A Guide to Multi-Stage Racing

multi stage racing

Multi-stage racing can often be an over-looked type of event in the ultra calendar. With many runners choosing to focus larger events like 100kms or 100 milers, multi-stage racing offers people something very different. With Run Larapinta just around the corner, I’d thought I’d pen a few thoughts based on my own experience at the Marathon des Sables some years ago now. Contained in this article is some advice and knowledge around the types of things you need to consider if you’re about to embark on one of these challenges for the first time. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s what I’d regard as the essentials to get you going. So here are our five tips for multi-stage racing.

Winners are grinners – I was lucky to be in a tent full of great guys, all of whom finished. There was a positive spirit and great camaraderie with four English and four Scottish guys.

1.) Get your head straight

For many, simply getting their head around the notion of doing a marathon a day in some form of inhospitable terrain can defeat them before they’re even at the start line. I know because I’ve been there and thought the same thing before I did my first multi-stage race at the Marathon des Sables.

So how do you prepare? I have two very simple techniques that I use not only in multi-stage racing, but also any form of ultras. The first is to break down the days one by one and then the distances too. If you start thinking about the 84kms you have to run on day four on day one, you’re going to really lose the plot. Ignore that day for now, focus on what you’re doing in the here and now – the 42kms you’re faced with today.

Then take this one step further. If you find your mind drifting 10kms in with another 32kms to go, bring yourself back to the present. Look at your surrounding, try to ignore the future and how far there is to go. Splash some water in your face, look at some rock formations or the magnificent sand dunes around you. Whatever it is, distract yourself from the future and stay in the present. That’s also a really good lesson to learn in life as well. So many people live life in the future and forget what it is they’re doing now and how that makes them feel.

Top tip: Use these mental visualisation techniques in your training as much as you can.

2.) Get the body used to running tired

You have to keep plodding hour after hour, day after day… get your body used to it.

Many people find it hard to know how to train properly for a multi-stage event. Just how do you keep getting the body back up and running day after day?

The body is far more capable of stuff than we give it credit for. While we may think we’re at the end of our tether and have no more to give, the reality is that our bodies (or rather our brains) rarely allow us to go up to the edge and right over it. There’s always a little bit in reserve – it’s simply understanding where your reserve lines are. A group of us always used to wonder how much fun it would be to watch how fast those poor souls who cross the finish line in a heaping mess on the floor after an ultra, would run if we crept up to them with a snake in our hands. Despite having run 100kms and appearing to be on their last legs, writhing around in ‘pain’, nearly all of them would bolt faster than a bullet. The lesson here is to trust your body and know that you’ve always got something in the tank.

In terms of preparing your body for this onslaught of tiredness, the simple answer is to replicate what you’re going to do in a race. Build up your distances and get as many back to back runs in as you possibly can. That means investing time over the weekends and running 30-40kms on a Saturday and then another 40kms+ on a Sunday. Follow this up with a 15-20kms run on a Monday morning before work. If you want to know what tired is, do that two or three weekends on the trot and you’ll start to appreciate how your body is going to feel during race week.

Top tip: Build up to doing back to back running, ramping up the distances slowly.

3.) Get the right gear

This is really important for multi-stage racing because if you choose wrong, then you’re stuck with it for a week. Shoes are the biggest decision you’ll make. There’s no hard and fast rules about which brand to wear, just go with what feels right to you and match it to the terrain you’re running on too.

Choice of backpack is also another biggie. I have a rule here in that the bigger the pack you choose, the more you’re going to fill it. For the MDS I chose a 20 litre Aarn (back in the day before Salomon) and I managed to get an entire week’s food and sleeping gear in it.

Another tip is to go light. Remember, every extra pound or ounce is going to cost you in terms of time. The more you weigh, the slower you go, simple as that. You’ll also need far less than you think you’ll need too. So many people take stuff they never use and are then seen dumping it all on the later days. Choose your gear, lay it on the floor and then take all the mandatory gear away to one side. Look at what’s left and then ask yourself if you really need it? For example, you don’t need two running tops. All you need is one running top and a basic sowing kit to stitch it up if it tears. The same goes for running shorts and socks too.

Top Tip: Lay all of your gear out in front of you and ask yourself if you really need it?

The campsite can sometimes appear like a war zone by day five with the contents of people’s stomachs placed randomly within a square kilometre of the camp! Tread carefully!

4.) Food and hygiene

Again, there are no rules here about what to take with you on your multi-stage race. There are so many options available now to runners, it’s more of a case of going with what you enjoy eating. Things can get pretty basic out in the race, so a bit of variety is not only good for the body, but also mentally too. There’s nothing worse in these races having slogged out a 50km day to be met with the same food you’ve been eating for the last four days.

That said, if you’re aiming to put in a good performance, it’s important to go ‘light’ again. By that, I mean don’t be loading your pack with tins of beans and chilli! Noodles are a great light-weight snack, so to are the various recovery drinks now on offer too. Keep it fresh and mix it up too.

Hygiene is a massively important factor to consider. One of the biggest causes for DNF rates in these races is not blisters or injury but people succumbing to stomach viruses by not keeping their pots, pans and hands clean. Take a little bottle of antibacterial hand wash with you, it’s probably the most important piece of kit you’ll carry. Santise your hands every time you touch something, be it food, someone else or your own arse 🙂 Toilets are an optional extra in these races i.e. you go where you can.

I can’t stress this one enough – have dirty hands at your peril. I distinctly remember in the MDS the night before the long stage of 90kms. One by one, each of my tent mates got up during the night for a vom or a case of ‘the runs’. It almost destroyed one of our guy’s races, and he was only saved by having a couple of drips to hydrate him.

Top Tip: Do not go anywhere without your hand sanitiser.

Do everything with a smile on your face – it makes life much easier.

5.) Go with the flow and enjoy yourself

As much as we like to be in control, set ourselves targets and achieve things, it’s just as important to simply run according to how you feel or what you can give. When you’re running in races, take a look at how many people run with their heads down. Indeed some are focused, but how many are taking the time to look up and enjoy what’s going on around them?

Similarly, don’t get too caught up with times or splits for each day. One day you might be slower, another day faster – multi-stage racing is such a mixed bag and something quite alien to our bodies, so we all react quite differently in a variety of different situations. Simply learn to trust your body and what it’s feeding back to you. Smile whenever you can and keep a positive state of mind – likewise, don’t share your ‘digs’ with any negative people – it breeds and spreads fast and you don’t need anyone bringing you down in your race.

Top Tip – Smile!

We hope this little starter for ten has given you something to think about and get the running juices flowing ahead of your first or indeed, next multi-day event.


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4 thoughts on “A Guide to Multi-Stage Racing

  1. Thanks for the advice Dan. I am taking part in the BRR, but walking it with 2 mates. Should be an interesting experience!!

  2. Fantastic tips! I think the one about hand sanitizer and personal hygiene is so important and yet easy to overlook when we’re trying to whittle down our pack contents.

    Stage racing is amazing fun and a great way to explore somewhere new and to be immersed in that environment. However, there isn’t that much information out there on how to prepare. I’ve put together a rough guide that may help new stage runners too: http://www.dwrowland.com/p/preparing-for-multi-stage-races.html.

  3. Awesome!! Thank you for the reassurance! I’m also doing BRR in 3 weeks .. very pumped for this experience, and after having read your article .. I know I’ve done all I can to prepare for this unknown challenge!! Love your work guys, run happy!! 😀

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