Wednesday 8 February 2012

How to train for...the Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon in South Africa is one of the oldest and most historic ultras in the world as well as being the largest by far. Typically it gets entrant numbers similar to the big city marathons and capped entrants at 18,000 for the 2012 race. That puts it on a completely different scale to other ultras and only the Two Oceans Marathon (also in South Africa) comes close, although events like the Ultra-Trail du Mt Blanc are getting very large entrant numbers across multiple events.

For me, the thing that makes Comrades so special is the friendly, charged atmosphere that starts at the expo and goes through to the finish line. Comrades is THE endurance event for South Africans and past winners like Bruce Fordyce have become legends in the eyes of the nation as well as globally to some extent. The pre-dawn start line is particularly exciting and if you don’t feel the emotion as the locals sing their national anthem and the traditional song that was popularized by miners, Shosholoza, then you must be dead inside.

My love for the race started when I first heard about it from a South African friend while I ran a winter ultra in the UK. The following year I flew to South Africa and finished in 2007 in 7h09m, getting a silver medal for sub 7h30m, which had been my target. I’ve returned in the following four years for four more silvers, with a best of 6h01m in 2010 (my blog write-ups for those races are here: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011).

I've also written posts on training for Western States 100Flat 100 milers like Rocky Raccoon and the Marathon des Sables. At a later date I'll do a post on how to train for the Davos Swiss Alpine Marathon K78.

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

What's the race like?
  • Alternating directions on the roads either from Pietermaritzburg to Durban, on the coast (the down run) or reversed (the up run)
  • 55.5 miles (89km) for the down run with 7,000 feet of descent and 5,000 feet of ascent or reversed +/- over 54 miles (87km) for the up run as each direction has to start on a wide road and finish in a stadium
  • Strict 12 hour cut-off with intermediate cut-offs
  • Five major named hills (Polly Shortts, Inchanga, Botha’s, Fields and Cowies), but a lot of up and down outside them too
  • Temperatures are often close to freezing in Pietermaritzburg at the start of the down then hot (85F or 30C) by the time you get to Durban or more pleasant in the other direction
  • Medals depend on your finish time with gold for positions 1-10 (men and women), a Wally Hayward for sub 6h, silver for sub 7h30m, Billy Rowan for sub 9h, bronze for sub 11h and a Vic Clapham for sub 12h
  • Multi-colored bibs for first-timers, international runners and relating to multiples of 10 finishes (based around green and stripes); the very cool one is yellow for those going for their green number (first attempt at a 10th finish)
  • Once you get your green number, you keep your race number for life and nobody else will use that number, plus you keep that number before then if you don't leave too much of a gap in your runs
  • Seeding pens based on qualifying times and they're especially important as overall times and cut-offs are purely based on gun times
  • Big prize money attracting the best ultrarunners in the world, including Olympic marathoners, such as the men's course record holder for the up and down runs, Leonid Shetsov
How on Earth do you start training for that?
  • It's not that different to a hard road marathon and if you can finish one then it doesn't take much more training, with a similar plan but more focus on long runs
  • Still include speed work, as for a marathon, but the long runs need to be slightly longer although not necessarily more than one run in the build up longer than a marathon (it will depend on your previous experience and whether you've run ultras before) - quality of mileage over quantity
  • Back-to-back long road runs are excellent training but have to be weighed up against the time it takes to recover; two marathons on a weekend are particularly good and much less stress on the body than a 50-miler in one day
  • Include some long, gentle downhills in your training to practice the pounding your legs will take 
  • Strength training on the legs is more important than for marathons due to the length and hills, but make the exercises specific to running, not just about building up big leg muscles
  • Ideally get some heat training in for the final weeks, even if that's just sitting in a sauna, since the heat can take a lot out of you
What mistakes should you avoid doing in training?
  • For Americans and Brits, not understanding kms can be an issue and the markers count down, not up. Make sure you know your conversion for 1 mile = 1.609km. 
  • Bad or inadequate nutrition will slow you dramatically. The tables are every mile or so and have plenty of food, but not necessarily what non-South Africans would expect (no gels, for example). So work out what you can stomach in advance then fuel early and often. If you need gels, carry them or have a crew (called ‘seconds’ locally) who can hand these too you.
  • Practice hydration in your training runs and try to get an idea of which sports' drinks you can stomach best, ideally trying out the Energade drink that currently sponsors the race.
  • The drinks are supplied in small sachets in the race, which you may be able to practice with in advance, but if not, my advice is to nibble the end to create a hole then squeeze out the liquid  into you mouth - I find this so much better than bottles or paper cups, but some find it awkward at first.
  • Not training for hills because it’s a road race will cause you significant issues – the course is significantly harder per mile than a typical road marathon.
  • For most people, practice power-walking as you will walk and the more you can get better at this, the less energy and effort it will take.
What about tactics for the race itself?
  • Like most ultras, people tend to go out too fast, but Comrades has hot spot prizes for runners who get to various points first and still finish which encourages extra speed. So make sure you have a plan and don’t get carried away as everyone around you goes past you in the first miles. 
  • The hills take a lot out of you in either direction and for all but the fastest runners, it’s best to walk early and often on them to conserve energy. The main reason for a poor time is slowing down considerably, not going out too slow.
That's what you'll look like if you get a course record.
  • Make sure you have a good idea of where the hills are from the course profile, although the official one is misleading and an online profile from someone who has run it with a Garmin or similar is a better bet
  • Take the downhill sections easy, especially early on and in the down run, as these can trash your quads and lead to walking. It’s tempting to try to catch up some time but practicing a relaxed downhill stride in advance, with minimal breaking where the legs absorb a lot of the shock, can still allow for good pace on those downhills. Fields Hill on the down run is the longest and still has a half marathon left at the end, so don’t push too hard or you might limp it in.
  • Don't get too focused on a time or medal cut-off until very near the end - you'll run your best race and time by running by feel so that you're not adjusting pace constantly based on what your watch says.
  • The cut-offs are generous and most people can make them if they pace sensibly and train well, but they are strict and if you're one second late, you miss out.
  • Beware the chair, like in any ultra - if you sit down, you'll find it a lot harder to get going again.


