Congratulations, you’ve decided to run the Marathon Des Sables, a weeklong, self-sufficiency stage race in Morocco! What a big decision! Not only will it be a life-altering experience in the Sahara Desert, but it’s also a large investment of your time and money. I have now run the Marathon Des Sables (MDS) six times, so I think it’s a worthy endeavor.
What I have learned over the years is that the more committed you are to the pre-race and during-race MDS experience, the better it will be. ‘Better’ in this context means that you will feel physically better and have more fun. This goes for preparing your kit, food, training, and logistics. I’ve made big mistakes over the years and I’ve watched others do the same. In almost every case, our mistakes could have been prevented with preparation beforehand.
This article is the last of a three-part series where we offer detailed information on how to prepare for and run the MDS. The first article focused on preparing your kit, which refers to all of the gear you carry and wear during the race. The second article discussed MDS food. In this final article, we offer recommendations on training for and the other logistics that go into preparing for the MDS.
While we write specifically about the MDS experience, a lot of what you’ll find in this article series can be applied to other expedition-length, self-sufficiency stage races.
In this article, we first talk about how to train for the MDS. We outline the basic concepts of endurance-running training you can use to develop your fitness as well as the race-specific training we additionally recommend to tailor that fitness to the MDS’s unique conditions. After that, we dive into logistical preparations, such as heat training, travel, life at the MDS bivouac, and more. Let’s go!
A few years ago, I co-authored a book called Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running with iRunFar’s Bryon Powell. We dedicated a chunk of the book to training for endurance running generally and trail running specifically. One of our guidelines in developing that part of the book was to discuss fundamental training principles so that readers could easily understand and use them to create their own training schedules. Similarly, here I offer what I think are the most important ideas on training for the MDS so that you may formulate a training plan that’s right for you.
MDS Training’s Main Elements
In my mind, two fundamental elements are involved in training for the MDS. The general training recommendations that follow are founded in these two basic elements:
MDS Endurance Training
In biggest picture, training for the MDS is not too different from general endurance-running training. Because the MDS is such a long race, an ideal training build-up would last half a year and be divided into three major training blocks called base/endurance building, race-specific training, and peaking/tapering. Ideally, you’d spend three months base/endurance building, a little over two months in race-specific training, and three weeks peaking/tapering.
The purposes of each block are perhaps evident in their names, but the main goal of the base/endurance building block is to develop a broad fitness base, where both your body’s engine (cardiovascular system) and chassis (muscles and bones) learn to thrive under a volume of training. In this time, we become strong, efficient, and tolerant of our increasing training load.
In the race-specific training phase, we adapt our bodies to the specific conditions present at MDS, running with a pack, back-to-back long days, and running on soft surfaces. If our bodies remain content, we can also continue increasing our overall training volume in the second training block.
Finally but perhaps most importantly, we peak/taper. For an event as rigorous as MDS, I advise a three-week peaking/tapering block, where you ease back on overall volume from week to week but maintain the quality of the race-specific elements of your training.
We further subdivide these three blocks into a few weeks of building up mileage, time on feet, and/or degree of specificity followed by a week or so of recovery with less of everything. In traditional endurance-running training, three weeks of building would be followed by one week of recovery, and so on. However, this can be adapted in a number of ways, such as 10 days building and five days recovering or two weeks of building and one week of recovery. Make these adaptations based upon how well your body and mind recover in between the building. During several of my MDS trainings, I found that race-specific training required a higher ratio of recovery to work than base/endurance training.
Check out Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running to learn in greater detail about general endurance-running training.
We all know that the MDS is a unique racing format! Because of its unusual demands, it requires preparation not regularly seen in endurance-running training. As previously mentioned, three kinds of race-specific training can help you finish the MDS feeling well.
You will start MDS with a pack that weighs at least 6.5 kilograms (14.4 pounds) plus the weight of the water you carry. Its weight thus represents a significant percentage of your bodyweight, and will make running more difficult. That is, if we want to run the same pace with this pack as we do without it, we have to do more work. Also, running with a pack changes our running mechanics. We tend to lean forward more, take a greater number of shorter strides, impact the ground with increased force, and run more slowly. Because of all this, pack running is hard!
