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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