8 Training Takeaways From Courtney Dauwalter, Ultra Legend
Courtney Dauwalter has been stunningly dominant across the world’s most competitive ultramarathons. How does she do it? Let’s explore her training methods – with some mystery to keep it interesting.
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Courtney Dauwalter’s training approach is shrouded in mystery. She doesn’t have a public Strava profile. Her interviews provide blurry clues, but nothing definitive. Usually it’s a passing comment here, a spotting on the trails there. She’s like a joyful, loving Bigfoot.
But time after time, she shows up at races with a smile, a laugh, and fitness that destroys worlds.
Courtney transcends her results. Yes, she has won UTMB, Hardrock, and Western States, among plenty of other achievements you can read about on her Wikipedia page. That’s not why she’s one of the most famous runners in the world, though. Courtney is a legend because she brings kindness and love to everything she does, as quick with a laugh as she is to crush souls on race day.
How does she do it? How can an athlete be so strong and consistent at the hardest races in the world? Because it’s clear that Courtney doesn’t love to put herself on a pedestal, she hasn’t publicly disclosed too many of the nitty-gritty details of her training approach. It’s just not her vibe.
But I say: to heck with those kind and humble vibes!
I want some spicy training gossip. So it was a great honor when Courtney agreed to answer some training and life questions on our podcast. For the full context on these training takeaways, check out episode 123 here.
The full episode is broken down into two chunks: 30 minutes training and 30 minutes life. While I loved the training talk, her answers to the existential questions might be the most important explanations of her greatness. Yes, she thinks about death, but no, that doesn’t scare her. Athletics are an excuse to explore those limits, to ask big questions, and most of all, to have fun. Hearing her talk was like a warm blanket of the soul.
Courtney freaking rocks. I was serious on the episode when I said that she would be one of the best coaches in the world based on how she has developed her intuitive style, and I bet she could apply it to everyone if she ever goes on that path. And she also gave us permission to write about her training approach to accompany the episode!
Disclaimers: while she gave her permission for this summary article, I didn’t burden her with having to edit my assumptions and extrapolations. Courtney’s training is like the Mona Lisa, and I am trying to sketch a copy based on a brief description.
In addition, we were putting her on the spot with every question, and while she was wonderfully forthright, my guess is that it’s complicated to describe an evolving system with a momentary snapshot on a podcast. We are extrapolating here from a few numbers, rather than a ream of data like for Kilian Jornet.
Also, the short podcast discussion did not paint a crystal-clear picture, which makes sense for this badass Bigfoot. Whenever possible, I’ll try to fill in the gaps with answers from other interviews, citing them when relevant. I’ll also try to broaden out her approach to everyone with studies and training theory. Still, think of this more as an enthusiastic intellectual exercise rather than a training guide.
Singer Iris DeMent beautifully sang to “just let the mystery be,” but that’s not my style. Let’s dig into some of the fascinating mystery behind what makes Courtney Dauwalter one of the best athletes in human history.
One: Courtney’s peak training builds before big races are around 115 miles per week, with pulses up to 130 miles.
There’s a fascinating dilemma at the heart of this discussion, similar to what we talked about with Kilian. How can an athlete run with so much love for the activity without letting metrics get in the way?
While Kilian connects his love of the sport to his science-driven approach, viewing them as two sides of the same coin, Courtney finds her love in a more intuition-based approach, based on daily reassessment of how she feels. She wears a Suunto watch, which she checks periodically for a benchmark on local routes, but the numbers on the watch are tertiary to how she feels and where her daily joy lies. I really, really want her to upload all those old files to Strava at once, just so we can WATCH THE WORLD BURN.
She estimated her peak mileage prior to a race like Hardrock or UTMB would be up to 130 miles. “In the mountains, that’s quite a few hours,” she says. “I’m never looking at a pace or anything like that. Whatever feels good, I’ll roll with it.”
At 130-mile weeks, she describes feeling tired. Meanwhile, her body reaches a sweet spot of “homeostasis” around 115 miles per week. I adore that word choice–homeostasis. In other words, she probably feels tired at times, but it doesn’t persist for multiple days, and her body has predictable cycles once she gets on the trails. In other interviews, she has said 100-110 miles per week.
