Sunday, 29 January 2012

How to train for...the Marathon des Sables

I thought it'd be a good idea to follow up on an idea from James Adams about doing a series of blog posts on how to train for some of the world's most iconic ultras. The idea is I can give tips and advice on what the courses involve and some idea of the general principles that would help, given these are often races that people look forward to for years and have very specific, and different, challenges to what you may have run before.

I've also written posts on how to prepare for Comrades, Western States 100 and a flatter 100 miler like Rocky Raccoon. But first the Marathon des Sables or the MdS for short. This is a race I've trained several people to successfully complete, including back-of-the-packers through to Danny Kendall who got the highest placing ever by a Brit at the 2013 race (10th) while training in London.

This race got me into running in the first place and I started in 2006 when the weather was about as extreme as ever, in terms of being hotter and more humid than usual and having sandstorms in the first few days where you could barely see five feet ahead. I didn't finish, as I drank too much water, having never realized that could be an issue, and got hyponatraemia, having to drop out on day three.

It wasn't fun on those first three days thanks to the illness, but then I felt fine as I was driven around from camp to camp then sat around each day. So I signed up for the next available MdS and ran it in 2008 (more details here), placing 13th and the highest position ever by a Brit (since beaten by a 12th from James Cracknell with some slightly more scientific training). So I learned a lot and found out how to run this race effectively, even when living in a cold climate in the months preceding the race and having no hills or sand to practice on locally.

Here are the key things to bear in mind in general when training for and racing in the MdS:

What's the race like?
  • Seven days in the Moroccan Sahara, self-supported and running with a backpack for the week's food, cooking equipment, clothing, medical kit and sleeping bag, but water and the Berber-style tent are provided for you

  • Six stages of about 10 miles up to about 50 miles (courses vary), totaling around 150 miles, with the long day having a cut-off of almost two days long
  • Over 1,000 international runners in the middle of nowhere with sand dunes, rocks and a 'road book' with maps to help you if you miss the pink-sprayed rocks
  • 400 support staff of doctors, local Berbers and other race organization people
  • Temperatures up to around 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) and no shade during the day
  • Most people walk almost all of it and only those at the very front get a large proportion of running in
How on Earth do you start training for that?
  • Firstly you look through the kit you'll need as there's a lot of compulsory gear (full rules are here and Article 24 shows the long list)

  • Then you need to find a backpack that feels comfortable to run in when full and isn't to big - 35L is about the largest you want to consider and the front of the pack will be more like 20L (note that a front pack add-on is helpful for weight distribution and accessing food etc on the run)
  • Trying fitting the kit in to see how much you'll need to leave out - it won't all fit in and you'll have to be frugal
  • Having the kit and backpack will give you a better focus for your training as it's important to train for the specifics of the event
  • Road running may be all that's easily available to you, but make sure you can get in regular trails too - hills and mud or snow are probably the best bets in winter and give a better preparation for sand than roads
  • Practice power-walking/hiking within your long runs as you will be doing this a lot, guaranteed, and it uses slightly different muscles to running
  • A great way to strengthen the muscles for the hiking and the backpack carrying is hiking even short distances, but regularly, with a weighted vest or backpack - ideally much heavier than the full weight you'll run the race with (2-2.5x the weight is a good guide)
  • Do runs as often as possible with the backpack, gradually filling it up over time to closer simulate the race conditions and muscular requirements
  • By running with the backpack fully weighted you'll get an idea of where it rubs and can practice taping (zinc oxide tape is good for this)
  • Have at least six months where you commit a good portion of your training to the MdS - even fast road runners who don't train for it specifically are usually very bad in the desert
  • Heat training in winter isn't easy but it's only the last two or three weeks that matter most for acclimatizing so that's when 30-60 mins/day in a sauna can help (be very careful with this as it's dangerous and gradually build up to longer exposure)
  • If you don't have a sauna, doing your runs in multiple layers of clothing to look like the Michelin Man can work just as well
  • If you can find races that include back-to-back days then these are great training, especially if you treat them like stages of the MdS in terms of kit - in the UK races like the Jurassic Coast Challenge and Pilgrim's Challenge are ideal, but just long 20+ mile days on trails back to back on your own or with friends also work
What mistakes should you avoid doing in training?
  • Not training with the backpack you plan to use in the race
  • Not running on similar under-foot conditions - soft mud/snow are good substitutes for sand even if you're not near the coast or other sandy area
  • No heat training - this would make it impossible to run and slow you down very significantly and therefore mean even more time in the baking sun in the race which will drain you even more
  • Not practicing power-walking - you will do this more than you expect no matter how fit you are
  • Not including hills - the local word for a mountain is 'Jebel' and there several Jebels in the race, no matter which route they use