I recommend beginning your pack training about halfway through your base/endurance building block, starting with one short run per week with a light pack, and building your pack-running volume slowly at a rate of 10 to 15% per week. By the time you are ready to peak/taper for MDS, I recommend that half of your running volume is pack training.
Pack training carries an increased overuse-injury risk, so it’s important to build up conservatively. But how exactly do you measure and moderate your pack training if you need to both increase the distance of your runs and the weight of your pack over time? We turn to an ingenious but easy equation created by iRunFar’s Bryon Powell when he ran MDS in 2009 wherein we track ‘pack miles’ (or kilometers), which multiplies the weight of our pack by the distance we run with it. If for instance, on my first pack run, I run 5 miles with a 7-pound pack, that’s 35 pack miles. To follow the rule of increasing our pack miles by 10 to 15%, next week I would run about 40 pack miles, which could be something like a 5-mile run with 8 pounds in your pack or an 8-mile run with 5 pounds in the pack. So brilliant!
When you first start pack running, focus on good form rather than effort or pace. I have observed that good running form degrades faster when pack training than normal running, especially our ability to hold our torso upright. As your body develops the strength to run well with the extra weight, the effort will feel easier and your pace will naturally increase. Last, change up the weight of your pack and the distance of your runs throughout the training process, giving your body a chance to move a little differently with those variable conditions.
Back-to-Back Long-Run Training
Back-to-back long runs are a hotly debated element of endurance-running training. They haven’t been researched much by the scientific community and, like all three of MDS’s race-specific training elements discussed here, they carry increased risk for overuse injury. But I strongly feel that stage racing is a different animal from just plain endurance running. If you are going to run long five times over six days during the MDS, you have to train with back-to-back long runs, too.
You must also use care so as to not become injured or overfatigued in doing them. In my last couple MDSes and over a six-month training block, I did three back-to-back long-run sessions. The first one was two long runs of about 20 miles on back-to-back days about three months into my training. The second was three long runs in a row, but each a bit shorter at 15 to 18 miles. And the third session was four long runs in a row, all about 20 miles each. This last session took place right before I started peaking/tapering. In the weeks of these back-to-back sessions, I only did small runs to rest before and recover after these sessions–no other hard running and no increase in overall training volume in those weeks.
You’re headed to the Sahara Desert, a place known for its sand. While the MDS takes place on surprisingly fewer true sand dunes than you might expect, you run on a ton of sandy terrain, including dry river beds and mini-dune fields. The course is probably 50% sandy terrain. If you’ve ever run at the beach, then you know how much more difficult it is than a stable substrate. Perhaps more than that, though, is the increased work the muscles of your lower legs must do. Finally, efficient soft-surface running–floating atop rather than muddling through–is a trait which can be learned.
Thus, soft-surface training is imperative to not only learning how to move well on it, but also to building strength in those crucial muscle groups. As with pack training, I recommend starting early on in your training with a small volume of soft-surface training, and then increasing your volume by 10 to 15% each week.
Obviously, training on soft sand at a beach or in the desert is ideal, but many of us don’t have access to this terrain. Good news, unconsolidated snow is an almost-perfect substitute! Other soft substrates such as pine needles or tall grass aren’t exact matches, but they can work. Finally, barefoot running at the local park is better than nothing.
Now, what’s this about sand-running technique? It’s truly an art and the Moroccan runners at the MDS are incredible artists. While your technique will change as the ground feel of the sand changes, some basic themes carry through most sand running. First, land on the ground with your whole foot directly underneath you to distribute your weight over your whole shoe. This helps you float on top rather than sink in. Next, lift your trailing foot off the ground earlier and as a whole foot to prevent the toeoff present in a regular running stride. Significant engagement of your gluteal and hamstring muscles occurs during the toeoff part of the running motion, but when the surface is soft much of that energy is lost via absorption by the sand. Last, if the sand is loose/very soft, condense it by impacting the sand a bit harder than normal with each foot fall. This gives you a slightly harder platform underfoot on which to land.
In this part of the article, we explore what we think are the most important logistical aspects of preparing for and running the MDS.
