Wednesday 3 April 2013

Final tips and good luck!

All you 2013 runners are about to set off. There is nothing more you can you other than try to relax. And stop packing your bag again! You've got all you need. Plus you will do it all again in day zero at camp trust me.

Enjoy camp life. I was really worried about the whole living via very basic means but I loved it. The site of those black bivouacs in the distance is pure joy after a day in the sand.

You may make friends for life. You'll certainly make friends for the week. MDSers are one of a kind. And don't forget to thank all those volunteers that make MDS happen every year. They really made the difference for me out there. Always smiling. Even better when holding out a cup of mint tea for you.

Manage yourself. Go steady on at least the first day to gauge how your body will react to the conditions. Aim to get to the start of the long day in good shape - feet, body and mind - and you will smash it!

Embrace the pain of the Sahara. She's well worth it. Bon voyage.

Friday 15 March 2013

Marathon des Sables: mental preparation

Even if you are the most positive person in the world, all runners know there are periods in races or training runs where your mind will tell you negative things like "you can't do it", "you don't want to do it", "it's too painful", "I can't go any further".

Out in the desert, staring down the barrel of another 15 miles with a feet looking like mincemeat and your heart hammering in your chest, you'll probably experience a few negative thoughts here too.

Preparing mentally for MDS is slightly different to a shorter race. Shorter races tend to be based on speed. I'm then more concerned with the lactic acid pain that comes with that, combating nerves in the first part of the race, and keeping on going when my body is screaming to stop. Preparing for MDS is more about dealing with carrying on and coping with possible physical pain, dealing with boredom, and the biggy, just finishing running 155 miles carrying 10 or so kg. It's quite a feat that does make your head pop!

You probably already have a way of dealing with any negative thoughts that may pop into your head. Here's my tuppence;

1) Thoughts of pain. I try to concentrate on exactly what the feeling is all about - I become curious about it rather than fear it. Is it sharp, dull, does it hurt all the time, just on weightbearing etc. I try to imagine pain as not to be something that is feared, but to embrace it as part of the spirit of feeling alive and doing something bonkers like MDS.

As well as the somewhat mumbo jumboness of thinking about what pain really is, I also deal with pain on a practical level. If I can manage it as best I can, I will be in control. Pain will not beat me. I win. Positive thought.

2) Thoughts of not being able to finish the race. This happened a few times to me out there, usually when it was combined with thoughts of pain (see above). I was lucky enough to run with my better half. If you can stick alongside a few MDS buddies, they will pick you up mentally throughout the race. A bit of banter lasts for miles!

Otherwise I tended to break down the race into much more manageable sections and plan "rewards" when I reached points. MDS has checkpoints roughly every 10k, which were rewards in themselves. Otherwise rewards could mean listening to a song or having something to eat. Goal setting is often used by professional sports people too.

The other "technique" I used was to think, well I always have a choice. My choice here is I can carry on, or I can not carry on. Carrying on always would win. Funnily enough, the thought of having to come back and write on this blog that I hadn't finished was usually enough motivation to keep going!

I do like to daydream, and MDS was a nice excuse to dream away. One of my favourite daydreams was finishing stage 6. I used to plan it out in detail, and go over and over it in my head. I think I lot of top sportspeople also use a similar technique called "visualisation" where they spend periods of time visualising the perfect throw, jump or sprint start.

Daydreaming like this is a positive thing, and it always gave me much more self belief that I could finish the race too. Positive thoughts encourage further positive thoughts.

Finally, through I tried to recognise when my little brain was telling me bad things, and replace this with a simple "I can do this". I would just repeat the sentence over and over for a while to try to ignore any bad thoughts.

3) General worrying. I do like to worry. I think worrying can be useful because it can alert you to things you may not have considered or planned for. Worrying becomes annoying when you either can't do anything about the problem, or you haven't done anything about the problem. My main worries out in the desert consisted of

"Can I feel a blister?"
"Why is my ankle hurting?"
"Why is my heart hammering so hard?"
"I think I saw a camel spider"

For all of these I could do something active to limit them happening or getting worse. Then place the worry into a box, wrap it up and send it down the sandy sand dune never to be seen again!

Be interested to know how others deal with any negativity during races.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Marathon des Sables: footcare

Marathon Des Sables 081

Yes you probably will get blisters. But don't panic too much as there is plenty you can do to prevent blisters becoming mincemeat. Here's a past post on prevention and cure for blisters to help allay your fears.

If you haven't started already, I would practice running in shoes with no socks to toughen up your feet. Do this now, as you may get blisters and need them to heal before you go. I also trialled soaking my feet in surgical spirit but this didn't seem to do much for me.

You can use taping as a preventative measure or a fix up method post blisters. I went with fix up method, and just taped post blister, as I worried that messing around with tape on pristine feet may encourage blistering to begin.

I would practice taping your feet a few weeks before you go, to become confident in how to do it. I just googled for a video, watched it, then had a go. They key thing is to make sure there are no bumps and lumps that may worsen your problem. The main areas to practice taping are big toe, little toe, heel and ball of foot. Taping is a fine art - I actually quite enjoyed having a go and getting it right - so sad.

