, and start training!

Training for Comrades or Two Oceans? Get your training programmes here: Comrades Training Plan |Two Oceans Training Plan


You can view the full study and it’s findings at:


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