How to train for a multi-day desert running race

During the Atacama Crossing I met Joel. He was running his first 4Deserts race, like me, and he had a fantastic race and thoroughly enjoyed himself. We swapped some Nuun and Go energy drinks in the last couple of days and amazingly a fresh flavor made a huge difference to each of us! A multi-day event is long and there is plenty of repetition: running each day, eating the same food, drinking the same drinks and following the same recovery routine. A small change like the flavor of a drink can be a great mental break.

However, before you even get to the desert there is a lot of work to do and you're likely to face some boredom during the training phase. Joel is currently preparing for his next desert challenge in the Sahara and asked me for some ideas to add a little variety to his training:

Everyone who does endurance sports knows that consistency is king, but sometimes the biggest challenge is not an injury or lack of time; maintaining a level of excitement and motivation for a race or goal that is months away is vital. Here are two suggestions to achieve this: do more races or add some changes to your training. I sent Joel a few of my ideas to keep the variety in my preparations. The following is a combination of information about how I trained for the Atacama Crossing and some ideas of how to add variation in preparing for an epic challenge! [Matias was my coach leading up to the race and provided me with plenty of advice and guidance on how to prepare. Some of these ideas come from him.]

I based my training week around the weekend, initially starting with a long run on both Saturday and Sunday with my pack. I then increased the weekend training to include a long run on Friday and finally to include a long run on Monday to complete four long runs in a row. During this time I slowly increased my pack weight starting at 3kg for 3 weeks, then 5kg for 3 weeks and finally 7kg for 3 weeks. Matias explained to me that you don't need to train with a pack weighing more than your maximum pack weight as the weight starts decreasing after the first day. This focus on building up to a simulated stage race each weekend, working on my nutrition strategy and learning how to run with a pack kept me excited for each approaching weekend.

With big weekends there wasn't a lot that I wanted to do with the week in terms of mileage. I aimed to make every session a purposeful training day. The purpose meant that I was focused, whether it was on achieving a certain speed, running with a certain weight or training for the heat. I tried to create as much variety while tweaking my gear and developing specific conditioning with the aim of always performing well on the weekend long runs. Typical purposes and training sessions would be:

Improving speed
  • 5 x 3 minutes at 155 to 165 bpm heart rate with 3 minutes recovery
  • 5 x 3 minutes at 155 to 165 bph heart rate with 1 minute recovery
  • 6 x 90 second as fast as I could with 90 second recovery

Running at threshold
  • tempo run of 2 x 10 minutes at 4 min/km with 3 minute recovery in between

Running doubles
  • running two sessions a day instead of one
  • run the same course to determine what factors made the morning or evening runs better or worse than the other run that day

Gear testing
  • running in full race gear to test it and check what it felt like and what needed adjusting 
  • running using exactly the salt, gel and drink mix I planned to race with and religiously taking it on different schedules
  • testing to see how many calories I could process in a one-hour run (600 made me sick, 300 was about right)

Varying training surfaces
  • treadmill - interval ladders (1 min hard, 2 min hard... to 5 min hard, and back down again with 1 min rest in between)
  • treadmill - heat sessions wearing race gear and a full tracksuit, gloves, warm hat, a few extra t-shirts and run at goal race pace to simulate desert conditions
  • treadmill - 10-minute tests at race pace, with race weight to see if average heart rate decreases over time
  • roads - useful for speed and tempo sessions
  • trails - great for long runs and hill sessions

The goal was to maintain a constant focus on the weekend training to know that no matter what happened during the week if I got my weekend training in I would be happy. The rest of my training turned out to be fun and playing around and testing any idea I came up with. Knowing that a 10-minute session was a valuable test, that I could run an hour and test out my nutrition, or that running a 40-minute speed session was sufficient kept my mileage up as I would be excited to get those shorter, purposeful sessions done.

So, this is how it was all supposed to work. However, I had days when my alarm went off at 5:15am and I pressed snooze, or weekends when I wanted to go away with V and I couldn't fit in my goal of 3 or 4 longs runs, or even late afternoons when I chose to have a glass of wine instead of go for a run on the trails in perfect weather. But I had enough variety in my training schedule that I managed to train sufficiently without getting stuck in a rut or miss 3 or 4 days in a row because it was monotonous. In the end this all paid off and I enjoyed a great race.

As always, if you would like more details or if you have any questions about what I've written above, ask away in the comments below.

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Anonymous said...

Hi Dan - in monitoring training performance running on the flat over a known distance requires only a stopwatch. On unknown and varied trails with elevation differences a GPS system definitely appears to be the way to go. How effective have you found your GPS system as a training aid? Do you use your system only to monitor your performance or do you revise your speed on the run (where possible) on the basis of the GPS feedback? What GPS systems from your own experience and that of your ultra colleagues would you consider the most effective and what features would you advise to look for in purchasing a GPS watch/heartrate combo?

Many thanks and regards


Daniel Rowland said...

GPS is definitely the answer to keeping track of your training. I use my Garmin Forerunner 310 for every run that I do as the feedback is that useful and important. There are two key outputs that I really appreciate from the Garmin. The first is the real time data in terms of my current pace, distance, time and heart rate. This information gives a very accurate picture of where I am in my run and it removes some of the subjectivity of how I'm feeling that day impacting on my run negatively. The second key output is a log of all my training runs which I can upload automatically from the watch without have to input the data myself. This allows for easy analysis of workouts and for me to keep track of all my training.

There are a number of good systems out there and I have only tried one - the Garmin Forerunner 310XT. I really like this watch and would definitely recommend it or the latest generation Garmin, the 910XT. These have the longest battery life of the Garmin watches and can display 4 data fields on the home screen which are key features in ultra running with as much data as possible.

I'll write a blog post soon to give more detail and let you know where to look for detailed reviews and some useful sights to keep your data on.


Mudrunner said...

That was a nice posts, thanks for sharing this to us and looking forward always for more updates.

Daniel Rowland said...

It's a pleasure. Thank you for following.

I followed your link to the Spartan Race - that looks like a huge challenge! Any thoughts of holding a race in South America?

Unknown said...

Hi Daniel, thanks for the info. I am suffering from a prickly heat rash on my back due to backpack I am training with for Kalahari Augrabies. any advise on shirts/treatment please? It is now winter in RSA and quite chilli, so not advisable to wear a long sleeve dri fit alone. Kind regards Bendaniël

Daniel Rowland said...

Hi Bendaniël

I haven't had any serious problems with heat rash before, although I have had some chafing and rubbing that looks like a rash on my back from the backpack. I've always used thicker dry fit shirts and that seems to work well for me, and when I have issues with the backpack I would wear two or wear a tight lycra type t-shirt as a primary layer to remove the friction. Baby diaper rash cream can help with rashes once they've occurred and a running lubricant like BodyGlide works well before anything develops.

I trained with the pack only two or three times a week and then for multiple days in a row during specific training blocks, but I never used it everyday. I think it can be too much stress on the body to use the pack everyday and it can affect running style. As long as I was used to the sensation of wearing a loaded pack and I was strong enough to carry the race weight, it was enough to just remind myself a couple of times a week and then run without the pack the rest of the time.

I hope that helps.