Tuesday 7 February 2012

Sand dune training for marathon des sables

Something funny?
Yes it is ridiculous as it looks - but pretty funny

South of the sleepy unassuming town of Bridgend, South Wales lies the pretty sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr.

As well as being attractive they are also home to Europe's biggest sand dune - the big dipper. It's 245m long and I reckon 45 degree incline in places.

Which means....great training for marathon des sables!

View Larger Map
Map of Merthyr Mawr sand dune complex - A marks the village of Merthyr Mawr

The map above shows the region. The sand dunes range from about 3km wide to 5km across, so there is great scope for running a few circuits as well as specific dune training.

The dunes range from gently rolling to the huge big dipper. There is also a lovely stretch of flat sand to run across, which is also not very busy, as you have to get across the dunes to reach the sea - so it's just a really beautiful area to go running.

And easy on the old joints too.

Merthyr Mawr, South Wales
Very pretty (nice dog called Rolo too)

I managed three sessions there.

Day 1 - short, sharp dunes x10
Found a really steep dune and ran/slid/fell up and down it (and how fun is it to run down a sand dune? Feels like you are wearing springs)

Day 2 - medium dunes x20
Up and down a steeper dune in the snow.

Completely ridiculous but pretty good fun as well!

Day 3 - the big dipper x10 plus a circuit of dune network (maybe 2 miles total)

I have no one to compare against but to put into context I managed to jog up the whole way of the big dipper only once out of 10 times. The other nine was a combination of half jogging and half walking. It was really, really difficult.

My other half fared a little better than me, but also struggled to run the whole thing in one go too.

Half way up..still
Come on slacker I finished ages ago. Tsk.

How did the gaiters fare?
I've got Sandbagger long gaiters. Happy to say they worked really well.

I had next to no sand in my shoes after pounding up and down in deep sand.

I only velcroed them to my shoes, and the velcro was only held onto the trainer with superglue, as I haven't figured out the stitching option yet. Stitching is essential though as the velcro would have definitely come off after a full day out there, but it was fine for a few hours here and there.

Merthyr Mawr sand dunes
Happy face with gaiters

I also tried the shorter Raidlight gaiters too and these also seemed good.

I prefer the Sandbaggers though as they are really easy to put on and take off, whereas you need to take off your trainers first to get the Raidlight gaiters on, which may prove a little annoying after a while.

My other half had more troubles with sand. We worked out this was to do with his footwear, not the gaiters (as I tried his). He has inov8 Roclite 285 trainers , which are very lightweight but a little "holey". Whereas my Brooks Cascasdia 7 tend to let less sand through the air holes!

How to run up sand dunes?
Well, it's a bit of an oxymoron but the secret is to walk! Or at least take a slow, controlled jog up there.

I found that trying to leg it up sand dunes gets you nowhere, and tires you out.

The other half and I played around a bit and timed us walking versus "running" up the dunes, and it made a tiny bit of difference jogging up but not much compared to a steady walk. Plus you are exhausted at the top if you try and run the whole way, rather than being able to carry on and recover on the move.

Running up also seemed to dislodge more sand meaning you could end up slipping backwards instead of travelling forwards!

Finally, walking/short jogging strides meant you could work on a better foot placement. Following another's footprints in the sand is much better than digging your own trail up a dune. The sand is more compact where someone else has trodden so you can get a bit more traction and grip.

Position wise I found I couldn't look up as it overbalanced me - yes it was really that high! It also messed with my morale as the dunes look so steep from the bottom.

I found it easier to try and keep upright and maybe look a few steps ahead (maybe 1 metre or so) so you could see the next few strides to take. This was better than concentrating directly on the next footstep, as that meant you pitched yourself forwards too much, and I can imagine that would cause bad backache after a few hours.

All the time thinking strong core! strong core! Abs of steel! Abs of steel! Feeling like Rocky! Feeling like Rocky! Not about to die! Not about to die!

The other point to consider are walking poles. I don't have them, but I did think they would have been really, really helpful to get up the dunes. They help with balance and obtaining some grip.

Merthyr Mawr sand dunes
Yes finished!

Other sand training options for marathon des sables
There is lots of good sand training options if you have more time or scope to train on sand including...

Reps up and down different sized dunes (as per moi)
Create a big circle half way up a dune and run around and around it
Circuits around different sand densities - from stony, sandy ground to deep sand
Circuit type training - side, back running, hops over objects etc

Logistics if you go to train at Merthyr Mawr
You can easily stay in Bridgend even if you don't have a car, and jog the 2.75 miles down to the start of the dunes every day. It's a pleasant jog through the edge of Bridgend, and down a country road through Merthyr Mawr village.

However, I would recommend taking a car if you have access to it, as it means you can solely concentrate on dune sessions rather than spending time jogging there and back. It also means you can do two sessions in a day, as you can leave for lunch and come back later.

All this would be fine as well without a car if the weather is good as you could take a picnic - but it was snowing when we were there and bitterly cold, so hanging around was unfortunately not an option.

There are no pubs or cafes in Merthyr Mawr village, but there are a couple of options in Ogmore, the next village along, if you do stay out there all day and it's too cold to be outside the whole time.

There is a car park for those who have a car, and basic toilet facilities, but not a lot else so make sure you have everything you need!


  1. Kate! It is so cool to follow your steps (which I consider to be utterly crazy but am also envious of) as you prepare for the big run.

    I'm totally impressed and glad you're sharing it all here. I've fallen down a few sand dunes in my time -- that is fun.

    But running for a gazillion miles through a desert - well, only the brave or crazy would do that. I'm behind you all the way... yep, quite far behind. Yep, sitting actually. Watching my laptop from the sofa.

    When you do the run itself will you have a chip that lazy folks like us can track online, like when they tag migrating sea turtles?

  2. Ooh good idea Mike, maybe a chip with a microphone so we can send you messages of encouragement on your journey Kate!? :) Amazing stuff.

    Loving the blog... the first one I've ever got round to reading so thanks!

  3. Thanks for your support guys! I will investigate a chip for lazy folk to sit back and watch me suffer sllooowwwllllyyyyy across the Sahara. I have a tracker on my iphone so perhaps it can be done! Failing that I will send regular tweets and blog updates to keep you all enthralled!

  4. Hi Kate, came across your blog quite by accident - I took part in Des-Sables 19 in 2004 and loved every minute of it. Wish you the very best of luck. Regards Chris Edon.

    1. Thanks Chris - I'm pretty nervous now. I hope the heat and my feet behave! Glad you enjoyed it - gives me hope that I will too :-)

  5. Great blog. I'm training for MdS 31 and hopentonget down to Merthyr Mawr pretty soon

  6. Good luck! Sand dune training is good fun

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