Skip to main content

Military Health System

Ultra-Endurance Military Athletes: What Motivates Them?

Image of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta on top of a mountain. U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta competes in the most extreme endurance events in support of the Coast Guard Foundation. In June, he completed a 12-peak challenge in 23 hours, climbing to the top of Alaska’s 12 tallest Chugach Front Range summits – each more than 5,000 feet above sea level – in one continuous push, covering more than 39 miles and gaining over 19,000 feet in elevation (Courtesy of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta).

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness

For some, sports are simply a way to stay fit, for others a way to de-stress. But for endurance athletes - who push themselves to go faster and longer for events such as marathons, cycling races, cross-country skiing, triathlons, and long-course swimming - it's a mental and physical challenge with themselves.

Such is the case of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta, intelligence chief for Sector Anchorage, on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Zitta has embarked on the world's most extreme endurance events ever since he ran his first marathon at age 23 just "to see" if he could run that far. (He completed it in just over three hours -- 3:09 to be exact - which is a far better time than the average marathoner, who takes about 4.5 hours).

For Zitta, endurance sports began as a way to let his energy out.

"When I was young, running was always something that I enjoyed," he said. "It was an outlet for me, I was a super hyperactive kid with a lot of energy. And running was a way to get that energy out."

Later in life, it became a way to give back to the Coast Guard community. After losing a fellow Coastguardsman during a helicopter search-and-rescue operation, these ultra-endurance events became a way to raise funds for his colleague's children.

Since then, he's competed in high-profile events to raise funds for the non-profit Coast Guard Foundation, which provides college scholarships for the children of fallen "Coasties."

Competing in extreme endurance events "for fundraisers that have such a personal connection for me also made some of the hardest events so much easier," he said.

"When your body wants to quit and you remind yourself that you're out here raising money for somebody's children to go to college and they're not around anymore, that motivation makes any of these endurance events that much easier."

He's completed many events that others would deem impossible. The list includes climbing 12 back-to-back mountain peaks in Alaska in less than 24 hours; completing several Ironman triathlons, including the competitive Hawaii Ironman World Championship triathlon; swimming 12.5-miles around Key West in six hours; climbing 10,000 feet across 20 miles from sea level to the top of the Haleakala Volcano in Hawaii; and finishing one of the most grueling 100-mile races in eighth place overall.

And on every birthday, he runs the distance (in miles) that corresponds to his age -- just for fun. This November, he will run 41 miles in Anchorage's snowy terrain and sub-freezing temperatures.

Military personnel riding a bike
U.S. Air Force Maj. Judith Coyle of the U.S. Armed Forces Triathlon races a bicycle on her way to win gold in the 2019 CISM Military World Games in Wuhan, China, Oct. 26, 2019 (Photo by: EJ Hersom, DOD). 

"Running is so primitive," he said. "It's like the simplest form of movement, and we were designed to do that."

Extreme athletes can be found across the military, which is a career field that can appeal to these athletes. Some service members also find that preparing for competitive events can dovetail well with other military training programs.

"Due to the extreme nature of their career and previous experiences in combat deployments, many service members enjoy high-risk, challenging and thrilling activities," said Nicole Leth, a certified personal trainer, health educator, and director of the Armed Forces Wellness Center in Ft. Belvoir, Virginia.

"Training for these events brings structure to workouts."

Getting there is a balancing act

Training for ultra-events like these takes extreme dedication, discipline, commitment, and proper training - which includes incremental training, rest, recovery, and proper nutrition.

It also carries risks, like overtraining, misguided supplement use, burnout, malnutrition, and overuse injuries, Leth said.

Most injuries are due to overuse. "Mostly tendinitis, joint pain, and stress fractures," Leth said. "I would also say mental fatigue and reported poor mental health."

That's why it's key to follow a research-based training plan from an experienced coach that includes rest and recovery.

