How to Train for a 200-Mile Team Relay Race

Reach the Beach Relay Race
Photo: Reach the Beach Relay, courtesy of New Balance

You needed a new challenge, so you signed up for one of those crazy 200-mile overnight relay races. You and 11 of your closest running buddies are going to cram yourselves into a van and not sleep for 24 hours, running in the dark, in the middle of the night.

It’s the experience of a lifetime, but just how does it work? How do you train for one of these insane races? How can you possibly run when you’ve barely caught forty winks? We checked in with some of our favorite professional runners and coaches for their tips on how to run your best overnight relay ever. 

The Relay Run-Down

Most overnight relays are about 200 miles, with 12 runners on each team, split up into two vans. One group of runners will be “on,” while the other group rests. Over the course of 24-plus hours, each runner will usually tackle three legs of varying distances (or more, if someone on your team is injured or has dropped out). And by the time that last run rolls around, don’t be surprised if you feel exhausted from all the mileage on little to no sleep. The good news: You’ll also have the runner’s high of a lifetime! 

To minimize the relay lows, get back to basics with these essential training tips to help you tackle this 200-mile beast.

1. Go the distance. For your weekly long runs, aim to train for the total number of miles you will be running. Meaning, if your legs add up to 13 miles, your training should be similar to that of a half-marathon, says Mark Draper, a professional runner for New Balance. “With all the factors that you will face with an overnight relay, such as lack of sleep and lack of proper food, leading to poor recovery, it will actually be more difficult than if you were to run your total miles combined.” 

2. Don’t train at night. Although switching up your running schedule can be effective in some cases, attempting to train at ungodly hours to mimic race-day conditions may be a recipe for disaster. “Don’t jeopardize your immune system by incorporating a training session in the middle of the night,” says Dave Scott, a six-time Ironman winner and endurance coach. In fact, he recommends trying to rest as much as possible to charge up your batteries the week before the race. 

One exception: Since you never want to try anything new on race day, says John Honerkamp, a coach with the New York Road Runners, “you might want to test out your night-running gear, such as lights, reflectors or head lamps.” If you’re usually a morning runner, get out for an after-work run to make sure you’re not stuck in the dark. 

3. Cat nap where you can. During the relay, sleep at any point you can. Adrenaline will take you far during the race, especially during those night legs, but the lack of sleep will take its toll on you, says Stephanie Garcia, who runs for New Balance. “The best way to prevent feeling sluggish or exhausted is to use caffeine as much as possible before the race, and make sure to keep hydrated with both electrolytes and water [once the race has begun].” Many runners find success alternating between Gatorade or Nuun and plain H20.

4. Do your research. Just as you’d study a course map for a more traditional race, find out the difficulty rating of each of your legs, says Honerkamp. If your third leg is rated “hard,” you won’t want to go all out on your first leg and leave nothing in the tank. Make a race day (and night!) plan, and stick to it as best you can.

How to Pack for a 200 Mile Team Relay Race

What to Pack 

Packing may seem more daunting than running the relay itself, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. When packing for an overnight race, follow the motto of the Boy Scouts: Be prepared. Here are six tips to hit the road like a pro.  

1. Be weather-ready. Imagine getting rained on in the first leg and having to sit around for 24 hours in cold, wet clothing. “Pack one full running outfit per leg and warm clothes for in between,” says Draper. If it rains early on, you could get stuck with blisters or chafing from the rain. 

2. Gear up.  You’ll want to pack anything you would for a shorter race, like a fuel belt or handheld water bottle, but remember that you don’t typically run races in the dark. (Or do you?) Most relays require nighttime gear, such as reflective vests, headlamps and blinking tail-lights. Check the gear requirements for your race well in advance of leaving to give you enough time to score the right stuff (and test it!). 

3. Recover wisely. Throwing in a pair of compression socks will help you recover as best you can while cooped up in the back of a van. Research shows that compression gear may help with muscle soreness and perceived fatigue. 

4. Keep it clean. Don’t be deterred by the lack of showers. You might not have your usual beauty routine, but a few essentials, like baby wipes and talcum powder, can help you freshen up post-run.  

5. Fuel smartly. Make sure to pack plenty of food, since you can usually only eat a real meal when your van is resting. Honerkamp recommends easy-to-digest foods, such as bagels, pretzels and nuts. Meat, dairy products, and other foods with a short shelf life are a bad choice, as they are more difficult to digest and require refrigeration.

6. Charge ahead. Last but not least, don’t forget a car charger for your cell phone. How else will you Instagram a selfie from such an unforgettable experience? And while most relay races provide maps with course notes, you’ll want to make sure you have a fully-charged phone to help navigate, should you get lost. Turning off your Wi-Fi and location-based apps until you need them will also help you conserve precious battery power. 

Last but not least, be sure to leave yourself plenty of time to celebrate your achievement when you’re done, and allow for ample recovery. Relays can be tough, both mentally and physically, but they’re more than worth it for the memories and bragging rights. 

Did we miss anything? Which relays are you gearing up for? 

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