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.

Tuesday 22 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: the real fashion edit

Never looked so good

There are three outfits you will need for Marathon des Sables: your pre-start kit, your race kit and your camp kit.

Pre-start kit
This kit is what you will wear before the race begins. You have two nights and a day and a half in the Sahara before the inaugural Highway to Hell music begins and you shuffle off. Some people just wear their camp kit which is fine. I took some extra clothes that I then just left. Old jogging pants, socks, t shirt. This left my camp kit clean - small mercies. Nothing goes to waste. The Berbers who set up and take down the tents will take any useable stuff to use or sell.

Race kit
This set involves a bit more thought. From head to toe here's what to think about:
Cap - white is best, with a neck-guard. Doesn't need saying but a cap is vital.

Sunglasses - I took prescription wrap arounds which took a bit of getting used to but were better than wearing contacts.

Buff - this is a tube of stretchy thin material that has multiple uses - windguard, snot rag, hat, ear muffs. Another essential in my opinion. A lot of people also get nosebleeds because of the sand and dry heat (myself included) so it's useful to mop up yet another type of leaky bodily fluid.

Sports bra - one for the ladies.

Running top - two things to consider - tight or loose and short or long sleeved. I went for a loose short sleeved Under Armour top as I wanted to not feel restricted. My other half went for the opposite. Both were fine. Just what you prefer. Under Armour do a range of heat gear that are designed to try and help keep you cool, so they were my number one choice of brand. I just took one running top.

Shorts - same things to think about - short or long, baggy or loose. I went for short (as do most people) but took both baggy and loose. You can do the race with just one pair but I wanted to change half way through. If you take baggy shorts make sure you have worn them in as they may chaff more than tight pants.

Underwear - I didn't wear any. Eek. But some people may want to.

Socks - toe socks like Injinji are pretty standard for most shufflers. I wore ankle length ones, but did think that compression toe socks may have been a little better to help with the swelling. I then wore another pair of Hilly mono skin or Bridgedale over the top. I ended up taking the extra pair of socks off half way through the day as my feet became so swollen. Both Hilly and Bridgedale were fine, though I would probably take Hilly again as I found Bridgedale a bit thick. I took 2x pairs Injinji and 1x pair of Hilly and Bridgedale. This is a good idea as it gives 1 pair a chance to dry out and lessen the chance of blisters.

Trainers - have a full post on trainers. boom.

Gaiters - the two types people wear appear to be Sandbagger versus Raidlight. I'm all over Sandbaggers. They were great and didn't let any sand in. Do make sure you trial your trainer/gaiter combo though before you go to make sure it is sandtight. Sandbaggers will also stitch your gaiters onto your trainers for you. I bought the velcro gaiters and got the velcro stitched on but don't think it matters much as you can easily take your trainers off without removing the gaiter.

Camp kit
Windstopper - Really lightweight Montane one.

Fleece - I took a lightweight Montane fleece in a cheerful red. It was always lovely putting it on in the evening - my one bit of luxury and comfort!

Old t-shirt - curiously I took my first race t-shirt I ever got (5 miles in Leeds if anyone is interested)

Spare bra - I took a spare sports bra, but you don't really need an extra one. Let it hang out! (That goes for you mooby men as well)

Running tights - I took normal skins, but compression tights may be a good idea for the eves to help you recover.

Slippers - I took polar slippers (Trekmate) which were great as they are comfortable. However they are a bit sweaty betty. If I ever do MDS again (gawd help me) I'd take a pair of flip flops but with a strap just across the middle - as lightweight as you can as they are more comfortable than flip flops but give a bit more support on the soles of your feet in camp (it can be stony) and not as sweaty. I was given the great tip that polar slippers double up as shoulder pads for your rucksack, and are super lightweight so horses for courses.

Tyvek suit - Some people take these. They are windproof and light and easy to deal with, but not very warm so I would advise taking some sort of fleece as well if oyu decide to go with this highly fashionable item.

Monday 21 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: the fashion edit

Thumbs up to not giving a f what you look like

Just thought I'd pop out into the Sahara to test out my fab new clothes. Honestly, I don't think I could be any hotter, right?!

Just love the neon pink Under Armour lightweight tee. Just perfect for long days out with your best friend Sweat. Team it up with matching salmon and black loose shorts and all those other MDS boys will be shuffling after you.

If you are feeling a bit self conscious, why not cover up with a white baseball cap, sunnies and buff. You'll need it after a week of not washing your hair!

No outfit is complete without compulsory backpack and gaiters, natch. These super stylish accessories will finish off the MDS look nicely.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: getting used to your kit

I love my backpack!
Carrying a 10kg bag is fun!

By now you should be starting to think about what kit you are going to take (if you have not already done so). The smaller items to get matter less at present, but it is important to buy and get used to the bigger pieces. These include:-

Frontpack (if taking)
Hydration system
Clothes you will wear while shuffling

Your backpack will end up weighing between 6.5-15kg once all your kit is in there so it's important to get used to carrying it for long periods of time. However, one good piece of advice I was given was to NOT train with the heavy bag all the time, as it compromises your technique and can increase risk of injury.

