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!
Marathon des Sables Training
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:
- Endurance training. The MDS is a race of endurance. You run 250 kilometers (155 miles) in a week. That’s probably double to triple the weekly mileage and time on feet for most of us! To run the MDS, you must log a bunch of time on your feet before it.
- Race-specific training. There are several specific elements to MDS that are different from other races: running with a heavy pack, running long on back-to-back days, and running on sandy (soft) terrain. The better your body is prepared for these specific demands, the better MDS will feel.
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.
Marathon des Sables Logistics
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:
- Use packing lists so you don’t forget anything. Check your lists, and then doublecheck them again. Seriously, your backpack and what’s in it are your lifeline during the MDS. Create a system to make sure you don’t forget a thing.
- Carry on and wear your race essentials when traveling. Everything but your mandatory lighter and knife can be taken in your carry-on or worn on your person while you travel. Every year, a few people show up to the MDS with their luggage and race gear lost in transit. This can be prevented.
- Save the experimental eating and drinking for post-race. If you arrive to Morocco early, use care with what you eat and drink to keep your gastrointestinal tract healthy. Indeed, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people, but you’ve invested too much time and money to get sick over tasting something interesting. Drink bottled water or purify/filter tap water before drinking it. This includes the water you use to brush your teeth! Don’t eat ice, though ice itself is rare in Morocco. If you eat raw fruits and vegetables, choose ones with skins that are peeled before eating or carefully wash them beforehand with clean water. It’s okay to drink fresh hot drinks like tea and coffee where the water has been boiled in the creation process, but be careful with fresh, cold drinks.
- Switch over to MDS’s time zone when you start your travel. The sooner you start living in a new time zone, the sooner your biorhythms can adapt.
- Save your legs for the race. Don’t walk too much if exploring Morocco pre-race. If your travel involves a lot of sitting, get up every couple hours to move around.
- Travel with water and food. We runners get thirsty and hungry on our own schedules.
- Be flexible. Whatever can go wrong with traveling to the MDS starting line, might go wrong. Flights are delayed, busses break down, bus caravans take hours longer than expected, and more. Adapt an attitude of flexibility, let it all roll off your back, and see where this adventure takes you!
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:
- Keep your hands clean. While your body will get so dirty during your week at MDS, it’s imperative to keep your hands clean. Eating, drinking, and touching all of your food and water bottles need to be done with clean hands to keep you healthy. Many people’s weeks and races are negatively affected each year by bugs they pick up via their dirty hands, and this is preventable. I can’t emphasize how, ahem, shitty, it is if your gastrointestinal tract goes haywire at the MDS! Over the years, I have developed a three-part process that has kept me healthy. I wash my hands with soap and water, and then rub a dollop of hand sanitizer on them both after I go to the bathroom and before I eat. I also don’t shake hands or high five with anyone during the week–though I do fist bump and hug!
- Make your tent comfortable. You’ll sleep in an open-sided tent atop a carpet, which means your protection from the wind, sun, rocks, and thorns of the Sahara Desert is limited. But there are a few simple things you can do to make the tent more comfortable. First, take time before you settle into your tent to remove the rocks underneath the carpet! Because the tents are shared with eight people, this role generally falls on the first couple people who arrive to the tent after finishing each stage. Next, take the time to raise and lower the long sides of the tent to protect yourself from the sun, wind, blowing sand, and chilly nights. This might mean raising and lowering the sides a couple times as the sun and wind shifts.
- Secure your kit from the wind. Never leave any of your kit unsecured, even for a few minutes. The Sahara Desert’s wind can be fierce and it often starts without warning. For example, a sandstorm starts in the middle of the night after a calm evening, or the wind starts blowing out of nowhere in the middle of the afternoon. Each year, several people lose important parts of their kit in the wind and this is preventable.
- Remove your shoes in your tent. Your shoes go into the toilets, walk across ground that’s been urinated upon, and steps on who knows what during each stage. Leave your shoes on the ground at the edge of the carpet, which is your living space for 18 hours at a time, and the germs they carry out there.
