How to prepare for the Marathon Des Sables

In 2012 I ran the Marathon Des Sables, a six-day 251km (156miles) ultra-marathon in the Sahara desert. This was my first ultra-marathon race and it was also the best week in my life. I absolutely loved going back to basics, carrying all my food for the week on my back, sleeping under the stars, exploring a beautiful part of the world and meeting incredibly inspiring people whilst doing what I love most – running.

If you are thinking about signing up to this amazing event (DO IT!!) or if you are already registered and are looking for training/gear/nutrition advice please don’t hesitate to contact me, I would love to help you prepare for you MDS adventure. 

Marathon des Sables Race overview

  • Location: Sahara desert 
  • Total distance: ~250km (the route/distance varies slightly each year)
  • Stages: 6 [1-3: ~35km, 4: ~80km (the long stage), 5: 42km (the marathon stage), 6: ~20km (the short stage)]
  • Terrain: uneven, rocky, stony ground, sand dunes and dried out lakes
  • Self-sufficiency: competitors carry their food, sleeping bag, clothes for the week but there are water stations along the course
  • Over-night “accommodation”: the bivouac village is set up every night with tents that sleep 8 competitors each (see picture of one of the camps taken from the air at the bottom of the page)
  • Official website: Marathon Des Sables official website

My Marathon des Sables training plan

This will really depend on your current level of fitness and your ambition for the race. I started training 6 months before the race and since I had never run more than a marathon before I wanted to focus on building up to ultra-marathon distances and doing long runs 2 days in a row. I split my training into 6 blocks and increased the frequency of runs with backpack and the weight of my backpack during those runs from block to block. I also decided to base my training plan on duration rather than mileage as I wanted to focus on spending time on my feet rather than on speed. I did long runs on Saturday and Sunday to get used to running on tired legs and I included plenty of cross training sessions (swim, circuits) to build up  strength.

Marathon des Sables gear list

  • Footwear: This is one of the most important things to get right. I saw so many people not finishing the race because of blisters and that can be avoided if you have the right running shoes. I wore Salomon Speedcross (my favourite trail running shoes!) but you will just have to find the pair that works best for you. Make sure you do the majority of your training with the pair that you are planning on wearing for the race. It is also recommended to use a pair that is 1-1.5 sizes above what you usually wear to allow for swelling of your feet due to heat.  You should also wear gaiters to avoid sand coming into your shoes. I used Raid light desert gaiters which worked really well.
  • Backpack: I used a Raidlight Evolution Light 2 (20L) backpack with a 4L front pack. The front pack was so useful for storing my water bottles and food for the day. It made it so much easier not having to take my pack off to reach for snacks during the run. 

Marathon des Sables backpack

 

  • Clothing: This is what I took with me for the race (note that the list does not include what I packed for the days prior and after the race):
    • 1 short sleeve t-shirt (which I was wearing). I took a white one which got very dirty very quickly so I recommend going with a darker colour.
    • 1 pair of shorts (which I was wearing)
    • Compression socks (which I was wearing)
    • Running shoes + gaiters (which I was wearing) 
    • Hat
    • 1 buff
    • Sunglasses
    • 1 spare underwear
    • 1 pair of leggings for the evening
    • 1 long sleeve t-shirt for the evening
    • 1 lightweight fleece for the evening
    • Towelsoft slippers (sauna style) for the evening. Avoid flip-flops, your toes will be too painful!
  • Sleeping bag: Choose a small light sleeping bag but remember that the temperatures drop at night in the desert. I didn’t use a sleeping mat to save weight but if I did this race again I would definitely use one! You can find some very light ones and your body will definitely thank you for it, sleeping on hard ground is not very nice after an 80km run 🙂
  • Cooking pot: Take a lightweight cooking pot for your food in the evening. Tip: take the lid off, you won’t need it and it will save weight. No need for a stove, you can make your fire.
  • First aid: There are first aid stations and nurses at the bivouac camps in the evening but I would recommend taking as a minimum:
    • Suncream + lip balm
    • Painkillers
    • Imodium
    • Tape to protect areas on your back and shoulder from chafing
  • Compulsory survival gear: Make sure you have all the compulsory survival gear with you before leaving for the desert. Race organisers check everyone’s equipment and you won’t be allowed to start if you don’t have the required gear. You will be sent a list of the compulsory gear with your registration pack but it will likely include:
    • 10x safety pins
    • Torch
    • Compass
    • Lighter
    • Whistle
    • Knife with metal blade
    • Tropical disinfectant
    • Anti-venom pump
    • Signalling mirror
    • Aluminium survival sheet
  • Other items to pack:
    • Drinking bottles (x2 500mL)
    • Toothpaste + toothbrush
    • Wet wipes
    • Dry anti bacteria hand cleaning gel
    • Earplugs

Food on the Marathon des Sables

Food is a tricky one. You need enough to keep your body going for 6 days but you will have to carry it all so it’s all about finding the right balance. It is important to try the food that you are planning on eating at the camp and during the run during your training to make sure it works for you.

I used “Trek’n Eat” trekking food for my breakfasts and dinners and energy gels and salted snacks (beef jerky, peanuts, salted croutons) during the runs. I also drank 2x recovery shakes as soon as I got into the camp at the end of each run. In terms of hydration I put “Nuun” electrolyte tablets in my water. I would also recommend taking mute-vitamin, magnesium (against muscle cramps) and salt tablets. You can access my food plan by clicking on this link: My MDS Food Plan

3 thoughts

  1. Josephine, this is amazing and so insightful! Thanks for sharing. I’m planning to get a bit more serious with my running/training this year so will definitely frequent your blog. Your schedules and meal plans will be really helpful!

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