By Anne Tisdell,
CTS Ultrarunning Expert Coach
Two-hundred-mile ultramarathons are growing in popularity, even if the absolute number of competitors is still relatively low. I finished second to Sally McCrae in the 2023 Moab 240, one of 112 total finishers. If you’re considering stepping up to the 200-mile distance, this is a perfect time to dial in your training and racing strategy. The subject of training for and racing the 200’s is a real can of worms, so today let’s focus on mastering the basics: What are the key considerations for your 200-miler training? How do you develop a race strategy? How do you prepare for an extended, extreme adventure in a potentially remote area?
FIRST, LET’S TRAIN!
Every athlete’s specific training plan will be unique because of the challenges presented by a 200-mile race. So, instead of focusing on a training plan or specific workouts, take a step back and focus on three BIG things you can do to optimize your training process.
Principle #1: Fitness first.
Even though you are going to be moving at pretty slow pace, fitness is king. The fitter you are, the better your body can cope with the demands of the race. Period. Training on relevant terrain? Amazing. (In fact, that’s Principle #2.) Having the best shoes and gear in the world? That’s cool, too. But first, before all of that, ensure that your top priority is to get as fit as possible.
What does that entail? It means addressing injuries quickly and thoroughly to make sure you aren’t sidelined during the buildup to the event. Injuries cost you time, which costs you fitness. To stay healthy, establish a weekly training volume that is appropriate for your body, your experience level, and your schedule. A good rule of thumb for 100-milers is that the “minimum maximum” weekly training volume is 9 hours of training per week for 6 weeks, beginning 9 weeks before your event. This means you don’t have to always train 9 hours per week, but that for a period of 6 weeks, you should be able to meet that minimum training volume.
Start there for your 200-miler as well. If your body and your schedule allow for more, great. If that’s the maximum volume that you can safely – or reasonably – commit to, it’s a solid starting point.
Principle #2: Train for the specific demands of the race.
This includes preparing for the elevation profile and technical challenges of the course, understanding the environment you’ll be racing in (climate, altitude, etc.), and training with your race gear. And yes, it absolutely includes practicing your hiking skills because you will spend many hours hiking during the race.
Now, remember that this comes after Principle #1: Fitness first. A high level of fitness can certainly help you overcome barriers like lack of access to relevant terrain during training. Whenever possible, however, spend as much time as you can on race-specific or race-similar terrain in the final months of training.
How can you determine what “race-specific terrain” looks like?
Study the elevation profile. How long are the climbs and descents? How steep are they? Read the course description, race reports and blogs, and watch videos of the race. Are there extended sections on roads or slab rock? Are the trails rocky? Rooty? Is it hot? Cold? Are there stream crossings? Trees to hop over? (Or flop over, depending on how many miles you’ve done at that point…)
Now that you know all about the course, replicate the terrain as closely as possible. This is particularly important in the final months of training. Overall, training should progress from general to specific.
For climbing and descending specifically, get familiar with the grade and length of the major climbs. If the climbs are generally between 10-15% grade, practice doing lots of climbing at that grade. If they’re several miles long, practice climbs that are equally as long. When climbs are steep, preparing for the grade takes priority. When they are long, the duration takes priority.
For those without access to their target terrain, utilize a treadmill, stair stepper, or actual stairs, and spend time on trails whenever you can.
Bonus points: Plan a training camp on the racecourse or on equivalent terrain. A few days on the course or in a similar area can help you gain a much better understanding of the challenges of the race, your expected pacing, and how prepared you are for the event. These camps are not for gaining fitness, they are for gaining experience and confidence.
Principle #3: Every long run becomes a dress rehearsal.
For the final months of training, I like to think of all long runs as dress rehearsals. The terrain should be as close to the race terrain as possible. You should be wearing your full pack (including all mandatory gear) and practicing with your poles (if using). Rehearse your race-day pacing (more on that below), and eat exactly as you plan to eat during the race. This includes foods you plan to carry or have in drop bags, and foods you plan to get from aid stations.
Step 1: Set process goals.
