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Training for the Toughest Foot Race on Earth

Steve Apostolou, an amateur runner from Sydney, and one of this year’s entrants to the Marathon Des Sables (MdS, or Marathon of the Sands) gives an insight into the extreme training necessary to participate in an extreme fitness event...

Each year in early April sees the start of the Marathon Des Sables (MdS, or Marathon of the Sands) a six-day, 250km ultramarathon. Held in southern Morocco in the Sahara desert, this multiday event is considered one of the toughest foot races on Earth.

It’s not only the distance that makes it tough; competitors must carry all personal belongings and food for the entire event in their backpacks; the temperature can reach 120°C and the terrain, a mixture of soft sand, sharp rocks and sand dunes, is guaranteed to blister even the toughest feet. Not to mention the fact that water is rationed. And as for the scorpions…

While there are many training plans available for running marathons and half-marathons, you won’t find much about training for an event as extreme as the MdS.

So, how do you prepare for six days of sun, sand and – let’s face it – severity?

Physical Conditioning

Run: It goes without saying that you need to be fairly fit. In the six months leading up to the MDS, you should be running an average of 60 to 100km each week. In the last few months before the race, you should practice running with a pack, starting with approximately 5kg and gradually building up to around 12kg. Ideally, you will get some practice in on sand as this requires ankle and calf strength that road-running won’t give you. If you can’t find sand, another option is to try dragging a tyre behind you when you run. Wherever you run, you’ll need to take care of your feet.

Cross-train: Due to injuries, there will most likely be times when you’re unable to run. That’s no excuse to hit the sofa! Swimming and cycling are both excellent ways to build and maintain cardiovascular fitness without putting pressure on the joints. While most competitors are happy just to complete the race, those looking to finish in the top half of the field will be supplementing running with five to 10 hours of swimming/cycling each week.

Massage: Stretching and especially massage makes a huge difference. Having a good deep-tissue sports massage three days before big training sessions or races means you feel loose and limber on the start line. It also means that you can return to training sooner after a big run, which is a huge bonus when you’re trying to pack in so many hours of training each week.

Yoga: As well as being highly beneficial for flexibility, the strength and control you develop helps prevent injuries. Yoga also helps you become more ‘in-tune’ with your body and increases awareness of issues before they start to impact performance. Additionally, Bikram yoga is great for heat conditioning as it’s practiced in a room heated to about 40°C.

Heat acclimatisation: Running at 25°C is quite different from running at 50°C; heat acclimatisation is an often overlooked but absolutely fundamental part of training for the MDS. It’s a little-known fact that the human body can acclimatise in as little as 10 days. By spending an hour per day for 10 days in high heat, the capacity to sweat is nearly doubled and sweat is more diluted, containing less sodium. This means reduced chance of dehydration and improved performance. As mentioned, Bikram is great, but at a pinch, a one-hour sauna or hot bath will help.

Upper body: Running with a pack is hard on the upper body, especially shoulders and back. Core strength is crucial; think plank, push-ups, shoulder press.

Mental conditioning

The biggest challenge for a multi-day event like the MDS is mental preparedness. You need to be determined and stay motivated to keep going when your body is telling you to stop. Meditation and visualisation both help – picture yourself crossing the line! Being stubborn is good too.

Organisation and body care

As you need to carry all your food and equipment for the week in your backpack, you need to be very well organised and consider your every possible need!

Steve is paying all his own costs and running the MdS to raise funds for ‘A Glimmer of Hope’, which funds projects in rural Ethiopia. Read Steve’s account of preparation and training for the 2012 Marathon Des Sables in support of 'A Glimmer of Hope'. To support his campaign ‘Clean Water Means Life’ visit www.runforethiopia.com.

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