"Programming rest and recovery days into your regimen will reduce symptoms of overtraining and allow muscles to rebuild as long as proper nutrition is in place," said Navy Lt. Sarah Alferos, a physical therapist with the Physical Therapy/Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Team at Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.

Athletes can find training support through the Military Health System.

Military personnel completing the 2019 Ironman World Championship
In another ultra-event, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta completed the 2019 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, in 11 hours, 10 minutes, and 14 seconds. The race consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon (26.2 miles) run (Courtesy of Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Duane Zitta).

"The Wellness Center staff are able to guide service members to reputable, evidence-based resources for training and would cover healthy exercise, eating habits, sleep and stress management in accordance with the individuals' needs along with performance fueling information," said Leth.

Registered dietitians at military medical treatment facilities can offer dietary guidelines for training and performance fueling.

Proper gear, like wearing the right shoes, bringing a headlamp or reflective vest for oncoming traffic, and proper hydration and nutrition, is also key. Whether you have a support crew ensuring you have these along the course or carry them with you in a fuel belt or pack, experts recommend training over time with everything you will wear and consume on race day to avoid surprises.

"Every company creates different types of shoes depending on your foot type, whether you need a neutral shoe due to a high arch, or a stability shoe due to low arches," said Alferos. "Visit a local shoe store and have them identify your arch type and toe box preference, assess your running form, and recommend an individual shoe for your foot."

Zitta appreciates having access to proper care through his primary care manger. He also has a coach who "keeps him in check." And over his years of ultra-endurance events, Zitta has only suffered one injury that set him back.

"It was a stress fracture just below my knee and my tibia," due to "just ramping up the training too quick one year. But I have been really fortunate to remain healthy over the last decade of competing."

To prepare, he explained he tailors his life around every specific event, not only in terms of training but also nutrition and balancing his time between work and family.

"Everything shifts in preparation for that specific event," he said. "If it's a running event, then obviously all my training will be primarily focused on running, and as training intensity ramps up, then so does the intensity of my kitchen prep - food is very important."

In general, the lessons learned over the years have allowed him to "become really good at balancing the time it takes for me to invest in events of this nature," he said. "But now, my time with my family is more important to me than any event ever could be."

Over the years, Zitta has grown to enjoy the comradery among the other athletes who compete in these elite events.

"The endurance community is extremely special," he said. "Whether you're doing Ironmans, or ultra-marathons, or ultra-swims, the people are all so genuine and welcoming, and generally pretty happy, so I've learned a lot from the people in these communities."

He believes the human body is a tool that is never used to its full potential. "But there is something special with endurance athletes, somehow, through time, they're able to train their minds to go further."

"Once people work on being in tune with themselves, in their mind and their body, the possibilities are endless."

"I mean, people are running 240-mile races now with no sleep," he said. "So, to me, that indicates that the potential for the human body and the human brain are far beyond what a lot of people realize."

You also may be interested in...

Aphasia, Caused by Stroke or TBI, is Frustrating and Little Known

Article
6/29/2021
A doctor looking at brain scans

Aphasia is an incurable disease usually caused by stroke that affects all forms of communication.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Heart Health | Centers of Excellence | Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence

Ask the Doc: Fitness Freaking Out

Article
5/26/2021
Integrating healthy snacks like fruit into kid’s diets will teach them healthy eating habits. September is National Childhood Obesity Awareness month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Sabrina Fine)

Dear Doc: It seems like every time I go to the commissary, my daughter, 6, and son, 7, tend to gravitate toward the sugary cereals and frozen pizzas, and always want candy bars and sodas at the checkout. As far as I know, and as has been proven by their regularly scheduled check-ups, they are both in great health. The mother in me wants to give them what they want, but the former college athlete and current fitness freak in me is afraid that this might become a problem. For me, eating healthy has become a normal part of my life, and I've come to enjoy things that are healthy and taste good. Aside from tricking them, what can I do to get my kids to eat (and enjoy) more healthy foods? — Fitness Freaking Out

Recommended Content:

Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Ask The Doc

Ten ways parents can help kids make good nutritional choices

Article
4/27/2021
Image of a colorful plate outlining the portions and serving sizes of each type of food.