  1. Excellent advice, I've run 2 comrades and agree completely. On the run/walk strategy, I did this in 2010 (on the down run) walked every 9km for 1 minute, and still managed a silver (7:28) so can highly recommend this.

  2. Nice tips!!! This is going to be my first Comrades, and I am reading (training hard as well) everything, from training to nutrition, motivation, mental tricks, and so on.

  3. by the way... does anybody have the route profile traced from Garmin GPS???

    1. Here you go:

  4. Great writeup, Ian! I might add they told me at last year's Comrades the rule of thumb for us midpackers is that the down is about 20 minutes faster than the up. However, it will take 3 days to start running again after the up but 3 weeks to start running again after the down.

  5. Ian, can you clarify what you meant with "Strength training on the legs is more important than for marathons due to the length and hills, but make the exercises specific to running, not just about building up big leg muscles"?

    What leg strength training is specific to running?

    1. Thomas, without going into too much detail (it would take a big blog post to do that), I mean exercises that don't just build up the size of the leg muscles, but that make them stronger and better able to withstand running impact, as well as evening out muscle imbalances (which would depend of the individual). An example would be lunges forwards and sideways with or without additional weights.

  6. Great reminders, thanks Ian! I can't wait to be at the start line again - that atmosphere is out of this world :)

  7. Brilliant article, Ian, and super advice! I've run it 2 times now and am heading back for my and Ellie will be long finished by the time I get to Durban but I love the fellowship of running this race. Beautiful!

  8. Ian great article thanks very much. Really enjoying your new talk ultra show as well, just finished the second episode. Excellent, and hope you cover comrades closer to the time. I'm another comrades (sacrificial) virgin this year having dns'd last year through overtraining and injury in the build up so determined to get there this year. Couple of questions:
    1. What are your thoughts on pacing, i know u r a big fan of -ve splits but it seems no-one with the exception of the very top runners is able to achieve this. With that in mind and hoping for a bill rowan, how would you suggest pacing it to halfway and beyond?
    2. How essential would you say it is to train specifically on roads, especially for long runs this can be quite soul destroying and getting on trails is so much nicer, and a bit easier on the joints, but usually slower. Is this ok if supplemented with some speed work on the road/track?
    3. What are the essentials to carry with you that you can't get from the water tables eg salt tablets, painkillers, wet wipes, gels. For a long trail ultra I would carry a lot of that with me but it seems that might not be so necessary here.

    Probably think of loads more questions later so hope you keep checking back on this old blog especially around 2nd June!!

    Cheers and best of luck recovering from RR injury.

    1. James,

      1. Comrades has an easier 2nd half in either direction so around even or negative splits is the best tactic. It may not be as completely achievable on lower amounts of training than the guys at the front do, but the principle of going out easy and doing everything to keep nutrition and hydration from slowing you down still applies. Even most of the slowest finishers would have their best time by having similar splits for the 1st and 2nd halves...but it does take practice.

      2. Without a good amount of road/flat training, there won't be enough speed or specificity in training. But it certainly doesn't have to be every run. 50% would be a good target if you prefer trails.

      3. They provide most things you need but the 'essentials' would be different depending on each individual. If there's something you can't do without (esp a particular brand) then take it with you.

      Let me know if you're interested in coaching towards Comrades or other goals. More details here:

  9. Ian - what kind of food is there on the tables? Standard ultra fare, or something more South African like biltong?

    1. Definitely some standard ultra fare but with a Saffer twist (salted potatoes!). No gels either, from what I remember, although I've always just taken the drinks from the tables and brought my own gels so I didn't pay too much attention.

  10. JR, Saffer here who has a done a couple (and really pissed that i won't be running this year), so you can expect standard SA fare: Banana's, Bar One's (Chocolates), Energade Jellies (small jelly babies), and potatoes. On the down, when you enter Botha's hill onwards and the crowds are there, you can always ask spectators for whatever you want and they have. Had a mate have joined a family for half a burger and chips 2 years ago. Also have bummed biltong a couple of times - there will be plenty around. Good luck, enjoy!

  11. Check out this detailed route map for the 2012 run - it also tells you what refreshments will be available at each and every drinking point.

  12. Hello,

    maybe someone could answer this for me, is a silver 7:30 do-able from pen b?