MDS Heat Training
Endurance performance is both physically and mentally affected by heat when the temperature rises above 15.6 degrees Celsius (60 Fahrenheit). The hotter it gets, the more our endurance performance declines. Research on heat-acclimation has shown that much of that performance decline can be prevented by acclimating to the heat before the event for which you want to perform well at. That is, from the start to finish of appropriate heat training, research has shown that endurance athletes’ performances will increase in the heat up to 10%. Ten percent is a ton of time in a long race like MDS!
The current science recommends a protocol of six to 10 days of heat acclimation, during which time you do easy aerobic exercise in the heat for 50 to 100 minutes each day, as close to the event as possible. Research has shown that the greatest amount of acclimation occurs in the first six days, and that after 10 days, most humans are almost fully heat adapted.
Certainly the best acclimation would be going to and training in the Sahara Desert itself, but that’s not feasible for most people. The next-best thing is to do aerobic exercise in a space heated to temperatures found in the Sahara Desert. There are professional heat-chamber facilities around the world where you run on a treadmill or ride a bike in the heat. You can also create a temporary heat chamber at home, like by heating the room your treadmill or spin bike is in with space heaters. Or you can do light exercise in your gym’s sauna. If these aren’t possibilities, dressing in a lot of layers to run in your normal environs is better than nothing.
We have an excellent article here on iRunFar which deeply describes the science of heat and endurance running. Be sure to check it out!
Travel to MDS
Planes, trains, and automobiles, getting to the MDS starting line is a big journey in and of itself. And travel is taxing on the human body. Let’s talk about pre-MDS travel and how to take care of ourselves during it.
Each year, the MDS starts on a Sunday morning, and all runners arrive to the starting-line bivouac on Friday in one of two ways. On that Friday, almost all of the British and French runners travel in a large group by charter airplane from London and Paris, respectively, to an airport in Morocco and then by bus caravan from the airport to the bivouac. Over the years, this process has taken 10 to 18 hours. The second way that many people arrive to the bivouac is to travel independently to the city of Ouarzazate, Morocco, and then to meet on Friday morning at designated locations around the city to join another bus caravan to the bivouac. This process generally takes eight to 10 hours.
Some people travel to the MDS from points far distant around the world and many time zones away. The current recommendation for best adapting to the changes in time zones and recovering from the amount of travel required is to arrive one day early for every time zone traveled in excess of three. For example, if I live eight time zones away from MDS’s, I should arrive five days ahead of time. Given that the MDS starts on a Sunday, this would mean arriving to Morocco by Monday night. While this isn’t feasible for many people, I do recommend arriving no later than Wednesday night to Ouarzazate. This provides wiggle room in case of travel delays, gives you some time to recover from the long journey, and offers a little time to see Ouarzazate itself.
On the Friday bus-caravan part of each of these journeys, bio-break stops happen every three hours or so. There are no bathrooms at the stops. The race organization gives out ample bagged lunches and plenty of bottled water. Bring snacks to bridge the meal gaps. Use care not to overhydrate, because the caravan won’t stop just for you. The roads are narrow and windy, so take precautions if you’re susceptible to motion sickness. A fun part of the MDS experience is that the race organization hands out the roadbook on the busses, which is the race-course guide. Each year the race course is unique and not revealed until this moment.
Here are a few more tips to help ease the effort of traveling to the MDS starting line:
Life at the MDS Bivouac
The MDS bivouac is such a cool place. Every stage’s finish line is also a massive campsite for all runners and the race organization–called a bivouac–as well as the next stage’s starting line. The race organization puts up, takes down, and moves the bivouac all while we runners are preparing to run and out on the course. Each day, the bivouac is set up the same, and you hang out and sleep in the same tent from the first to the last night. Your tent will be assigned to you when you arrive to the starting-line bivouac, and it becomes your home for the week. The bivouac is huge! Sometimes, it’s several hundred meters of walking to get from the finish line to your tent.
Here are some tips to help make your life at the MDS bivouac fun and a bit more comfortable:
[Author’s Note: Thank you to Jay Batchen of Dreamchasers Events because he has been a liaison to North American and other MDS runners over the years, and I have learned these tips from him. He is an expert on making bivouac life comfortable and fun!]
These tips will help you manage the logistics of being on the MDS course each day:
A Few More Logistical Tips
And here are a few, final MDS logistics tips:
Results from the 2020 Western States 100 lottery.
An essay about how good and bad days are natural in a lifetime of running.