  • Try out the food in advance - freeze dried food doesn't always taste good and you want food you can look forward to at the end of each day so you don't want nasty surprises with a meal that tastes like dog food
  • Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, even though your hourly liquid requirements will be much higher in the desert - under- or over-hydrating could end your race and be very dangerous (trust me, I know from experience)
  • The correct shoes are important and maybe half to a whole US/UK size bigger is helpful to allow for your feet expanding in the heat, but no more or they just won't fit and will rub immediately
    • Choose shoes that are very comfortable as the main criterion, but bear in mind the desert is rocky and some protection in the sole and front is advised and may save a few of your toenails
    • Wear those shoes in with at least one 20+ mile run where they feel fine the whole way
    • Don't get shoes with a mesh-like exterior that allows sand in easily
  • Don't underestimate how important gaiters are for keeping the sand out - home made ones from parachute material that cover the entire top of the shoe and up to below the knee are best

  • Learn to use the compass as in the dunes there are no course markings and people ahead can often go wrong
What about tactics for the race itself?
  • Take day one very easy as it's for getting used to the race and is short, so not much time can be lost no matter how slow you go - pace the race for seven days, not one
  • Look after your feet and see the medical staff for blisters as they will help stop infections by popping, cleaning, sanitizing and taping blisters and have seen over the years that this is the best tactic
  • Eat early and often each day while you run
  • Vaseline everywhere that's covered (groin, arm-pits, nipples etc) even though it may get a little sand attached to it - given the heat and sweating it's very easy to get rubbed raw and this is not pleasant
  • Get the hydration right based on your training and it's best to include electrolyte powders or tablets in every drink instead of just water
  • Rest in-between the running as much as possible, although a little, light walking around helps to speed the recovery - a good excuse to socialize
  • You don't need a stove (which is heavy) as you can use four rocks instead - there're plenty of them around the campsite
  • It's a multi-day race so you need to be eating and hydrating each day not just to get through to the finish but also to build up reserves for the next day
  • Each morning the camp is filled with zombies lurching around but your body is very resilient and after a mile or two your legs will be less stiff and you may even find by around day four that you're feeling better than on the previous couple of days
  • Most importantly, make sure you enjoy the entire experience and don't be too focused on times or rankings - this is a huge challenge but also something you'll remember for your whole life


  1. I did my own, amateur version, of this a couple of years ago ( - for the curious) I would agree with everything Ian says, especially about enjoying the amazing environment - don't go just to race.
    I would recommend taking enough ibuprofen to stay dosed for the whole week. You can always trade for food if you don't use them yourself.
    I would add a word of caution about gaitors - I used the parachute silk ones and was fine, but if you get sweaty feet then they reduce the ventilation so you end up with damp feet and more blisters. For some, (Rory Coleman for example) buffs make breathable, if not fully sandproof gaitors.
    Everyone should do the MdS at least once in their lives.

  2. Thanks for this Ian, excellent well thought out advice. I am signed up to do the MDS in 2013 after a colleague from work completed it in 2006, its captured my imagination ever since....really looking forward to it. Living in Scotland, I am not short of a hill or two to train on although the heat training may be a little difficult. You ever going to go back and try and reclaim that top Brit position?

  3. I'd like to do it again some day, but the aim would be to race the locals so it's a big commitment to focus on the race for a long period to do it justice.

  4. Look fwd to the Comrades post Ian, maybe with some special tips for the downhill year?

  5. Two questions: what freeze dried food do you recommend? Have you considered the 4 Deserts?

  6. Ellie - Comrades post will definitely discuss down v up...but I think you might do pretty well on your own :)
    Anon - Use whichever freeze dried food you like the taste of, so try out several brands. And the 4 Deserts look really fun but the MdS is the big daddy and has the elite field at the front.

  7. Thanks, I live in Asia and out here the 4 Deserts is the big daddy of multi-day events. People view the MDS as a tour package. I have tried Expedition Foods and Be Well (Green Packages). Liked Expedition Foods a lot. Great gear info -- where is the best place to purchase in Asia?

  8. Anon - try the racing the planet store, they organise the 4Ds and know their stuff. A little bit pricey, but they ship, or you can visit their store in HK. I have donated quite a bit of cash to them over the years.

    Ian - my first Comrades this year, so really looking forward to that post too! Also caught your new podcast, enjoyed that, and hope you will cover comrades on there sometime in the next couple of months.


  9. Oh boy -MDS-the Kona of Multistage - hardest-original and best - bigger International field - deeper in terms of talent and quality tough runners do well to make the top 100 - some 4 deserts races don't even have 100 finishers - great to have choice of multiple stage - but MDS deserves it's place as the iconic race it is viva MDS


  10. How do you go taking freeze dried food into Morocco? Is it OK to repack in ziplock bags before you go or will quarantine get upset? Should I repack the stuff before the race in Ouarzazate?

  11. The packs they come in should be fine and are light and air-tight. You could cut off excess plastic on the edges of the packs.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.