Training Tips For Marathon des Sables From The Pros
The Marathon des Sables (MdS) needs little introduction. As a 251km grueling multi-stage adventure over the Sahara desert, one of the world’s most inhospitable climates, it’s one of the most brutal races on Earth. Add to that a significant 28-year history which has seen the race host more than 1,000 runners yearly and its quite easy to understand the notoriety of MdS in the ultra marathon world.
“Run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must, but never stop” – Dean Karnazes
While you know that ‘the toughest race on Earth’ is going to be difficult, until you find yourself in the middle of Sahara desert and encountered the sand and the burning heat, you have no genuine idea of what the Marathon des Sables will do to you.
Although this year’s runners will have put in numerous hours of hardcore training, and will certainly have read various books about this cruel race, the MdS is so altogether different from most other ultra races, that there is no telling what it will truly be similar to.
“What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in” – John Short
We’ve collected some ‘tested’ approaches and stories of those who’ve been there to help your preparation for this eye-watering endurance competition.
I do expect, by the way, that you’ve have put in many days of running with a ten-kilo rucksack. If not, getting prepared for the Marathon des Sables in only five weeks will be very much a stretch. You could easily injure yourself permanently. You could even die. This is very serious.
Meghan Hicks – How she won The Marathon des Sables
Meghan Hicks has dedicated much of her life to preparing for this multiday ultra marathon. In this article on RunnersWorld.com there is a compelling story about MdS and how she actually managed to win this crazy endurance event.
Here are some wise words from Meghan Hicks, the winner from 2013 Marathon des Sables.
#1 Train your body to listen to you.
“Every time I ask my body to speed up, it does. Every time I remind myself that each second counts in building a lead, my hip flexors find a little more power. From here to the finish line, I run like hell. It’s 8:15 p.m. when I arrive, and I’ve got a sh**-eating grin on my face because I know I couldn’t have raced today any better.”
Probably the most important “asset” that you have when running in this event is your own brain. You get what you ask for. Your thoughts define your reality. Don’t lose focus. Train your body to endure harsh conditions and you’re half way there.
#2 Track your time throughout the competition.
“I start my stopwatch as I wait for the other women. Five minutes pass as a television crew interviews me. I collect my water ration and 15 minutes have gone by the next time I look at my watch.”
The interview with Meghan Hicks is full of details related to time and pace tracking. Keep your watch close and calculate your time.
#3 Don’t over-race.
“I can’t forget the big mistake I made during the 2010 race. I over-raced my ability in the heat of the long stage and ended up needing an IV and some rest before I could complete it. I cried a lot, I remember, but that moment out here has probably made me stronger than all the others.”
Create a precise schedule and don’t forget to calculate your fluids intake. Don’t force your body too much. If you’re a first-timer you should aim to finish, not to win.
#4 Train on desert terrain. Get used to the heat.
“Moving to the desert in my home state of Utah to train for six weeks on desert terrain.”
This may be the most important thing of all. Train in high temperatures and log hundreds of miles in the baking sun to prepare for the conditions you will face in the Marathon des Sables. You don’t need to travel to Sahara, just be creative.
Don’t forget that it takes around four or five days to truly adapt yourself to the 55 degree heat of the Sahara.
Do your workouts in specially heated gyms. Run with 4 layers of clothing.
None of these will truly set you up for the extreme heat, however it will psyche you up and give you confidence before the big race.
I was in Egypt for a month last summer, and I had to train for a 40-mile ultra in the Sahara. Even after 20 days spent there I still had problems with the extreme heat.
Another good trick to acclimatize is to have long, hot showers. Marathon des Sables training schedules don’t need to be hard, difficult and exhausting. A good hot shower is a great way to help you prepare for high temperatures.
The secrets you need to know before running Marathon des Sables
#1 Mental toughness
The Marathon de Sables is a tough endurance race, carrying your own rucksack full of supplies, and mental toughness is key.
Dedicated training and hardcore workouts will help to strengthen your resolve. If you have completed a few ultra-runs before the MdS, then you’ll be armed with the knowledge that you are fit for handling agony, pain, exhaustion and really long distances.
Previous ultra running experience and mental toughness will help to get you through the fourth day, with the double-marathon through the night.
Tip: Use music to assist your brain in handling the pain. Use it only when things start to look bad.
#2 Your feet need attention
MdS will take a toll on your feet. How will you handle blisters? Will your feet swell up by two sizes? Are they too delicate for this race?
Should you test another kind of shoe to run in the desert? Should you be plunging your feet into meths to toughen up your soles? Also what’s the most ideal approach to keep sand out of your socks?
If you train regularly, then the skin on your feet should be sufficiently tough. When your sole loses its suppleness, it can’t expand in those extreme temperatures, and can peel off like the leather of an old shoe. It’s one heck of a sight, I can tell you.
Toe-nails should be kept short. If they are long, they’ll get bruised and battered against the toe of your shoes, and afterward they’ll tumble off.
Shoes – simply run in whatever shoes you’ve been doing your training in. As long as your shoes are genuinely strong, you don’t need extravagant MdS running shoes. Buy half a size bigger.
You will have to test your kit a couple of times before going out to the Sahara.
When travelling to Ouarzazate, Morocco, keep your shoes secure in your rucksack. Running shoes cannot be replaced that easily.
#3 Buy walking poles
Unless you are a professional athlete, then it’s a good idea to invest in some walking poles. Many individuals are extremely sniffy about walking pokes, but you don’t need to be middle-aged to use them.
