Stage races (also called multi-stage races) are completely different animals from regular, one-day races. Be it the Marathon des Sables, a 4 Deserts race or any of the other stage races popping up, you have to be able to run well over several days – which takes a lot of training and conditioning. Here, I look at how to increase your physical endurance for a stage race, how to put together a stage race training plan (with a free one for you to download) and what specific types of training you should focus on.
Stage Race Training
Training for a stage race is a huge subject, with no ‘one size fits all’ approach. In this post, I’ll focus on what the typical training regimes are, which areas of training are important – and which are not.
I look at the various building blocks that should make up your training plan, and give my example training plan. But – this section is more guidance than prescription. If you asked 100 runners about their stage race preparation, you would get 100 different answers. Everyone has different backgrounds and ability levels, and everyone has different expectations of what it means to be ‘race ready’. I’ll focus on the areas I feel are important to get your body ready to cover serious distance, day after day, while minimising discomfort.
Many runners neglect cross training, or any kind of strength training. To me, this is a mistake – I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve found that following a strength training programme really helped my endurance in the latter stages of my stage races. I cover this a little more in the Cross Training blog I published recently.
There should be various elements to your run training, in order for you to strengthen your running base and build up your mileage – here are the important ones. Note that I haven’t included any kind of interval training or tempo work – you can include these if you wish, but building speed really isn’t the goal here. I discuss this a little bit later on.
Note for walkers: many people simply walk or march for the majority of a stage race. If this is your intention, great! You don’t need to focus so hard on running during your training. However, you should still use some of the activities discussed below to build up your base hiking fitness – for example, you should get used to doing a long hike every week in order to build up your endurance, and do ‘doubles’ (two hikes on two consecutive days) so your body gets used to moving on worn-out legs.
What are the goals of my running training?
The goals of your running training should be:
- To build up a strong running endurance base that allows you to cross long distances with minimal issues or injuries.
- To build up a level of endurance that lets you get up and run day-after-day on a five or six stage event.
The amount of run training you need will depend on what your base fitness level is, and what level you want to be at when you start the race.
A simple rule of thumb for a stage race might be that prior to the race, you should be able to:
- Do a long continuous run of 60-70km (say 80% of the longest stage of your race)
- Run two back-to-back marathons on consecutive days.
Now let’s look at some of the building blocks of a good stage race training plan:
Weekly Long Runs
A staple of every good distance runner’s training programme. I normally do these on weekend mornings when I have plenty of time. They help you gradually increase your maximum mileage. Pace during these long runs is not important, unless you’re training to compete. I gradually increase the mileage until 1 month before the event, when I peak – at say 60km.
Performing two long runs on consecutive days. Again, these are important part of training for multi-stage events – you want to get used to waking up and running on tired legs. Do these over Saturdays / Sundays in the months leading up to your race (I normally tie these in with the long run – I’ll do the long run on a Saturday and a shorter run on the Sunday, in order to get my legs used to running when they’ve been used the previous day).
Your typical 10km run, at a comfortable pace is a great training tool – you can bash it out a couple of times per week, in the morning or after work – without having to think or apply yourself too much. These complement your weekend long runs very well, by keeping your legs active and topping up your training.
Increasing Your Mileage
When you are starting out your stage race training, it’s worth following The 10% Rule. This is an old rule of thumb that says runners should only increase their mileage by 10% each week in training to avoid over-training injuries. While it may seem a little conservative, it helps ward off over-training and can give your training plan some structure.
Running With a Pack
If you are preparing for a self-supported race, you may be considering training with your pack. Having spoken to several ultra-runners and race doctors about this, the consensus seems to be that training with a 10kg pack too much will hamper your running form and increase the chance of injury. The upside of running with a pack is that you get used to knowing how it feels, you can try it out and make any adjustments to minimise chafing, and feel a bit more comfortable. Therefore, during stage race preparation I typically run with my pack only once per week – usually just for a 10km.
They happen. You shouldn’t run through pain if it persists during exercise. However, rather than let them stop you in your tracks, be proactive – get the problem diagnosed by a reputable physio and work on fixing it. Most injuries related to running shouldn’t stop you from running as long as you are addressing it.
It’s always surprising how few distance runners actually cross train – many just get up and run, maybe with a few minimal stretches. However, a proper cross training regime can not only strengthen the rest of your body, but can up your running game too. It makes you much less injury prone and will improve your performance.
When you’re in training for an event, free time to train can be a luxury in-between everything else in life – and actual running will always be the most important form of training. It’s a fact that some of us just don’t have the time in our schedules for any form of cross training – but if you can squeeze in just an hour or two a week, the results will show themselves during your event. I personally have found that working out in the gym has had a significant impact on my endurance, which helps a lot when you’re several hours into the long day of a stage race.
Check out my recent article on cross training for runners for more advice on cross training, especially gym work.