Perhaps more important than learning how to tape is learning how to deal with "hotspots" - sore areas on your feet that you can feel are beginning to develop into blisters. Please don't ignore them. They won't go away. Stop and sort them out. My strategy for dealing with them was to change my socks, give a quick sweep out of my trainers for any sand, compeed the area, cover with zeozorb talc, and pray. When you get back to camp, clean the area completely and leave it to air. Make a decision on whether to tape it before you run the next day. Doing this should help prevent a minor irritation turn into death-by-blister.

The other common problem is black toenails. Many runners suffer from these anyway, but they can feel ten times worse when your foot has swollen to the size of a balloon. I've posted on how to deal with black toenails if blisters aren't your only friend. I personally don't think there is much you can do about black toenails, and they don't hurt as much as blisters. Just trim your toenails before you start to give them a fighting chance.

If you prep your feet (see my past post on how best to do this) and look after them while out there, you really shouldn't suffer too much from blisters. However, you may end up being one of the unlucky ones. If so, take loads of painkillers, keep your feet as clean as you can to prevent any nasty infection, and take a picture to gross everyone out with on your return!

Fixing your feet is a good website with tons of information on taping and blisters.

Monday 25 February 2013

Marathon des Sables: nutrition

You've got to carry all your kit with you so what food should you take? Bearing in mind you have to carry a minimum of 2000 calories a day and it's got to be food that you can stomach for a week, it can leave little imaginative choice.

The majority of shufflers go for high energy freeze dried food. There are a range of companies that make this tasty stuff including Expedition Foods, Mountain House , Be well, Extreme Adventure Food and Fuzion.

If you are not worried about a time, take a stove to heat the freeze dried food up. If you are after a fast time, you'll have to go cold turkey, not take a stove and just eat it cold (or borrow someone else's stove). I personally didn't mind the food. If you are hungry anything tastes ok, and you just want to shovel something quick and easy down your neck before crashing out asleep. I managed to eat my freeze dried meals fine up until marathon day five, when I just did not want to eat anything anymore. But everyone is different. As is my advice for most MDS things - try out a couple of meals before you go, and try them out on your stove, so you know how it will all work before you get there. Trust me, trialling it all after 22 miles when you are knackered and a sandstorm is brewing is not so much fun.

The alternative to freeze-dried meals are things like cous cous or noodles. However these won't contain as many calories in them so you'll need to work out how much weight they'll be.

Freeze dried food will take care of the majority of your calories. You'll also need a range of snack foods to eat while on the shuffle, and to break up the monotony of fairly unappetising meals. Some ideas for this include:-
Geo bars or other fruit/nut type bar
Protein bars
Malt loaf
Banana chips
Dried fruit - I loved dried mango
Variety of nuts
Crisps - salt and vinegar in particular
Pepperami - seems to be very popular
Energy gels or shot blocks
Hot chocolate
Fruit cake
Jelly beans

I separated my daily meals into bags so it was really easy to just take out a bag each day and know what was what. Of course, you can swap your snacks about if you're not feeling like it's a flapjack day! I stored all my snacks in my frontbag so they were easily at hand. Don't forget to keep your hand sanitiser close by too and use it before you eat anything.

I've posted here with my exact menus du jour and total number of calories taken.

Friday 8 February 2013

Marathon des Sables: hydration


Along with testing out your rucksack before you go, it is important to test out your hydration system too to make sure it works for you.

What hydration system should I take?
You have a number of choices;
Bottles on the front
bottles on the side

Side bottles fit to the sides of your rucksack. You will have to buy (if you haven't got) side pockets that fit onto your rucksack. Similarly bottle(s) that you carry on your front fit into a front pack that you will have to fit onto your rucksack.

I don't think I saw anyone with a hydration bladder. They are not that hygienic at the best of times, so add 50 degrees of heat and you could have a recipe for tummy troubles. Bottles are also easier to fill up at the checkpoints and easier to monitor how much you are drinking. Plus you can carry one with electrolytes in, and one just plain water.

I went with Raidlight bottles in side pockets, but I wouldn't recommend them. The long straw got clogged up with sand and wouldn't open, so resulted in me just taking the straw off and using it a a normal bottle. I've had a quick look to see what else is out there, and I can't find any new bottle products with long straws (so you don't have to keep removing your bottle from your side pocket). However the new WAA MDS bag complete with side bottles has now been launched and Laurence Klein (3x female winner) endorses it so could be worth a punt.

However I did prefer carrying bottles at the side rather than in the front though. It takes a bit of time to get used to running with then there. I felt a bit like a robot with zapper guns at my side!

Suggestions welcome as to other thoughts and ideas.

How much should I drink?
I drank around 150ml every 15-20 minutes, and usually alternated between my electrolyte and plain water bottle. This worked well for me. The best plan is to drink little and often as I'm sure you already know.

What else should I drink apart from water?
Electrolytes are vital in Marathon des Sables because they replace the minerals and salts lost in sweating that water cannot. It's important to decide what electrolytes you plan to use and use them before you go, as you need to get used to them. I trialled Nuun, elete, Zero and Go and ended up using elete as they were very light and didn't taste of anything, so I could stomach them better than fruit-based ones.