MdS has a lot of enormous dunes and big hills, so there is no point in attempting to run up them. This is a sure way of tiring yourself out and it’s very unlikely to get you to the end any faster.
What’s more, you’ll be more inclined to get blisters. It’s good to know that one of the primary causes of blisters is sheer, when your feet move sideways, crosswise over from your line of travel.
Walking poles are ideal for climbing up slopes. With a 13-kilo backpack on your back, they can also take 20% of the weight off your feet. They are also incredibly helpful for going downhill safely.
Poles take a bit of getting used to, so have a couple of practice sessions beforehand. Use cycling gloves to stop your hands from getting blistered.
Don’t purchase those lightweight, collapsible poles that fold in on themselves. They can easily snap in half. Buy more robust telescopic poles.
#4 Buy all your kit at home
A special MdS shop at the first bivouac was mentioned in many of the stories of runners who went to Morocco for this amazing experience.
Remember that you will be in the middle of the desert, and all the important running supplies will sell out fast. Buy MdS sunglasses, a buff, and all the accessories you need at home. You don’t want to be missing anything vital during this multi-day ultramarathon.
#5 Find buddies
It’s true that Marathon des Sables can be a great bonding experience.
But there are plenty of opportunities for fights too.
While running the MdS, you will have 8 runners to a tent and for an entire week.
Some will be lovely people; some not all that great.
This multi-day race stretches people in ways they have never been stretched before. After 24 hours of slogging through the desert at extreme temperatures, some runners will be able to handle the pressure better than others.
Take steps avoid unnecessary conflict. Research possible tent-mates BEFORE you have flown out to Morocco.
Search the forums and websites for the right buddy. Go out for a long run with him/her. See how they react during a 20k run in the rain. Is your buddy a complainer?
#5 Calculate your food
As a Marathon des Sables runner, you will need to carry at least 2,000 calories every day.
This includes the breakfasts and the primary meals that are going to sustain you throughout the race. For breakfast, porridge oats are good, grain bars would also be a great choice.
For your primary meals, choose dehydrated foods like spaghetti. You can always swap meals with your tent-mates, so don’t worry about variety.
While running, you will be eating a lot of sweet stuff. Everyone knows the primary source of energy are carbohydrates, so this is your choice (my tip: go for blueberries, honey, lemons). Go for what you like most.
Before actually choosing which carbohydrates to put in the backpack, learn more about carbohydrates. Go for complex carbs in the morning and simple carbs (sugars) during your running.
Buy electrolyte tablets to replace all the salts that you will be sweating out. Buy vitamins and minerals tablets (Iron, Magnesium, Calcium and Vitamins B are essential for muscle contraction and brain activity).
#5 Take an unconventional piece of luxury with you
I’m pretty sure you weren’t expecting this. In the evening you will want to enjoy the stars while reading a book in the snug of your tent. Why don’t take one with you? Yes, you will be tired, but bring some modern life with you. A kindle, a crystal tea cup, a Swiss chocolate? Be creative.
Marathon des Sables training mistakes to avoid
Ultrarunning coach, journalist and director of US Skyrunner Series, Sharmanian, advises Marathon des Sables runners against the following mistakes:
- Not preparing with the rucksack you plan to use in the race.
- Not running on comparable under-foot conditions – delicate mud/snow are great substitutes for sand regardless of your location.
- Not practicing power-walking – you will do this more than you expect, regardless of how fit you are.
- Excluding hills from your workouts.
- Try out different types of food in advance. I’m pretty sure you don’t want ‘dog food’ at the end of each day.
- Practice hydration in your preparation runs to get an idea of which drinks you can stomach best, despite the fact that your hourly fluid requirements will be much higher in the Sahara – under- or over-hydrating can actually be extremely dangerous.
- The right running shoes are imperative and perhaps you should buy bigger shoes – at least half size. Take into account the fact that your feet will expand in the extreme heat.
- First and foremost, pick shoes that are exceptionally comfortable but remember the desert is rough and some protection in the sole and front is really advised and may spare a couple of toenails.
- Wear those shoes in with no less than one 20+ mile run where they feel comfortable the entire way.
- Avoid shoes with mesh – they allow sand in easily.
- Not learning how to use the compass. There will be no course markings in the dunes, and you can easily go in the wrong direction.
Other smart strategies for the race itself?
- Pace the race for 7 days, not one.
- Care for your feet and call the medical doctors for blisters as they will help stop infections by cleaning, popping and sterilizing blisters. The Sharmanian says over the years this is the best strategy he’s seen.
- Eat early and frequently every day while you run.
- Vaseline your groin, arm-pits, nipples. Given the warmth and sweating its too easy to get rubbed raw and this is not good at all.
- Always rest in-between the running. Also, light walking serves to speed up recovery.
- You needn’t bother with a stove – just use four rocks instead. There’re a lot of them around the campground.
- Do not forget: it’s a multi-day race so you have to be consuming food and hydrating every day to finish the miles, as well as to develop reserves for the following day.
- Every morning the camp is loaded with zombies lurching around however your body is extremely versatile and after a mile or two your legs will be less hardened and you may even find by around day 4 that you’re feeling much better than in the previous days.
- Marathon des Sables is a truly unbelieveable experience, so don’t be excessively focused on times or rankings. Enjoy those moments. Live your life to the fullest.
“Of the 1,000 people [in the race], you can be sure there are 1,000 stories” – Olivier Sepulchre, member of the MDS organizing team.