My guess is that some weeks would be lower, based on when she takes her unplanned rest days (more on that in takeaway six). Let’s call it 90-130 miles per week in build phases for big ultras (just chopping off a proportional total from that 100-115 range), depending on how she feels.
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Want a very cool reflection? That’s right around the sweet spot for Kilian and Eliud Kipchoge too. A 2021 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that volume of easy runs was the best predictor of growth over a 7-year time horizon in elite athletes, so Courtney’s emphasis on easy volume aligns with that research. A 2022 study in Sports Medicine–Open saw the world-leading marathon runners training 500-700 hours per year, amounting to 99 to 136 miles per week during heavy training. For an athlete that trains by intuitive feel, it’s bonkers how much her approach seems to overlap with studies.
Courtney is a stress-buffering superstar, so most athletes will hit their stress cap for maximum adaptations at a lower number. Keep your own stress levels and past responses in mind when determining training volume, since it’s possible for some athletes to achieve optimal adaptations at much lower volumes.
A complication here is that female athletes generally have more concerns with overstress from hard training due to the lower levels of testosterone, along with generally lower red blood cell counts and lower bone mineral density. Courtney seems to adapt by doing slightly lower intensity, with less workout emphasis. Whereas Kilian and Eliud hammered multiple high-volume workouts every week, Courtney’s workouts seem more relaxed and focused on week-over-week consistency. That may have the added benefit of reinforcing aerobic growth via increased mitochondria around working muscles and more efficient oxygen utilization.
Two: Courtney’s long runs are usually 3-4 hours, with some bigger runs prior to long ultras.
“A normal long run might be 3 or 4 hours,” she said, which parallels Kilian! That long run volume contrasts with some ultra pros that go longer all the time. We may be seeing that the stress cost of going 4+ hours outweighs the endurance and resilience benefits for some athletes. After a few hours of running, the aerobic gains may start to get capped out–it’s already a maximal stimulus for glycogen recovery. Meanwhile, the musculoskeletal breakdown from that much impact could compromise output later in the run and consistency later in the week.
Prior to Hardrock this year, she mentions completing one ~8-hour run (“just playing!”), again very similar to Kilian’s use of periodic longer efforts to prepare himself for key races. These over-distance long runs likely have one indispensable but high-risk utility–to prepare the neuromuscular/nervous system for the unique demands of ultras, plus get some of the impact-related breakdown that’s only possible in a super-long effort.
The research on fatigue resistance indicates that there are some individually unique variables that dictate the deterioration of output after several thousand kilojoules of work. For example, a 2021 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology & Performance examined power profiles of elite cyclists, with the primary difference between under-23 riders and professionals being that the pros could put out higher bursts of power after hours of hard work. Even though their basic power profiles were comparable, the deterioration of the power profile toward the end of races explained some performance differences. Given that the offset can’t be measured at rest, it likely can be found in the interaction between the nervous system and musculoskeletal system during very long days.
The cool thing about neuromuscular adaptations? It may not take constant reinforcement to optimize them. At least for athletes with Kilian and Courtney’s race history, a few trips into the great-beyond of 6+ hours may be plenty to spur the fatigue resistance adaptations. In other words, you don’t want the first time you go into the pain cave to be on race day, but you really don’t want to take up residence in the pain cave. The nervous system benefits for fatigue resistance in moderation may be linked to the nervous system disasters of non-functional overreaching and overtraining syndrome in excess.
Three: Courtney consistently doubles, possible a couple times per week.
How does she accumulate all of those weekly miles? She said she doubles at least a couple times per week with her husband, where they catch up on life and the day. Other sources indicate more doubles. So let’s assume 2-3 easy doubles of 5-8 miles for each run.
Add to that a long run of 3-4 hours, probably 20-25 miles.
Time to put on those speculation caps! Let’s estimate that those runs put us at 45 miles per week total. What’s left? 6 daily runs. To achieve the 115-mile week, those average out to 11.6 miles apiece, with workouts included in some of those runs. If she does fewer doubles or hits a 130-mile week, those runs need to be a higher average distance.
