An Introduction To Stage Races

A Stage race is a foot race that takes place over more than one day – or stage.   They typically cover between two and six stages.   Given there are so many stage races with different formats and elements, it’s a wide field to try and categorise. So here is a brief overview of what a stage race might consist of!

(Note: stage races are sometimes referred to as multi-stage races – it’s the same thing.)


Stage Races Explained

Here are some typical features of stage race, though remember that every event is different:

  • Typical distance is an average of 30-50km / day
  • Spread over 3-6 stages, or days
  • Often features one longer day, of 70-100km
  • Runners sleep in tents or other provided accommodation each night
  • There are check points roughly every 10 km, typically with water
  • May be self-supported (runners carry all food and equipment with them), supported (runners only carry a few small pieces of equipment, food is provided) or somewhere in between
  • Usually stage races are held in areas of special interest – exotic countries, challenging environments and remote locales.

Of course, not every stage race follows the above rules.  There are many great two and three day stage races, and at the other end of the spectrum are stage races that stretch on for 10 days or more.

An Introduction To Stage Races

Stage Races – Why Are They Different?

Stage races are wildly different to normal foot races, both in how you approach them and how you’ll experience them.

In a typical one day event – be it a 10km, marathon or 100km – your goal is normally to get to the finish line in the quickest time you can.  It’s one block of sustained effort, with a clear end point.  Whatever happens, it’s going to be over in just a few hours – then you can sit back, relax and recover.  Even injuries are secondary during a one day event – if you start to feel that old knee pain creep up, you can push through it and worry about it later.

Stage races are fundamentally different.  In stage races, you have to keep yourself moving forward day after day.  This means that going as fast as you can is not a sustainable strategy, and will likely get you in trouble early on.  You’ve got to constantly be conservative – hold something back for the next day, or next few days.  

You also have to become a master strategist – if you have to carry all your food for an entire week on your back, how do you decide how much you’re going to take, and when you’re going to eat it?  Carrying a 70g Clif bar in your pack for five days – or 200km, let’s say – adds up to a lot of work.  

The magnitude of the undertaking in a stage race means that many runners simply have the goal of finishing, and any element of competition is secondary to the physical challenge and the cross-country journey they go through.  

mandatory equipment

Types of Stage Race Explained

I briefly covered the different types of stage race above, now I’ll give a little more detail:

Self-supported Stage Races

Self-supported stage races mean you take everything you need for that week with you on your back – this means all your food, clothing and equipment.  Water is the provided by the organisers, as well as (usually) some form of tents or accommodation.  A self-supported race is a huge undertaking and requires a good deal of planning, testing and preparation in order to do it comfortably.  

Self-supported races can be physically and mentally challenging- you have to carry all your equipment while you run, and in the campsites you have to be entirely self-sufficient.  A typical pack will weigh around 10kg at the start of a 6-stage event, and around 6kg by the end when you have eaten all your food.

Examples of self-supported stage races include Marathon des Sables and the 4 Deserts series.

Supported Stage Races

A ‘supported’ stage race is one in which many of your needs are provided by the organizers.  They will typically transport your ‘drop bag’ from campsite to campsite, leaving you to only carry the essentials in a small pack as you run.  Meals may be provided, or there may be restaurants near each campsite.  Alternatively you may have to bring your own meals in your drop bag and look after yourself.  The level of support and comfort can vary, from staying in basic tents to staying in 4 star hotels.

Examples of supported stage races include the Burgos ‘The Way Of Legends’ race in Northern Spain, and the Global Limits series.

Global Limits Cambodia

Visit our stage race category page for more race reports and advice on stage races!

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Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of His work has been featured in Runner's World,, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and playing with his two tiny kids. More at his bio.

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