- Walk away from the bivouac to urinate. As the week progresses, men especially walk less distance from the edge of the bivouac to urinate. It’s unsightly and also pretty gross that the rest of us are then forced to walk through the pee splatters whenever we leave the tents.
- Follow the toileting instructions. Do not sign up for MDS if you aren’t prepared to follow the race’s toileting instructions. The race organization does a good job of explaining in the roadbook and in person how to use the toilet for defecating in a sanitary way. Follow the instructions. If you must poop outside of the toilets, do so into the bags provided by the race for our feces and then throw the bag away. (I have done this a couple times because the toilets by my part of camp were unsanitary with feces and because the toilet tents had been dismantled by the race organization before I needed to go.) Every day, dozens of people poop on the ground around the bivouac and leave their toilet paper, too. This is so disrespectful to the natural environment and your fellow runners. If you have an accident or need to poop during a stage, practice Leave No Trace principles by burying your poop six to eight inches deep in the ground and throwing away your toilet paper in the garbage.
- Check your shoes and sleeping bag before putting them on/getting in. While spiders and scorpions are pretty rare, a couple are seen each year at MDS and a couple people over the years have been bitten/stung. Do a quick check of your shoes and sleeping bag beforehand.
- Wear earplugs for sleeping. It’s 1,000-plus people living and sleeping in close quarters, enough said.
- Use your cell phone away from the bivouac. There is cell service at some of the bivouacs. The race rules require runners to use their cell phones away from the bivouac out of respect for those who want to enjoy the natural environment and bivouac experience.
- Be kind to your fellow runners. Because it’s a lot of people living in a relatively confined space, what each of us does affects those around us. Be conscientious of your impact on other runners. Do you wake up early? Be quiet so those around you can keep resting. Making a fire for cooking? Be mindful to not blow smoke on others.
- Be nice to the volunteers. The vast majority of the race organization is volunteers. The race organization wakes up before you, works hard all day, stays up after you, and dedicates over a week of their lives to your adventure. Treat them kindly.
- Be flexible. Imagine the logistics of putting on a race of this magnitude in this remote location! Hitches come up. Stay flexible and adapt.
[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:
- Pace yourself. We mean this both on the scale of the week and on a day-to-day basis. The starting line is pretty exciting. You line up a half hour before each stage starts, music plays loudly, and there’s a lot of collective energy. Enjoy it! However, resist rocketing off the starting line and running the first part of each stage too fast. Also, take the first couple days really easy. It’s a week of racing, including a really long day for stage 4. Err on the side of caution to keep yourself feeling well all week.
- Run your own race. In ultramarathons like the MDS, individuals reach their greatest potential by running their own races. This means choosing a pace that feels right for you, and carefully riding your own physical and mental highs and lows.
- Come to peace with the heat and sand. Don’t fight the prevalent environmental conditions of the MDS. They aren’t changing, but your mental approach to them can.
- Address problems immediately. If something starts bothering you–like a hotspot on your foot or some chafing from your pack–in the middle of one of the stages, stop and address it right away. Waiting for hours until the stage’s finish line can be a recipe for disaster. We’ve all seen the photos of horrific MDS foot blistering and pack chafing, and with all due respect to those people, those issues are preventable at best and something you can reduce at worst. Taking a few minutes now can save hours and a lot of pain later.
- Use all the water the race organization offers you at the checkpoints. The race offers you either one 1.5-liter bottle of water or two, based upon the estimated time it will take for the slowest runners who drink the most water to cover the terrain between checkpoints. For many, it’s more water than we need to stay hydrated. Douse yourself with any extra water to help stay cool.
- Relentless forward progress. Whether your goals are to perform highly, to finish under the daily cutoffs, or something in between, keep moving forward. You can do almost everything while you are walking or running. If you need to stop and address an immediate issue, of course, do it. Otherwise, keep moving toward the finish line. Your best recovery and rest will happen at the bivouac.
