How do you prepare for a desert ultra? With the Marathon des Sables fast approaching next month, I quiz Marina Ranger, runner of multiple desert ultra marathons (including the Marathon des Sables, the Wadi Rum Desert Ultra and the Kalahari Desert ultra), on her own training and planning strategies.
From heat training to the importance of gaiters and fuelling, we cover it all here.
After completing the 236km Kalahari Extreme Marathon in 2014, Marina Ranger was hooked. Five years on, with several more desert ultras under her belt, including a win (Wadi Rum Ultra 2017) and several top 3 finishes, it’s fair to say she does things a little differently now. “Oh my goodness, I literally do everything differently now,” laughs Marina. “The Kalahari race will always be a fond memory of mine – it’s where my passion for endurance sports started. I was really just a walker back then but being the competitive person I am, I had to come back for more and compete. One competition led to the next and now I’d like to say I compete at a high standard.”
Switching from walker to runner meant re-evaluating everything from training to kit choice, as well as fuelling options. “Going from being a walker to a runner, I needed different foods – fast-releasing energy as well as slow,” she explains. “Nowadays my training is more focused and includes – shock horror! – faster running. All of my kit has changed too, down to experience and working out what works best for me. It goes to show that with experience and research you can fine-tune your race strategy as much as you need to get the best out of your race.”
PREPARE YOUR BODY FOR THE HEAT
Savvy runners know the importance of replicating race day conditions as much as possible in training, and while it’s not logistically possible for everyone, scheduling in heat training sessions can be key to your desert ultra success. “Everyone reacts in different ways in the heat but science has proven that acclimatising to heat in the few weeks prior to a hot race allows your body to cope better by being able to maintain lower core temperatures,” explains Marina.
“For me, the most effective method of heat training is running on a treadmill in a heat chamber (usually found in university sports departments for research). This should take place two to three weeks leading up to the race in hour-long slots,” Marina explains. “5–10 sessions is usually enough but I also include bikram yoga on top of this, which is also great for recovery and stretching out tight muscles in the lead up to the race. The key is to get your heart rate up, like it would be in the desert. Both of these do exactly that for me.”
LOCK DOWN YOUR NUTRITION WELL IN ADVANCE
It sounds obvious, but your fuelling strategy should be tried and tested well before race day. “I cannot emphasise enough how important this. It’s a deal-breaker and can be the difference between reaching the finish line or not!” says Marina who always starts planning her nutrition at least three months before a race. “You need to consider a variety of elements such as food weight, flavour, quantity, how it will react in the heat, calories, balance of macros, variety of food and which food you enjoy,” explains Marina, whose own personal nutrition strategy is now spot-on. “I was tested by a doctor in my last desert race, Ultra X Jordan, which confirmed for me that my nutrition strategy is pretty on point now. My weight and fat levels didn’t change in the slightest after 5 days of running 250km in the Wadi Rum desert, whereas others lost 10kg!”
Work out your fuelling schedule
“I have a pretty military regime where I’ll eat every 45 minutes regardless of how hungry I am or what I feel like. Variety is really key for me. I like to be surprised and look forward to whatever I pull out next,” says Marina. “Enjoying desert race food is a rarity so the more interesting you can make it, the better. It’s the simple things that count out there. If I had to choose one favourite thing to eat while running in the desert it would have to be Kendal Mint Cake. It’s refreshing and gives me a good kick at the end of a long day!”
For the running sections, Marina likes Torq gels which have a high carb content and she packs a variety of options for after each stage. “When back at camp I swear by For Goodness Shakes and John West tuna sachets for high protein content and I can’t not mention peanut butter sachets [which are great] for any time of day!”
STAY ON TOP OF YOUR HYDRATION
Desert heat and physical exertion can make for a pretty ugly combination without adequate hydration, so don’t neglect your hydration strategy. “Drinking little and often is what works best for me. I have two 750ml Raidlight hard bottles with long straws so all I need to do is turn my head to drink water from them,” explains Marina. “One bottle is filled with plain water and flavourless Elete electrolyte, and the other with a flavoured High5 electrolyte tablet as I like to have the option of two different flavours. Water is often horrible and warm in the desert so I do anything to make it more desirable!”
Marina also takes salt tablets with her. “I sweat SO much; without these I would seriously suffer. I take one at each check point or every 10km,” she says.
PREPARE – PHYSICALLY AND MENTALLY – FOR RUNNING ON SAND
“Running on sand can be so demoralising. You do get used to it and also learn what tracks are best underfoot, but it zaps your energy far more than road running and slows you down massively,” Marina warns. “It’s very hard to train for sand running unless you have access to the beach or sand dunes. I’ve done very muddy trail runs, which can replicate the feeling of sand underfoot. I also know a lot of people that find poles useful, especially if you aren’t planning on running the whole thing, although I personally prefer without. A big factor here is being mentally prepared for a much slower run and accepting that.”