So putting it all together, her schedule may have a shocking similarity to Eliud’s. All of these exact numbers are speculation, but holy crap it’s fun to speculate! I am so excited that I feel like a guy on the History Channel talking about aliens. How wild is it that these approaches seem to have some convergence, whether driven from the intuitive and feel-based side like Courtney, or the methodical approach used to set the world marathon record?!
One thing to notice in these training breakdowns is that doubles are almost ubiquitous for world-class athletes. A 2019 study on the Ingebrigtsen brothers indicated that they accumulated 150 to 160 kilometers a week (~100 miles) in 13 to 14 separate sessions. The same goes for athletes coached by Renato Canova. Molly Seidel did 6 doubles per week most weeks before her marathon Olympic medal.
All of these athletes could do high mileage in singles if they wanted to, so there must be some adaptation benefit to getting background aerobic miles via two sessions in a single day when doing high-volume training, possibly due to hormonal context and recovery status. In coaching, I have seen that those sessions can be as short as a 10-minute jog or cross training activity to still find some benefit.
Four: Everything is intuitively felt out as a week unfolds, but she does up to 2 workouts per week, with the example given being 5-6 x 4 minute hills.
Courtney went into detail on what her intuitive approach looks like in practice. Every day, she wakes up and has her 2 cups of coffee, evaluating how she feels. Based on that evaluation, she’ll work within a general framework for her weeks based on where she is in a race season. It’s an applied version of the 2022 study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that found athletes who adjusted training based on how they felt had better training outcomes. I swear, Courtney is going to be one of the world’s best coaches when all is said and done.
In terms of workouts, “sometimes it’s twice a week, and sometimes it’s zero times per week,” she says. “This year, I have tried to be a little more consistent with getting intervals in, just because I know that speed isn’t my strongest skill.” Occasionally, her workouts just involve pushing an uphill that she knows for a couple laps, likely similar to Kilian’s 2 x hill climb threshold efforts. Trail runners have the fun benefit of being able to get threshold work on climbs without “pushing” like a road runner might have to on a flat road or track, which may reduce injury risk.
But she also does structured workouts, which have increased in prevalence for her over time. “It’s purely effort-based, so I don’t think of it in terms of pace or heart rate zones,” she says. “It’ll be picturing a gauge in my head with levels of green, yellow, orange, and red, and putting it up there in the orangish-red.”
The example given was 5-6 x 4 minute hills. While that is just one workout option, it likely shows some structured Zone 4 work is a steady part of what she does. Now her top-10 at Zegama really starts to fit into the broader picture! Overall, though, intensity is less of an emphasis than Kilian, which makes sense given how gender (and living in Leadville) affects recovery rates.
“It’s purely effort-based, so I don’t think of it in terms of pace or heart rate zones,” she says. “It’ll be picturing a gauge in my head with levels of green, yellow, orange, and red, and putting it up there in the orangish-red.”
For all athletes, workouts don’t need to be fancy and complicated to be effective. On a background of aerobic development, repetition of fun, sustainable sessions primarily in Zone 3 and Zone 4 allow the aerobic growth to translate to higher output over time. Just make sure your VO2 max output is not neglected, particularly with age.
Five: Prior to her runs, she does a 30-minute PT/strength routine.
After her hip injury at Western States in 2019, strength became a bigger part of her focus. “It’s a really basic routine that I’ll do everyday before my run. It focuses on core, glutes, hips and general trunk strength and activation.” Given that she completes the routine before running, it’s unlikely to be extremely heavy or difficult. I love the framework of pre-run strength as a guideline for what constitutes appropriate loading for a runner that is pushing the limits.
Question: Could you complete your strength before you run without undermining the run? If not, be extra cautious about how much stress you are accumulating from non-running activities over time, based on the principles of minimal-dose resistance training.
I offered her $20,000 for the rights to publish the routine. Trail Runner is now owned by Outside, so I feel like we have the money. Outside, make Courtney’s strength plan into an NFT if you have to!