- Watch out for your fellow runners. The conditions at MDS can be severe, and they result in a couple, true medical emergencies each year at MDS. And heat- and dehydration-related emergencies can develop quickly. If something doesn’t look right, such as a fellow runner who looks ill or is acting strangely, help them and garner help from the race organization for them. Lives have been saved at MDS many times over the years via fast action from other runners and the race organization. Also, just plain be kind to each other.
- Recover seriously. I often say that your recovery from one stage ahead of the rest of the week at MDS starts before the day’s running is done. If you pace yourself well and stay hydrated and fueled during each stage of running, this goes a long way in helping you feel good for future days. Launch actively into recovering as soon as you finish each stage, too. Get in the shade and take off your pack to help you cool down. Prepare your recovery drink and/or snack and consume it in the first 45 minutes after finishing. Take your shoes, running socks, and gaiters off right away to air out your feet. Keep moving, just a little. Eat, drink, and supplement your electrolytes as needed. Have fun hanging out with your tentmates. Take cat naps at camp and go to sleep early.
A Few More Logistical Tips
And here are a few, final MDS logistics tips:
- Soak it in. It’s so special to run the MDS and to spend a week in the Sahara Desert! Indeed, some parts are difficult and you will get tired and hungry, but you have voluntarily signed up for this experience. Take time to watch the sunrises and sunsets, look up at the dark sky and bright stars, and enjoy conversations and fun with your tentmates. MDS will change your life in some amazing ways if you let it.
- Drink the finish-line tea! One fun MDS feature is that a small glass of Moroccan mint tea, sugared pretty well, is offered to you at each stage’s finish line as well as one of the checkpoints during the long, fourth stage. It’s safe to drink, tastes nice, and is a fun way to celebrate your progress. Enjoy it!
- Enjoy the race organization’s pre-race food. A Moroccan event caterer makes the food you eat at the bivouac for dinner Friday and for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on Saturday before the race begins on Sunday. It’s generally Moroccan food with a French and endurance-runner influence, buffet style. There are vegetarian options but if you have other dietary restrictions, you’ll want to supply your own food. Be patient with the process, as the race organization is feeding a lot of runners in a remote location.
- Follow the check-in process. The check-in process takes place on Saturday at the starting-line bivouac, generally starting around 9 a.m. and finishing around 5 p.m. It’s organized by bib numbers, and there’ll be a window of time where different groups of runners check in. When you check in, you will first hand over your extra luggage. It will be tagged and returned to you when the race is over. Then you will go through medical and gear checks, and you’ll be issued some mandatory kit like your SPOT tracker, bib numbers, and more. The check-in process takes place under large tents, but you will likely have to stand in line in the sun and often the tents are hot inside. Wear a hat and sunscreen, and bring water and your patience.
- Follow the finish-line process. When you cross the last finish line of the final stage, the race has organized busses to return runners to Ouarzazate. You may wait an hour or more for a place on a bus and for it to begin driving. On the bus you’ll receive plenty of water as well as a bagged lunch. The drive from the finish line to Ouarzazate varies in length depending on where the race finishes that year, but can take up to six hours. Expect at least one bio break. Two nights of hotel lodging in Ouarzazate after the race and half board of food at the hotel are included in your MDS race entry. In Ouarzazate, each bus makes its rounds to different hotels, dropping people off at the hotel to which they’ve been assigned by the race organization. Eventually, the extra luggage that you gave to the race organization at check-in is delivered to your hotel. You will share the hotel room with another runner.
Call for Comments
- If you have run MDS before or you are planning to run it soon, leave a comment to share what you’ve learned and experienced when it comes to training and logistics.
- Leave a comment to share links to blog posts or articles you’ve created about your MDS training and logistics or that really helped you in planning for MDS in the past. The more information we can gather and share, the better prepared future MDS runners can be.
- Are you running MDS in the near future? What MDS training and logistics questions do you have? Leave your questions here and we’ll try to answer them. Also, if you’ve run MDS before, feel free to share your expertise and answer questions, too.