Marathon des Sables – a coach’s perspective

The end of the journey

Tired, sore and very happy

Tired, sore and very happy

At 11.32:11 on Saturday 13th April 2013 Martin and Angela White crossed the final finishing line of the Marathon des Sables.  They had run and walked 232 Km across the rocks, mountains and dunes of Morocco in an overall time of 46H35’18”.  They were very tired, very sore and very happy.  You can read about their experiences here.


The beginning

Their journey started over a year before, when they entered  the MdS and decided to start training properly.  They were already used to endurance events, but on mountain bikes.  They weren’t really runners.  To start with they used a generic training plan, but this was inflexible and, frankly, boring and unrealistic.  After their first few weeks of this schedule, and an overlong run, they were tired, dispirited and injured.

Then they contacted me, Lecky.  I’m a coach.  At first they were interested in some technique tips.  But, after some discussions they asked me to coach them.  We talked around their experience, commitment and time availability and I wrote their first plan at the end of April 2012.  They both work strange shifts in the NHS, but this was both an issue and an advantage.  They often had time off together during the week, so could be scheduled to do specific harder runs then.  However, they often worked weekends, so the traditional Sunday long run wasn’t always possible.  No two weeks were the same.

Introducing structure

The first thing we had to do was to put some structure into their running, whilst giving enough time to recover.  The strategy was to get them running faster, but starting to build in the longer runs for endurance.  As we got closer to the MdS the quantity of speed work would dip and the length of the long runs would increase.  Initially, each week included a speed endurance session, a tempo run and a long steady run.  As they were keen mountain bikers, we used a MTB ride to build endurance where possible.  The overall schedule was progressive and periodised, with regular easier weeks.

They both had various niggles in the first couple of months.  They were lucky that they could always get these diagnosed quickly, and they started seeing Sue Read, a fantastic Sports Masseuse based in Keswick.  These cleared up and were not serious enough to prevent them getting into a regular, consistent training regime.

We used Skype to talk most weeks, and Garmin Connect so I could see what they had done.  This was particularly helpful when they started do reps.  I was able to see the speed and heart rates and get them to adjust these so the efforts were more consistent across the whole session.  One of Martin and Angela’s greatest strengths was their willingness to take feedback and apply it.

Learning to run downhill

Angela descending

Angela descending

In late July we met on top of a windy Latrigg to have a technical session on uphill and downhill running.  This turned out to be a key turning point for both of them.  When I asked what had been the best part of the training schedule after the MdS they said the hill sessions.  The Latrigg session left them better able to cope with descending on rough ground and the subsequent hill sessions practised this.  At the MdS they were able to use the descents to make up ground without tiring.  This contrasted with many others who found the descents scary, which made them brake, which makes the legs much more tired than is necessary.

Building endurance

We started to increase the long runs, mixing walking and running.  We increased the number of consecutive day’s exercise.  Starting with a mix of long runs and long MTB rides before moving on to two consecutive days of long running.  At this point we cut the length of the days from 3.5 hours down to 2 hours.  September was a hard month, leading to the, mainly off road, Kielder marathon in early October.  For both this was an excellent test and they passed with flying colours.  After a recovery period training set off in earnest again.

Getting sandy

Into the dunes

Into the dunes

At the end of October we met up in a sand dune area near Barrow to have a first go at running in dunes.  We started with some compass work, as they would need to be able to use a compass at the MdS.  They learnt how to take and set bearings, and how easy it is to run off a bearing if you aren’t concentrating.  Then we went for a run in the dunes.  My plan was to show them how best to get up dunes and how easy it is to run down them.  After some trepidation at first they ended up throwing themselves at speed down the steepest dunes.  They reported back after the MdS that there were even marshals trying, and failing, to stop them running down the steepest dunes.  The gist of our session was “you can’t hurt yourself falling down a dune”.

Managing injuries

December was a bad month for Angela.  She developed a strange injury that may have been caused by her walking into something at work.  This took the next couple of months to recover from, although Angela did manage to do some exercise in this period.  Our email exchanges were mainly related to diagnoses and treatments at that point.  Martin also struggled with tiredness through January, perhaps linked to a period of illness around Christmas.  We talked, emailed and texted often and managed their schedules accordingly.  The benefit of having a personal coach is that they could talk through all this and I could reassure them and change the schedule to fit.

We met up again at the end of January.  This time we did an interval session in Fitz Park in Keswick.  This session allowed me to push them harder than they would normally push themselves.  They left with a better understanding of what they are capable of when it comes to running faster and pushing themselves.

The final build up

February was a better month for both.  Even though the long runs weren’t quite as long as I would have hoped, they were able to train consistently.  The weather wasn’t all that helpful.

Just like Lanzarote

Just like Lanzarote

The final block of training was to be in Lanzarote, finishing three weeks before the start of the MdS.  The schedule included long runs on consecutive days, running in the sand dunes on Fuertaventura and a night run.  All the running was with packs on.  They completed all of this without difficulty and came back ready to go.  Lanzarote is a perfect place for an MdS training camp as there is a range of suitable terrain to run on and access to big dunes using a short ferry.  The only thing we would have changed is the temperature – it wasn’t really hot enough.

Finally they tapered off their training and set off to the MdS.


It is at this point that a coach can do nothing but check the results daily and hope.  When they finished the final stage I was really relieved and very proud of them.  It was their commitment to completing their training schedules that gave them the fitness to complete the MdS.  It was their mental strength that allowed them to finish, despite some pretty serious injuries.  The training gave them the confidence that they could run all day if they needed too, but this only reinforced an amazing inner strength that was already there.

I am very proud to have coached Martin and Angela.  Despite the fact that Martin enjoyed the process of training properly to be a runner, he has decided that cycling is his sport, but still intends to do some running.  I am pleased to say that Angela is going to carry on pushing the boundaries of her running, and that she has asked me to be there to guide her.

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