How To Train For 200-Mile Trail Races
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I usually make you read through 2,000 words and a few jokes about giraffes or something to answer the question posed by my articles. But I won’t hide the ball here. How should athletes train for 200-mile races? I’m not sure.
No one is sure. Or better yet, there are many different ways you can train for 200 miles, and what works for one athlete may be on another planet from what works for another.
And that’s what makes 200-milers so cool. They combine physiology with psychology into a Crock Pot, turn the setting to low, and cook it up for days at a time. What comes out could be a product of training theory, or it could be a product of mental toughness, or even a product of genetic predispositions to blisters. The events are so long that tracing intervention to outcome can seem like an exercise in futility, mapping certainty onto an uncertain world.
Since 200s are relatively new, training theory is developing rapidly along many separate pathways. It’s like an evolutionary explosion after an extinction event.
Now we’re getting to the fun part. Since 200s are relatively new, training theory is developing rapidly along many separate pathways. It’s like an evolutionary explosion after an extinction event. There’s a great big niche to fill, a phylogenic tree of approaches is branching out to fill it, and given time that little mouse-like creature could miraculously become a human or it could be eaten by another approach. When it comes to 200s, we are all making it up as we go, and there is no chosen winner yet (and might not ever be).
This article outlines some of the physiological realities of 200-mile races, and suggests training approaches based on those realities. Since some of the training tips are based on anecdotal stories of successful athletes, each section starts with the physiology so you can come to your own conclusions based on your background and training style. You can apply the same principles to most 100 milers or 50 milers too. If there’s interest, I can provide a 16-week training plan in a future article, but as you’ll see, this one is plenty long already. Enough preamble, let’s do this.
The events are purely aerobic.
200-milers are raced far below aerobic threshold, the range when the body switches from primarily carbohydrate/glycogen metabolism to primarily fat/lipid metabolism. While athletes are burning low and slow, the same principles as other ultra events likely apply. That means that many savvy racers will self-select effort levels that are a certain percent of their aerobic threshold, at least at first before the muscle damage and central fatigue set in. Therefore, even though the events are very low intensity, output at aerobic threshold plays a role in how fast athletes can go while still burning low and slow, even if they never touch those exact paces on race day.
The most important component in aerobic threshold is a well-developed base, which will optimize fat burning and increase blood vessels around working muscles, among other adaptations. Base takes time and consistency, which may have secondary benefits related to epigenetics (how genetic expression changes based on environment—you can think of this as genetic on-off switches) and mental toughness.
Training Tip 1: Aerobic volume matters via running, hiking, and cross training. Maximize consistency with activities five to six days a week.
Plenty of low-level exercise is important. However, I emphasize consistency over massive volume because it’s simply impossible to train for mile 150 of a 200-miler. The same principles apply to mile 60 of a 100-miler, or even mile 40 of most 50-milers. That’s why many pro marathoners will do more weekly mileage than pro ultrarunners. Those marathoners are looking for specific adaptations, while the ultrarunners are looking for general adaptations that can prepare them for stresses that are unique to race day.
Therein lies the most counterintuitive training concept for 200-milers: they may require less running volume than shorter races.
Therein lies the most counterintuitive training concept for 200-milers: they may require less running volume than shorter races. Instead, focus on being a consistent athlete, mixing running with biking and hiking so that your physiology is prepared to move all day, even if the only time you move all day is on race day. In practice for my athletes, that usually involves four to six runs a week, added hikes on the weekends, and optional biking or other cross training too. Mix that with recovery days focused on health and adaptation.
However, aerobic threshold is not developed in a vacuum, and speed matters.
In long ultras, we know that most athletes are able to sustain effort levels that are a certain percentage of their aerobic threshold, depending on genetics (i.e. fast-twitch/slow-twitch predisposition) and training background. So let’s solve the equation for how to excel at 200-milers. Hypothetically, training a ton of all-easy miles may help an athlete move from being able to sustain 60% of their aerobic threshold to 70% or more. That’s a great adaptation. But what I’d prefer as a coach thinking about long-term growth is to make the pie bigger. Give me 60% of fast-as-heck rather than 70% of not-that-fast, since that number will usually be bigger. And even if it’s not, we can build on fast-as-heck long term, whereas we can only get so close to aerobic threshold before those adaptations are capped out.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Aerobic threshold is usually a certain percentage range of lactate threshold, which is connected to VO2 max. A rising lactate threshold tide raises all aerobic ships.
Training Tip 2: Raise aerobic threshold with enough speed work to develop neuromuscular and biomechanical systems. Some strides plus one workout a week is plenty.
To put it another way, aerobic development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Runners are not lungs with legs, otherwise Tour De France riders would be stellar ultrarunners with minimal training. It’s key to get aerobic adaptations from low intensity exercise feeding back with speed/output adaptations from higher intensity running to make all paces take less energy with time.
It’s key to get aerobic adaptations from low intensity exercise feeding back with speed/output adaptations from higher intensity running to make all paces take less energy with time.