I began by running (and walking) in and out of work with a lightish pack, and gradually built up the weight and the length I would carry it for, culminating in 45 miles with around 7kg and a marathon with 10kg. I began carrying a heavy bag from mid February onwards.

Because of this during MDS I had no problems with the bag (other than the obvious - it's a pain to carry and you will get sore shoulders and back. I would rotate between holding it up with my hands behind my back to pulling it forwards to release the pressure from my shoulders every few minutes!)

I also taped my shoulders where the straps sat and the top of my pelvis, where the bag tended to move, and therefore chaff. Other people taped down their spine. Over the tape I put bodyglide to prevent any further chaffing.

Another good reason to get used to your kit is you will also be testing out what works and what doesn't for you. I found that I wanted to add a small frontsack to carry easy-to-get-to items. Other people hated the idea of having extra weight in the front.

All runners know you have to give some time before a big race to get used to new trainers, so if you are going to run in a specific trail running shoe, get it soon. I ended up buying 2 different trail trainer and testing them at home inside, then I sent one pair back when I decided which felt more comfortable. I then spent the next couple of months worrying that I had chosen the right pair of trainers!

Buying trainers for MDS is a little different to normal running as you need to take into account that your feet will swell up, so you need a size or so too large. This means normal running will feel a little clumpy and you may need to wear extra socks.

Test your trainers in all conditions - mud, rain, sand, road, stones, up hills, down dunes to see how they feel and grip, and how cushioned they are.

You don't really need to get used to your gaiters, just test them out to check your combination of trainer and gaiter is sandtight. My better half found his choice of trainer was too holey and so sand was getting through, so he switched trainers. Much better to know pre-race.

Hydration system
Along with testing out your backpack for chaffiness and weightiness, is checking that your hydration system works for you. There are two options - bag or bottles. Most people I saw took bottles. Then you have the choice of carrying them in a frontsack or on the sides. I went with sides. Adding water to your rucksack will alter your balance slightly too, so do remember to trial your rucksack with full kit and full water allowance a few times to see what the difference is and how easy you can access your water along the way.

Clothes you will wear when shuffling
Not sure an essential to remember to do, but if you buy new clobber to wear on MDS, test it out a fair few times before you go to check where it may potentially rub. I've not added a post on clothing yet but will write one anyway as talking about clothes is always fun!

Sunday 13 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: key equipment

MDS kit

I've written a fair few posts of equipment already so I'll be lazy and just collate them all here for you:-

The full Marathon des Sables equipment list
The big list of what you need, with my thoughts on what I would take pre race. Split into essential and desirable kit.

List of what equipment I took and where I bought it from
Shopping list only with list of links to where to spend your pennies.

Footwear choices for Marathon des Sables
An overview of the key suitable trainers out there for MDS and what your should think about before buying a pair.

What Marathon des Sables kit worked and what didn't
A really useful post-race analysis of what kit worked for me and what did not, and why. Also contains tips on packing your bag.

Marathon des Sables: how to prepare for sand

At the bottom of the big dipper sand dune
"Big Dipper" - Near Brigend, Wales

Marathon des Sables is not all big sand dunes, but there are a fair few of them. In 2012 stages 1-3 had a lot of dunettes, stage 4 had the major massive dune (be interested if it's in this year) plus dunes in the night, stage 5 was very variable in terms of terrain - sand here and there all throughout, and stage 6 had the major dunes which was tough.

I grew to hate the smaller cutely-named "dunettes" - longer, rolling sets of sandy kilometres. I found more challenging than the big guns because it was difficult to look forwards and see a point to focus on as a goal to reach, like the bigger dunes give you.

However, on the bright side, I don't remember finding the sand as troublesome as I thought I might. Yes it is difficult to run in, but as I walked most of the time, this wasn't an issue! Plus running down dunes is rather good fun.

To get the most out of yourself in a sandy environment you need to concentrate on two things - equipment and technique.

You'll need gaiters. Obviously. If you've had your head buried in the sand (ho ho) gaiters are pieces of material (usually parachute silk) that cover your trainers and tie up around your calf to help prevent sand getting into your trainers, and thus lessening the chance of the dreaded blisters accuring.

I used Sandbaggers, which were wonderful. I velcroed them onto my trainers, then also gaffed taped them too.

An important tip to remember is to try out your gaiters before you go, to make sure they are "sandtight".

The other equipment consideration is walking poles. I did not take them, but ended up using a spare pair (unfortunately borrowed from a tent teammate who was pulled out of the race) to help with my ever-painful shin splints.

They were invaluable to me to help cope with the pain, but if I hadn't have suffered from shin splints I would have been fine without them. Having said that, poles do make a lot of difference getting up and down sand (and just anyway really). The toss up is whether you want to carry the extra weight or not.

You still have time to train with them now, but I would advise against getting them any closer to the race as you won't be used to using them.

Last year I would say roughly 15-25% had poles with them.

I found that you expend less energy and aren't actually much slower if you stick to walking up dunes.

Walking also means you have more time to locate the foot placement of the shuffler in front of you. Treading in the path of others is the best way to get up dunes, as the sand is already more compacted and stable.