I used one side bottle for electrolytes and one for plain water.

Likeys stock a great range of electrolytes.

As well as electrolytes you are given a bag of salt tablets for the week. It's important to pop these like sweets as well throughout the day. One of the main reasons people don't complete MDS is not down to a lack of fitness, it's dehydration. And what a crap thing to happen to you after all those months or years of training and planning.

I also drank a recovery shake within 30 minutes of finishing a stage. These were also a nice treat to look forward to as they tasted like milkshake which was heaven out there.

How do you get your water supply?
You get given 1.5 litres at every checkpoint (roughly) and each checkpoint is around 10km. Sometimes you will be given double rations if it is a particularly hot day or strenuous section. You present your punch card at each checkpoint. It gets punched and a smiley MDS volunteer will give you your supply of water.

You also get rations back at camp to be used for washing and cooking as well as drinking.

I had plenty of water for the week. Too much sometimes.

A good tip is to mark your water somehow when you are back in camp. There will be tons of bottles sitting around so it's useful to know which is yours to lessen any problems with upset stomachs from drinking someone else's water.

Friday 1 February 2013

Marathon des Sables training: speed work

I didn't do any.....

Do you need to do any speed training for Marathon des Sables? Good question. I would hesitantly say no, if your aim is to "just" get round. If you want a top 200 place then you probably need to incorporate some speed work into your training sessions.

But what on earth does speed training mean in the context of something like the Marathon des Sables? You can't tackle it like you would a 10km or even a marathon where the aim may be to get a pb.

I'm open to suggestions on this one, but here's what a bit of research told me:

It helps improve your running economy
This means how much oxygen you use during exercise. If you are economical, you will need less oxygen. Speed work helps improve your running economy.

It increases your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max)
Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. So the higher yours is, the faster you can go without your body feeling stressed.

It helps you use lactate more effectively
Lactate is part of lactate acid. With speed training, it can be used as energy rather than converting to lactate acid.

It helps increase your flexibility
Done jointly with stretching exercises, speed work can help improve your flexibility as it works your muscles and joints through a greater range of motion.

So ultimately, speed work helps ultra runners run faster and more efficiently for longer. It helps improve your cardiovascular efficiency, muscle strength, flexibility and biomechanics. It also helps break up ultra training, which, lets be honest, can get dull plodding out those endless miles week after week.

How to include speed work into your ultra training?
Plan a speed workout the day before a long run. Your legs will be fatigued already, so training on already-tired legs will help you maintain form during multiday ultras where you will be doing this during the race.

Speed sessions should be centred on quality shorter runs (up to 10 miles), nothing longer. Start with fartlek workouts.

Then introduce speed drills e.g. 10s sprint up a hill. Rest 30s. Repeat 10 times.

High intensity training sessions are also recommended.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Marathon des Sables training: core work for runners

We all know we should do core exercises to complement cardiovascular work in our training, but there are a few key exercises that are particularly beneficial to runners.

A strong core helps provide power, stability and endurance. Ultra running in particular needs a strong middle to help us go further for longer. Why? A strong core helps to maintain both a good and efficient posture, stride and form meaning less risk of injury or decreased performance.

Core work should include the deep abdominals, back muscles and glutes. I found this brilliant diagrammatic article that shows you how and when the core muscles come into action when you run. Particularly of note to Marathon des Sablers are the uphill (glutes and lower abs needed to support the pelvis to get uphill), endurance (lower abs and back needed to maintain proper form even when fatigued).

I tried to fit in 15 minutes 3x times a week. Easier said than done, even just 15 minutes, as they are painful to do! I found it helped to do the set routine in the gym but friends say they prefer to tag it onto the end of a run instead. These are the exercises I did.

Plank - lie on your stomach and raise yourself up onto your toes and forearms. Keep your body as straight as possible. Hold for 1 minute.

Make it harder?
Raise your left leg up a few inches in the air and hold for 10 seconds. Lower and swap legs.

60 seconds on each. Rest for 15 seconds before moving to the next exercise. After completing all six, take a 3- to 5-minute break, and repeat the entire series. Try to do this routine three times a week.

Side plank - as the plank but lie on one side and lift up onto your foreams and toes, keeping your body in a straight line. Hold for 1 minute. Repeat on the other side.

Make it harder? Bring your bottom knee in towards your chest and hold for five seconds. Repeat with the top knee.

Superman - lie on your front with your arms stretched out. Raise your head, left arm and right leg up a few inches. Hold for 5 seconds then lower and repeat on the other side.

Make it harder? Go all out as fast as possible for the minute.

Bridge - lie on your back with your feet on the ground. Raise your hips so your body is in a straight line. Stablise yourself before raising your right knee towards your chest. Keep your hips stable. Return to the bridge position and repeat with the other leg.

Metronome - lie face up with your legs to one side and your arms out to the side. Lift your legs up as high as possible and arc them over and down to the other side. Repeat and return back to your original position.

Make it harder? Don't let your legs touch the ground in between sets.
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