238 mile footrace through desert, canyons, slick rock, two mountain ranges surrounded by Canyonlands and Arches National Parks
Ultramarathon training will forever be plagued by the simple name of the sport. “Ultramarathon” meaning ‘anything longer than a marathon’, haphazardly clumps all events greater than 26.2 miles into the same category. The reality is, training for different ultramarathon events are more different than they are similar. This is true when training for 50 mile vs. 100 mile races and also true at the 200 mile distance. 200 milers cannot be thought of as simply long (or double) 100 milers. They are more akin to continuous multi-day adventure races than they are a 50 or even 100 miler. Most athletes getting into the 200 mile distance have the requisite fitness and experience. Yet, they still need to train with a purpose and focus on the things that are going to yield the most success come race day. Below I outline the major things to consider when developing your training for a 200 mile event.
The Cardiovascular System is Still King
Although training for different endurance activities requires different specificity, they are all linked by the cardiovascular system. Regardless of if one is training for a marathon, 50k, 100 mile or 200 miler, the cardiovascular system is the engine for that journey. However, as one moves up in distance and in time, the purpose of that engine shifts. At the shorter distances, the maximum amount of output the cardiovascular system can generate and the fraction of that maximum you can utilize plays an important role in the outcome of the event. The bigger your engine and the more of you can use, the faster you run. During longer events and 200 mile races, the point of a strong cardiovascular system shifts. Having a strong cardiovascular system in 200 milers is still important to run faster, but even more important in the fact that the stronger your engine is, the less stress moving down the trail will play on your body. This frees up your body’s resources for other battles. Eating and drinking, managing the changes in the environment, managing sleep deprivation and the myriad of other aspects to negotiate in a 200 miler are all easier with a bigger, stronger cardiovascular engine. Quite simply, the easier it is for you to move down the trail, the more of your effort you can put into other things.
How to improve the cardiovascular system- Work hard, then rest, repeat. It’s a simple formula. During your 200 mile prep, you will need time at different intensities. Do your high intensity training as far away from the 200 miler as possible and do all of your high volume work as the race draws near. It’s easy to get trapped into thinking that all you need is miles on miles on top of more miles. But, do make the effort to put in specific interval intensity days 2-3 times per week throughout your training. It’ll pay off come race day.
Develop a Flex Fuel Engine
You are going to need a lot of calories for 200 miles. 200-250 per hour, to be exact. Do the math on that, it’s a lot of food. Additionally, it would be rare that any single training activity approached the time and distance that you are going to experience during a 200 miler. A neatly planned out eating schedule that worked for your last 100 miler is not going to fulfill all of your needs during a 200 miler. Your tastes will change as well as the temperature and conditions of the course, all requiring different caloric and hydration needs. Here’s what you can do-
Learn to separate your calories from your hydration. This will allow you to independently regulate hydration based on temperature without significantly affecting your caloric intake. A lighter calorie hydration drink is well suited for this (less than 100 calories per 16 oz)
Develop a strategy for the number of calories per hour you need. It should be somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-250/hour. It will be far less than the maximum you can take in during a shorter ultramarathon.
Based on that calorie intake, find one sweet food, one salty food and one savory food that works for you in. Test these foods in training and rotate them to meet your caloric needs. This will give you the best weapons against flavor fatigue and ensure that you always have a food that will suit your cravings.
Learn Your Sleep (or lack thereof) Tolerance
You are going to be out on your feet for a long time and go through a few full nights (if you have not figured that out yet). Choosing to sleep or not, when to sleep and how much for is a guessing game unless you test those limits in training. So, go out on an all night run. Sleep for a couple of hours, do a morning run then go to work and see how you function (don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss). Do these types of runs a few times in training (but only after you have developed your cardiovascular engine) and learn your limits. From there, you can determine when, where and how much you can sleep (or forego sleep altogether if you are that daring). The point is to learn your own limits and test them in advance. That way on race day you can have more confidence in making the decision on when, where and how much to sleep for.
Test Your Gear
Your pack and its contents are essential. Yet, many people train without it thinking that they should train lighter and faster. You are going to race with your pack and all the stuff that you have to carry from aid to aid. Train with it. There’s simply no better way to learn how to pack the right gear and how it rides in your pack than to train with it day after day after day. Sure, you don’t need your windproof pants on a 2 hour run when it’s 80 degrees out. But, you will rest better in the nights before knowing that you have trained with it in your pack. During training at least once a week, go out with all of that gear in your pack.
Also, be prepared to use all the gear in the recommended gear list. The race director has developed this for a specific reason- you will probably need it. Use bad weather as a chance to test your clothing options. Sometime this is the only way to figure out that the zipper on your favorite jacket is impossible to grab with the gloves you have.
Which pack is right for you? The one that is comfortable and can fit the gear you need. Simple as that.
The Bottom Line
Training for a 200 miler is not like training for a long 100 miler. While a strong cardiovascular system benefits both, the nutrition, sleep and logistical demands are wildly different. Train for all of them! If you put a strong emphasis on developing your cardiovascular engine first, then the nutrition, sleep, gear considerations can be deliberately developed as your volume increases and race day approaches.
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Training for 200 Miles
By Jason Koop, Director of Coaching, CTS