Process goals get you to the finish line. I recommend setting 2-4 goals that are easy to remember, completely within your control, and that help you effectively execute your race strategy.
For example, for a recent 200-miler I set the following process goals:
Enjoying This Article? Get More Free Running Training Tips
Get our coaches' best training advice, delivered straight to your inbox weekly.
- RPE (rate of perceived exertion) needs to be 4/10. Always. No exceptions.
- Eat as much as possible.
- Don’t waste time. (Note: This does NOT translate to “Don’t take time at the aid stations,” or “Deprioritize rest and recovery.”)
- Have an adventure.
Whether it’s a 200-miler or a race of any distance, set your process goals in advance. Make sure they reflect your personal strengths, weaknesses, and objectives. Then, repeat them to yourself constantly throughout the race. I also share my process goals with my crew so they can ensure I’m staying on track.
Step 2: Prepare for the fatigue.
Your training and fitness, long run dress rehearsals, training camps and process goals will go a long way towards keeping you on track. However, mental and physical fatigue are parts of the game. Here are some ways to make sure you’re using energy wisely and you’re staying safe along the way.
Pace yourself properly.
My top rule for athletes doing 200-milers also happens to be the first process goal I mentioned above: 4/10 RPE at all times. Can some athletes safely push this to a 5? Sure. Is it appropriate to push a bit harder if you’re fighting to make a cutoff? Absolutely, if you can do so safely.
I like to think of energy as a pitcher full of water. The more slowly and steadily I pour the water, the longer it will last. A solid 4 RPE is a safe speed for most athletes looking to sustain their energy for races of this duration.
Create systems for predictable tasks.
Understand and expect that at some point in a 200-miler, your mental sharpness will decline. This might mean sleepiness, forgetfulness, hallucinations… the gamut. Prepare for this. If you have a crew, provide each person with a specific role and a to-do list before the race. If you’re racing without a crew, create your own to-do lists and have them in each of your drop bags. That way you can simply follow instructions without worry.
Also, think about how you’re organizing your pack. Food should always be in the same pockets. Same with your headlamp, batteries, gloves, layers, etc. I once watched an athlete at an aid station take everything out of his pack, then put it back in, then take it all back out, then put it back in… for 30 minutes. A sleepy mind can slow you down in unnecessary ways! Aim to be highly organized while also keeping your systems as simple as possible.
Also consider the value of having company during the highest-risk parts of the race. Many times, the most dangerous times are during the final 1-2 nights and in the most technical sections of the course. Whether you have a pacer or you join forces with other racers, having company at these times can reduce the risk of getting lost, injured, or disoriented. Buddies also go a long way towards lifting your spirits when times get tough!
If you’re using pacers, ensure that they’re aware of the race rules. Understand where they can meet you, the mandatory gear they may need to carry, and to what extent they can support you. Don’t get disqualified or penalized for silly mistakes!
Finally: Take care of yourself.
We could easily write several more articles about this category, including foot care, sleep strategies, nutrition…Oh wait! We did! Here are some additional resources that are useful for 100-mile and 200-mile competitors:
In addition to these critical components, small actions like brushing your teeth, rinsing your face, and changing your clothes can do wonders for helping you reset mentally and physically. And when in doubt… eat something!
Get a Coach
People who are drawn to 200-mile ultramarathons are often highly independent and enjoy doing hard things on their own. Yet, preparing for a 200-miler is not something you want to do solo. I am a professional coach and I worked with a coach to prepare for the Moab 240 and other races. The value of working with a coach is not the training plan – I could have created that for myself. The value is in having someone to talk to when the going gets tough, and it will get tough. The guidance from my coach was invaluable when I was tired or anxious or hyper-focused on the minutia instead of the bigger picture.
Committing to a 200-mile ultramarathon is a huge undertaking. You’re going to have an incredible journey finding out what your physically and mentally capable of. You’re going to meet wonderful people and create relationships that last a lifetime. To even fathom taking on an adventure of this magnitude is remarkable. To reach the starting line is amazing. To get out there and give it everything you’ve got – that’s priceless!