USE GAITERS – AND GET THEM SEWN IN
Getting tiny stones, debris and even sand in your shoes can derail your race pretty quickly. To prevent this from happening, Marina “10000000%” recommends using gaiters. “My feet would be shredded if I didn’t use them.” Her tip: “Get a cobbler to sew one side of Velcro to your shoes and the other to your gaiter so you can take them off and re-attach every day. Getting the Velcro sewn right on the rim of where the fabric and the cushioning meets is important so sand doesn’t creep into the small holes of the fabric,” she says.
UPSIZE YOUR FOOTWEAR
Desert temperatures combined with days of long distance running can lead your feet to swell in size a little. “I get my footwear just one size up. Anything more than that and you risk your feet moving too much inside the shoe which can cause blisters from the friction,” explains Marina.
Footwear is entirely personal, but Marina opts for trail shoes for her desert ultras, citing the extra traction they provide. “Although, in Marathon des Sables there is so much sand that road shoes work too,” she says. “Go for footwear that’s breathable in hot conditions and relatively flexible with a large surface area on the floor to have more to push off on in the sand. I also put elastic laces on so I can loosen them throughout the week as my feet swell and so it’s easier to put them on and take off when I’m tired!”
TREAT YOUR FEET WITH ‘TENT SLIPPERS’ OR FLIPFLOPS
After their serious effort, reward your weary (and possibly somewhat mangled) feet with a pair of tent slippers, which Marina ensures are part of her kit bag. “Always! It’s such a luxury to have something other than smelly trainers to put on at the end of each day,” she says. “Free hotel slippers do the job!”
NIX BLISTERS BEFORE THEY APPEAR
You can’t guarantee a blister-free run but you can prepare as best you can. In Marina’s case, this includes investing in “The right shoes, injini socks, a top layer sock that is breathable and good gaiters that are attached to your shoes properly. It’s also vital to treat blisters or any hot spots at the end of each day so your feet are in the best condition they could be for the next day of running.”
TRAINING – DOS AND DON’TS
As with any big endurance challenge, it’s wise to seek professional advice regarding your personal approach to training. For Marina, who tweaks the training plans her Ironman triathlon coach provides, variety is key. “I don’t like repeating sessions too much or running the same route unless I’m tracking progress,” she says. “I actually cross train as I also train for Ironman triathlons so my training includes cycling, swimming and strength training. I have one rest day a week, usually on a Monday, to recover from a big weekend of training and then typically have two sessions a day but never repeating the same discipline over two consecutive days,” she explains. While she ‘really believes’ in the benefits of cross training, Marina ensures she gets the mileage in via back-to-back runs on the weekend.
Training is personal and depends on your own experience, fitness levels and goals, but these are some of Marina’s dos and don’ts:
Do:get used to pushing outside of your ‘steady’ pace or comfort zones
Do:keep it interesting and focused so you always get something from your sessions, whether it be which gels work for you or how fast you can run a 10km
Do:stretch and include strength work in your schedule to prevent injury and keep mobile
Do:find out what works best for YOU as everyone is so different in every aspect
Do:listen to your body – don’t ignore those niggles!
Don’t: focus too much on past performance in a negative way – reflect on it, learn from it and move forwards
REFRAME YOUR NERVES
It’s natural to be nervous, but Marina’s approach is to see the race as the fun part that comes after the hard work of training has been done. “It’s the bit I’ve been waiting for months for while busting my gut in training, so I see it as my chance to relax and enjoy the experience I’ve been preparing for,” she explains. “From the minute I start racing, I focus on the process, ticking one checkpoint off at a time to the finish line each day. I always go out nervous but without ever letting the nerves get to me, so instead I try to feed off them to benefit my running.”
GO OUT CONSERVATIVELY
If you’re new to racing, go out conservatively. You can always adjust your pace once you settle into your stride. “I always go out steady and maintain a consistent pace to be as efficient as possible,” explains Marina. “I actually quite enjoy seeing people race off at the start and then aim to tick them off as the race goes on to keep me going!”
If you’re struggling, you won’t be the only one walking. “I always run to how I feel so if I feel horrendous, I listen to my body and take a short rest before picking up the pace again,” Marina explains. “My best running to walking ratio would be around 95% running to 5% walking.”
Everyone experiences tough moments in ultra-distance races and often a strong mind trumps a fit body. “I always visualise myself crossing the finish line, usually fist-pumping the air!” says Marina about her own motivation. “Once I’m racing, I never doubt that I can’t reach that finish line – otherwise it’s game over! So keeping positive and taking in where you are is important.”