I did a weekend in South Wales where the huge sand dunes are. Otherwise, just getting off road onto stony, muddy, hilly ground is great preparation for sand running too.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: how to prepare for heat


52 degrees. That's how high the temperature got last year in the Sahara. To be honest, I couldn't tell the difference between 42 and 52 degrees. It was just bloody hot.

The heat affects people in different ways. It doesn't affect some runners at all, particularly those who are already used to running in hot weather (alas not us Brits!). Others get severe heat exhaustion and end up being pulled out of the race.

I found I just felt vaguely nauseous most of the time. The heat slowed my pace down to a mere snail shuffle at the best of times too. My hands and feet became swollen and my heart hammered in my chest.

The problem with heat
Some runners are concerned with heat in the Marathon des Sables for health reasons, others for performance reasons.

Health wise the main problem with running in the heat is it makes you sweat more than normal to cool you down, and when you sweat you lose vital electrolytes and fluids. If these are not replaced effectively, you will end up dehydrated and in a mess, with muscle cramps, hallucinations, talking rubbish and in worst case scenario, being pulled from the race. This is also known as heat exhaustion.

Heat oedema is also an issue. Blood vessels have to dilate to send fluid to extremities to get rid of the heat in the body. However the heart has trouble getting it back to the centre because of gravity, meaning your fingers and toes swell up. Not usually a problem, except when you are trying to prevent the dreaded blisters!

Performance wise, you run slower in the heat. Why? Your blood volume decreases due to sweating, meaning there is less oxygenated blood to go round the body, meaning less oxygen gets to your muscles - where it's needed. There is also the double whammy of your blood being diverted to the skin to cool down, rather than your muscles, where it would normally flow to in colder climes.

How best to prepare for the heat - before
Sort out a routine for drinking and taking salt tablets. I worked on a basis of 150ml every 15-20 minutes and a salt tablet every 30-40 minutes.
Trial electrolytes before you go and choose ones that you can cope with. I choose neutral ones eventually as sweeter ones just made me feel sick.
Take more electrolytes about 3 days prior to starting.
Be aware you will run MDS slower than in Britain, and remember this when you are out there. Don't let it become a negative thought as there is nothing you can do!
About three weeks before you fly out, start a heat acclimatisation programme. The two best ways to do this in the UK is 1) exercise in a sauna 2) run in lots of clothes.
There is also bikram yoga, but I found this too humid to represent conditions, and I developed blisters from it too. Don't forget two main rules - build up time spend exercising slowly (15 minutes to begin with) and take plenty of water and electrolytes in.

What to do when you are out there
Wear a white hat with neckguard.
Wear shoes that are a size too big to allow your feet to expand.
USE your routine that you have prepared for drinking water and taking salt tablets, but do adapt it if you need to. Having a routine is good a it forces you to remind yourself regularly to drink. It doesn't take long to become dehydrated, and therefore disorientated and confused about what you should be doing when.
Smother yourself in P20 - you don't want to deal with burn skin. P20 is excellent. You only need to apply it once.

Good luck!

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Marathon des Sables: hill training

The easy bit!

Perhaps not surprisingly, Marathon des Sables has a fair few hills - both of the sand and rocky variety. Some hills are long, slow inclines. Others are brutal sharp, steep inclines.

Last year on day 4 (the long day) the organisers gave us a 2 hour climb up rocks and boulders, before traversing via a rope down the biggest dune I've ever seen.

The big dunes are infamous in MDS, but there are also cutely-named "dunettes" - smaller, rolling dunes that can last for many kilometres.

So hill training has to be a big must in any MDS programme.

Last year, outside, I concentrated on getting up long, sustained hills rather than sprinting up short ones, as that's what MDS is going to test you on.

I devised a good gym session as follows:
5 minute warm up on stepper.
15 minutes on stepper at level 8/9 effort carrying 10kg weight in bag.
15 minutes targeted strength exercises - lunges onto balance ball, one legged squats, side lie glut med lifts.
15 minutes on treadmill. 10% incline. Run 3 minutes at 8.5kmh. Rest 1 minute. Repeat.
10 minute stretching routine.

I also ran a specific hill training session 1x week, but also make sure they were included in most runs too. However, I was a little too haphazard in my approach. I think it would have been better to plan out the hill sessions 1x week so you are slowly increasing the difficulty over time, and making sure you do include specific hill training routines into your running.

I would advise working on:-
Intervals - 250m up to 1 mile. Increase sets slowly up. For 250m, I would work on 5 reps, then increase up to 5x3 sets. For 1 mile, I would work on 2 reps, then increase up to 5 reps.
Medium-long hilly running - plan an run a few routes with considerable hills. If you can get out to somewhere like to Peaks or South Downs, this would be excellent practice. Get out for at least three hours, preferably more. Don't worry about time, just think about getting up and down the hills with good form.
Weight - don't run with your pack on all the time, but do try your hill reps with your heavy pack to get the feel of it. It will shift your balance and posture, so takes some time to adjust. Plus it's much harder with an additional 10kg!

Want more hill talk? See here
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