Six: Courtney takes rest days based on how her body feels, and she takes longer breaks for an off-season.
Every morning while she is sipping that coffee, she thinks about how she feels and her current training load. While we didn’t get an exact rest-day total, she does take some days off, all based on how her body feels, plus a seasonal break with some cross training. “I’ve gotten better at resting as I’ve gotten older and spent more years in this sport,” she says. “I don’t have a set rest day every week and I won’t necessarily take one every week.” Another interview cited a rest day every 10 to 14 days.
It’s eerily similar to a feel-based approach, like recent studies that monitor biomarkers to determine training reductions. I’d love to get an exact frequency for those rest days, because I bet that number would show some cool insights into longer-term adaptation waves in physiology.
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Now is a good time to step back and reflect on what makes a champion. Hard and smart work over many years is the obvious answer. But that work can only create a 99.99th percentile outlier when it overlaps with a unique set of skills. For Courtney and other world-class runners, endurance is the talent that’s immediately apparent. That means off-the-charts aerobic capacity and fatigue resistance. However, that’s not where I would focus when trying to make the training lessons of outliers broadly applicable to everyone. I think that we can take the workouts and training approach of the super-talented and scale them down for everyone, as long as we understand the physiological rationale.
No, what I find the most interesting are the talents that people don’t usually talk about. Why does Courtney rarely get injured? How can her physiology adapt so well at 10,000 feet? What makes her able to race 200+ mile races and not get slower over time? We don’t know the answers to those questions with certainty, though I’d like to use another $40,000 to get Courtney in a lab for comprehensive testing. That uncertainty is similar to the framework we are all operating within for our own athletics, where we are never sure how an intervention might influence an outcome, which is especially important to keep in mind when we consider rest day frequency.
Rest days are an insurance policy for adaptation, ensuring long-term consistency that adds a tailwind to pursuing potential. Is a weekly rest day necessary for every athlete? No. Is it helpful for most athletes? I think yes, unless they have incredible self-awareness/self-coaching like Courtney. And having a unique supertalent helps too–for uncertain physiological and psychological reasons, Courtney is able to buffer a massive amount of stress. Given the role of talent and how hard it is to quantify, always be cautious when applying lessons from an outlier’s training to our own approaches.
Seven: She takes a 9-10 day taper.
Here’s another overlap with Kilian! Some of the research says athletes should take 2-3 week tapers. However, the 2022 Sports Medicine–Open study found “most long-distance runners do not report a substantial decrease in training volume until the last 7–10 days prior to competition.”
Courtney’s taper approach is to get to the start line “feeling physically good and mentally great.” She dials her volume back, eases off the workouts, and listens to her body starting around the 9-10 day mark. Most athletes should consider still doing solid long runs 2 weeks out and a burly workout 10 days out from their key races.
Eight: She loves food and eats what she craves.
Some of the most enriching moments on the podcast involved Courtney casually throwing in food talk. She doesn’t supplement, but some weeks she puts ground beef on everything! She may not want to become a coach, but she does consider herself an ice cream expert. Food is clearly a joy to Courtney, and that approach gives her superpowers.
“If it sounds good, if it tastes good, if it fulfills a craving, then it’s exactly the thing that I’m eating … I for sure am not restricting what is going in my body.” HECK YES!
There was so much more on the episode that can add fullness to this discussion. But damn it’s fun when an idea of GOAT training starts to crystallize: mostly easy volume that progressively increases over time, capped by stress limitations that seem to occur around 130 miles per week even for super talented outliers; with some easy doubles; threshold-focused workouts with some higher intensity work pulsed in; long runs that are not excessively long most of the time; adjustments to that formula based on gender, stress, and life demands; and plenty of body-awareness and self-love to avoid overstress.
But the most important thing to know about Courtney is that running results are such a microscopic part of why she’s so loved in the sport and beyond. To end the podcast, I asked her about what she wanted her legacy to be.
“In general? That I made people smile and laugh and have a good time.”
“At the end of it all, I don’t need anyone to remember any result I had or race I did. I would rather them remember memories we all made or moments we all shared.”
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.