But it shouldn’t take much. Do hill strides a couple of times a week, add one controlled workout, combine with aerobic base and some tempo running and that should be enough to get all the long-term adaptations needed. Our athletes usually do a mid-week speed workout consisting of 10 to 30 minutes of faster running with recovery intervals mixed in, plus hill strides, and occasionally tempos during long runs. When it comes to speedwork, it doesn’t need to be fancy, it just needs to be something.
Central fatigue plays a major role
Central fatigue is connected to neurotransmitters and the nervous system, as outlined in this 2018 review article in the Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism journal. And it’s a big reason why even low-intensity exercise done in a fully fueled state can eventually result in physical failure. Central fatigue can be trained, and there is some evidence that it is connected to genetic variation (interestingly, there are some theories that female athletes may have higher average central fatigue thresholds than male athletes).
On day two of events like 200-milers, central fatigue is an important factor in who keeps going while other athletes curl up in the fetal position next to a cactus.
Training Tip 3: Dial in sleep/recovery and stress balancing.
While central fatigue is not fully understood in the context of 200-mile events, it’s key to control the controllables. Stress affects related fatigue processes, so try to avoid overstress. The same goes for sleep and nutrition and a thorough taper period. 200-milers are all about being an all-caps ATHLETE, so when thinking about racing 200-milers, it’s important to treat your body like the elite athlete you are.
Training Tip 4: Do some specific efforts where you are out there for many hours, moving on a fatigued body.
Here’s the hardest part of long ultras. The risk/reward ratio of simulating endurance events that cause these fatigue processes is weighted heavily toward risk. Many of the athletes I coach that have won 100-milers and 200-milers did not go beyond 50K in training runs because any marginal gains from those long efforts may be offset by injury and burnout risk. Plus, practicing going really slow too often just makes for a really slow athlete with time.
Many of the athletes I coach that have won 100-milers and 200-milers did not go beyond 50K in training runs because any marginal gains from those long efforts may be offset by injury and burnout risk. Plus, practicing going really slow too often just makes for a really slow athlete with time.
That’s where back-to-back long runs, training races, and long hikes come in. Back-to-back long runs done three to six times in a training cycle cause some of the nervous system (and metabolic/musculoskeletal) stresses of longer runs with reduced risk. The same goes for training races up to 50 miles or 100K, which I like athletes to do once in the lead up to a 200-miler if possible. The final way I like athletes to get these adaptations is to have a few days in a training cycle dedicated to all-day movement from non-running activities. Start the morning with the typical run, fuel up, then go for a long hike or bike. Think about improving your “minimum velocity,” or the pace you can do all day without thinking about it.
Musculoskeletal damage is inevitable
The post-race blood tests from 200s show extremely elevated creatine kinase, indicative of cellular-level byproducts of muscle breakdown. Tendons will fatigue. Ligaments will tighten. Backs get cricks, everything gets sore. You get the picture.
Training Tip 4: Strong downhill training and tempo running during long runs can prepare the muscles for later in races.
While athletes can’t prepare for the second half of these long ultra events, they can push extra in training to get stresses that approximate the worst of the event. The primary place I like athletes doing that is on downhills.
While athletes can’t prepare for the second half of these long ultra events, they can push extra in training to get stresses that approximate the worst of the event. The primary place I like athletes doing that is on downhills. Downhill running causes eccentric muscle contractions, which done enough can mimic some of the damage seen in post-race blood tests, leading to adaptation with time. In addition, I have seen that athletes seem to suffer from less central fatigue when accustomed to steep downhills, even if their races are relatively flat (but there are a million confounding variables I can think of there). A similar theory underlies why I like athletes to sometimes do tempos early in long runs. If we can’t go really long in training, let’s make sure the long runs we do play as long as they can.
In practice, I like athletes to seek out some vert on their weekend long runs, getting used to running downhills smoothly and purposefully, even if their 200-miler has less vert. And every two or three weeks, a tempo at the start of long runs may help.
Training Tip 5: Do strength work.
Strength work can improve resilience in addition to increasing output. I like athletes to keep it simple, with a full program that takes 10 to 15 minutes a day at the bottom of this article. As always, it’s ideal to work with a strength coach or PT to develop an individualized program.
Athletes need to process tens of thousands of calories to compete these races.
Even though the intensity of a 200-miler is very low, the body is burning a metric crapton of calories to maintain efficient function. It can sometimes seem like a competitive buffet. (Which is also how I approach normal buffets.) The gut adapts over time to process and empty fuel, but it needs to be trained just like the lungs and legs.
Training Tip 6: Practice fueling in long runs.
I want every athlete I coach that does 200s to practice fueling techniques from this article. More extra-long ultras are lost in the bushes than on the trail. While those issues are not fully preventable, they can be managed with practice in many cases.
Finally, you need to want it. You need to really, really want it.
In a 200-miler, every ounce of your being will go through an existential crisis. Why? What? How? But the next question is the most important of all.
How do you respond when crap hits the fan?
Option 1: F this. I can’t go on. I know that’s how I’d respond.
Or something else.
Option 2: Yes, please. This is why I’m here.
200-milers are an organized existential crisis. So make sure you’re doing the work on being comfortable with your existence. Therapists, sports psychologists, friends, family, pets, particularly knowing trees—when it comes to 200-milers, that support system probably matters more than any coach.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts a weekly, 30-minute podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.