Nutrition is a key element of Total Force Fitness, but it’s just as important to encourage kids to make smart nutritional choices.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Month of the Military Child - Celebrating Military Kids | Children's Health | Nutritional Fitness

Do sports / energy drinks enhance individual performance?

Article
4/12/2021
Military health personnel wearing face mask discussing food options

While there are many energy sports drinks are available, their overall value varies.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Physical Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

Occupational Therapy Month highlights pros who give everyday help

Article
4/6/2021
Military health personnel wearing face mask attending occupational therapy

April is Occupational Therapy Month, a chance to highlight a profession that helps people to accomplish the everyday tasks they need to do through the therapeutic use of daily activities.

Recommended Content:

Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention | Physical Fitness | April

The difference between Celiac Disease & Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Article
3/26/2021
Close up picture of slices of bread

Celiac disease is not a food allergy; it's an autoimmune disease diagnosed through a blood test.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness

When we “Break Bread," we build social bonds

Article
3/25/2021
Picture of military personnel sitting at a table eating food together

Eating socially has been shown to influence happiness and life satisfaction; specifically participating in evening meals with more people.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness

Army dietitian uses nutritional care to fight COVID-19

Article
3/23/2021
Military personnel wearing a face mask standing in front of a Nutrition Clinic

Army dietician plays a critical role in COVID-19 patient recovery.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness | Coronavirus & the MHS Response

METC trains dietician techs to build, support a Medically Ready Force

Article
3/18/2021
Military health personnel preparing food trays while wearing a face mask

Nutrition plays an important role in military readiness.

Recommended Content:

Nutritional Fitness | Total Force Fitness | Health Readiness & Combat Support | Education & Training | Medical Education and Training Campus

Women’s health emerging priorities series highlights mental health

Article
3/4/2021
A woman holding her hands near her face

Women’s mental health can be more affected by transitioning than men’s, speakers’ series attendees hear.

Recommended Content:

Women's Health | Total Force Fitness | Depression | Psychological Fitness

Proper nutrition impacts overall health & readiness

Article
3/4/2021
Man wearing a face mask restocking fruit at a store

Nutritional fitness implications for Total Force Fitness are far reaching.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Brain Injury Awareness To Improve Readiness | Brain Injury Awareness To Improve Readiness

10 ways to support holistic heart health

Article
2/26/2021
picture of a heart running on the treadmill with the words "healthy heart for body and soul. ten ways to support holistic heart health"

Tips for a Total Force Fitness approach to keeping your heart healthy

Recommended Content:

Heart Health | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Total Force Fitness | Heart Health Toolkit | Heart Health Toolkit

Eating disorders hinder optimal health and TFF nutrition concept

Article
2/25/2021
a picture of the produce section at a grocery store

Disordered eating lessens Total Force Fitness.

Recommended Content:

Total Force Fitness | Nutritional Fitness | Heart Health Toolkit | Heart Health Toolkit

Good oral care requires lifetime commitment

Article
2/25/2021
Military health personnel, sitting in front of a group of children, showing them how to brush their teeth using a stuffed animal

Children’s Dental Health Month focuses on the importance of developing good oral hygiene habits at an early age.

Recommended Content:

Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Children's Health | Total Force Fitness

Proper diet, sleep, exercise, and joy key to heart health

Article
2/24/2021
Military personnel working out at the gym

Heart health is crucial to service members’ readiness throughout their high-stress careers. Working to achieve that takes self-discipline and moderation, but also joy, integrity, and social interaction

Recommended Content:

Heart Health | Medical and Dental Preventive Care Fitness | Total Force Fitness | Heart Health Toolkit | Heart Health Toolkit | Heart Health Toolkit
<< < 1 2 3 4 5  ... > >> 
Showing results 46 - 60 Page 4 of 6
Refine your search
Last Updated: November 17, 2021
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery