Training for the Big Red Run (and other multi stage desert races)

 In Running training

The Big Red Run is the next race on my race calendar so I thought I would share how I plan to go about training for this multi stage desert race. It is a similar format to most of the multi stage desert races around the world, with 4 shorter days of 30-42km, and then a long day of 84km.

Whenever I look at designing a training plan for a race, I analyse what factors are most important for that race, and each individual and plan accordingly.

For a multi day race there are a few key factors training should be focussed around:
1. Improving running economy
2. Decreasing risk of injury
3. Ability to run long several days in a row
4. Increasing endurance
5. Race specific training
6. Improving fat burning ability
7. Time on your feet

Let’s look at each of these in detail and see what they means in terms of training.

Running economy
The less energy you burn at a given pace the longer you can keep that pace up for. Improving your running economy is important no matter what race you are training for, but even more so on a multi day race, when you have to back up running day after day.

How do we improve running economy?
It comes with time – the more miles we run the more our economy improves. But one of the best sessions to improve economy are long tempo runs. Running fast in a fatigued state helps trigger the adaptations that improve economy. So sessions like 3 x 20 minutes hard with 3 minute recovery are very beneficial.

Reducing risk of injury
In a multi day race there is nowhere to hide from any niggles or injuries. Any weak spots will get found out. That tiny niggle you feel at the end of a long run in training becomes a race threatening pain after 3 days of long runs.

It’s important to really listen to your body in training, identifying any weak areas, and taking action. Whether that action is massage, a few trips to the physio or a regular strength training routine depends on the individual. But do all you can to reduce any niggles you feel in training before the race.

Heading on up (photo courtesy Greg Donovan)

Heading on up (photo courtesy Greg Donovan)

Running long day after day
The ability to back up on consecutive days and be able to run well depends on how well conditioned you are. As the days go by, the damage to the legs mounts, and your ability to run well decreases.

How can we increase our ability to run well on day 4 and 5?
The more miles in the legs, the more they will tolerate, but it’s not just about running lots of miles. If the goal is strengthening our legs so they can handle running several days in a row then we need to look at the type of training that can stimulate the legs to be able to tolerate greater demands on them. Running more miles is one way but so is run-specific strength training and so is downhill running.

Running downhill, especially fast, places a much greater load on the legs than running on the flat. So building up to some specific downhill training means you can spend less time running for the same benefit as running lots of miles. Be warned downhill running is hard on the body and needs to be built up slowly.

Back to back runs are also a good way to force the body to adapt to a greater running load. My definition of back to backs isn’t running two days in a row. It’s running in the evening on one day then morning the next. How long you run for and what kind of runs these are depends on your conditioning. If you can build up to a hard tempo run in the evening and a long run the next morning your legs will be in good shape for the race. For more information on tempo runs see tempo running for ultrarunners

Increasing endurance
Everyone knows the long run is of vital importance but how long and at what pace? First of all forget pace. It is meaningless in the desert (as it is on most trails) as it will vary so much according to the terrain. If you base your long runs on pace you will become unstuck in the desert.

Long runs should feel easy and you should finish feeling like you can do more.

Walk the walk
One factor many people don’t take into consideration in the long run is walking. It’s highly likely you’ll be doing some walking during the race so you need to train for it. Adding walking breaks to your long run also means you can cover more distance and spend more time on your feet with less stress on your legs and less chance of injury. Compare a non-stop 3 hour run with a 4 hour run where you walk for 2 minutes every 18 minutes. You end up running for 3 hours 36 minutes but I bet you feel better after the 4 hour sessions than the non-stop 3 hour run.

How long?
As long as you can handle and still wake up next morning feeling like you could go for a run with no more soreness than any other day. Ideally given that the longest day in Big Red Run is 84km a run of 40-60km is long enough. The lower end of the scale is if you are don’t have a few years of conditioning in the legs and the upper end if you’ve been running ultras for a while and know that you can handle that distance without any soreness. For more information on the long run see the long run

Race specific training
Each desert race has its own challenges. The Big Red Run is run on a number of different surfaces, from sandy roads to gibber plains to sand dunes. Your long run should aim to reflect as close as possible the terrain you will be running on during the race.

The long, flat road ahead (photo courtesy Greg Donovan)

The long, flat road ahead (photo courtesy Greg Donovan).

Increasing fat burning
The more fat you can burn, the less reliance on carbohydrate and the less calories you need to carry, and the less chance of stomach problems. What’s the best way to improve your fat burning systems? Do your long run on no calories, just water. You should be able to do 3-4 hours or more on nothing but water. This may take time to build up to and most people will need to slow down the long run pace a bit, especially if you are coming from a marathon background.

Time on your feet
Many people will be wondering if there training is only 80km a week how will they cope with running 250km in a week. The bigger the gap between training and racing the more potential for something to go wrong. How can you decrease that gap without increasing risk of injury or taking up too much time? We all have families and jobs that take up time as well! The best way is to walk as much as possible. Walk every day, walk to work, walk to the shop, find any excuse to walk you can. It’s all time on your feet and helps prepare your body for covering extreme distances in the race. When you do walk don’t stroll – walk fast. For many people walking will be how you cover a good percentage of the race so the more walking you have done beforehand the better. People tend to think if you can run then you are fit to walk. But walking is a different movement to running and needs to be trained for as well.

What a weekly program might look like
Keeping in mind we are all different, have different capacity to handle training, have different amounts of time available to train so this is a guide to how training might look:

Monday – 90 minute easy run
Tuesday – Hill repeats – 60 minutes with 5 x 5 minutes hills building up to running fast on the way down
Wednesday Strength training + 60 minute walk
Thursday – 90 minute run on sand – easy
Friday – Tempo run 90 minutes with 3 x 20 minutes hard
Saturday – Long run – 4 hours – easy
Sunday – 60 minute walk – Strength training

I’ll stress again this is a guide – some people may never be able to handle that much training – others can handle more, so tailor it to what your body is capable of.

See you in the desert!

Recommended Posts
Showing 5 comments
  • Des

    Cheers Andy …. very insightful

  • David Williams

    Thanks Andy; plenty of food for thought!!

  • Shaun Brewster

    Good article Andy, I agree with pretty much everything you have said here and would give the same advice.
    Have a great race!

    • Andy DuBois

      Thanks Shaun

  • Ultramouse

    I ran MDS in 2013. I did all of the above and was feeling well prepared by the time I hit Morocco.
    It all came unstuck on Day 4, the long day. I finally realised that I had been slowly starving myself by a) carrying the bare minimum number of calories allowed by the organisers and b) thinking I was tough enough to carry it off.
    The way around this is to be more scientific in your approach to energy requirements (at 79kg I needed a bit more than the skinny Moroccan superman who won) and spend each evening scrounging for unwanted food – nicely, of course.

Leave a Reply to Shaun Brewster Cancel reply