Stage Race Training Plan
(scroll down to get straight to the downloadable training plan)
A training plan can be a great tool when you’re preparing for a stage race. A good plan will give your training schedule structure and allow you to gradually build up your endurance.
Not everyone needs a training plan – many stage racers already know that they’ll go for a 2hr long run every weekend, a couple of 10km’s through the week and a gym session if they can squeeze it in. If you’re in this camp then that’s cool, no worries.
Having a stage race training plan can help you in the following ways:
- They are a great motivational tool – once you have drawn up your training plan, you no longer have to decide when you are going to work out, or what you’re going to do – the decision has been made for you already. A training plan takes any ‘decision fatigue’ out of the process.
- A training plan allows you to structure your mileage increases. Say, for example, you are following the 10% rule. This means your mileage will increase by no more than 10% each week – this ‘rule of thumb’ is an effective way to prevent over-training and burnout / injury.
- With a training plan, you can schedule days off for specific things, and move your training to suit. You can also plan out how you are going to taper, schedule in rest days, your cross training, etc. For those who enjoy recording and studying their work-outs, training plans are great.
At the end of this article, I’ve provided a link to an Excel-based training plan which you are free to download and customise however you like. It incorporates all the elements I discuss and recommend in this post.
Build Endurance, Don’t Focus on Pace
Pace training is a big deal for marathons, ultramarathons and one-day events. When it comes to stage races, it’s not such a big deal (unless you are aiming for a podium place, that is). In stage races, endurance trumps pace every time.
The key to a successful stage race is consistency – whether that’s walking, running, or a blend of the two. In a normal marathon, you can push your body well beyond it’s comfortable limits for a few hours – after all, you can spend the next week relaxing. In a stage race, the opposite is true. You want to move at a pace which you can maintain for most of the week.
With this in mind, I don’t recommend worrying about your minutes per mile when preparing for a stage race. Instead, I’d look at doing your run training at a comfortable pace, where you push yourself only to the level of slight discomfort. Another way of describing this would be to call it a ‘conversational’ pace – a speed at which you could hold a conversation.
The truth is that most stage race runners don’t over-analyse things like pace. Who cares if you can run at 10km/hr for the first two days, if it means you are limping by day four?
Focus on building up the time on your feet, and your body’s ability to keep going after hours of running – rather than speed.
What should be your peak mileage during training?
This depends on a lot of factors, mainly how fit you were when you started training, how much time you have to train, and what condition you want to be in at the start line.
A good rule of thumb is that prior to your stage race, you should have completed:
- At least one 50km run (preferably 60-70km)
- Two back-to-back long runs of around 42km on consecutive days.
Tapering For Stage Races
First off, why taper?
U.S. mountain-running champion Nicole Hunt sums it up as follows:
Tapering helps “bolster muscle power, increase muscle glycogen, muscle repair, freshen the mind, fine-tune the neural network so that it’s working the most efficiently, and most importantly, eliminate the risk of overtraining where it could slow the athlete down the most . . .studies have indicated that a taper can help runners improve by 6 to 20%”
The length of your taper depends on your underlying athletic ability, and the amount of training you typically do.
I’d typically look to reach the peak of my training around 3-4 weeks before the start of the stage race, and start to wind things down from there. I decrease my mileage incrementally each week and replace running and high-intensity training with swimming, yoga or light stretching.
– Mileage. Each week of your taper you should decrease your weekly mileage by 20-35%.
– Long Run. These should decrease in length significantly – if you peaked at 30 miles, then your next long run should be around 20 miles, then 12 miles, then an 8 miler a week before the race.
– Conditions. Avoid steep hills, rough terrain or anything unnecessarily challenging that could lead to injury.
Training Plan – Download Here
I’ve put together a six month stage race training plan which you can download here. It’s Excel-based and fully customisable.
The idea is that you can adjust the workouts to suit your fitness level, goals and schedule.
I hope it’s of some guidance to you, but don’t take it as gospel – every stage race runner approaches training in totally different ways, I’ve just tried to capture a good general form and share it.
If you have any questions or comments about the training plan, please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Some notes on the training plan:
- The training plan is over six months, so starts off quite lightly (3-4 10km runs per week).
- As pace isn’t essential for stage race training, I have not included any recommended pace and mainly made the runs time-based as opposed to distance based. The one exception to this is the long runs on Saturdays, which I have given set distances to cover – this is to ensure you reach the criteria of completing certain distances in preparation.
- Your weekends will be busy. I’ve scheduled the longest weekly runs for Saturdays, and a shorter run for Sundays. This is called running “doubles” – doing back-to-back long runs to get your body used to running long distances on tired legs.
- I’ve scheduled two cross training days per week, and one rest day per week. If you wish, feel free to take two rest days and only cross train once.
- I’ve assumed a taper of 4 weeks. This should suit most stage racers, though the more experienced runners may wish to have a shorter taper.