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Marathon des Sables training

Preparing for the Big One in the Sand? Here's an early Christmas present from XNRG head coach Andy Mouncey...

A health warning

Follow this plan blindly and you will be asking for trouble. 

Take the principles and make ‘em fit your goals, the stuff you need to improve and time you have to do it in. 

If you want to take the guess work out of all that, the coaching team here at XNRG are here to help. Email and we’ll be in touch.

Your Key Milestones: Rest & Test Week No. 4, 8, 10

The Rest (from running)

  • Bike steady
  • Hike brisk-fast keeping off the big hills
  • Swim incl. backstroke and kicking on back arms extended with/out fins.

The Test

Your readiness for MdS in this plan is based on three key measures:

  1. Your ability to complete an outing, take partial rest – then do it all again (Mental toughness, recovery & personal organization)
  2. Your ability to complete time on your feet with minimal fuel (Internal economy)
  3. Your ability to operate and still think clearly with raised body temperature (heat tolerance).

Three key workouts will test your progress on these measures:

  1. Back To Back (B2B)
  2. Depletion Outings
  3. Overdressed Runs

Test Week Workout Progression Summary

  Week 4 Week 8 Week 10
Day 1 (AM)
Run as Easy - Steady - Hard
30 - 20 - 10mins x 2 30 - 20 - 10mins x 2 30 - 20 - 10mins x 2
Day 1 (PM)
1 - 1.5hrs 1 - 1.5hrs 1 - 1.5hrs
Day 1 (eve / night)
Time On Feet
  3 - 4hrs 3 - 4hrs
Day 2 (AM)
Run as E - S - H
    20 - 10 - 5mins x 2
Depletion 1.5 - 2hrs 2 - 3hrs 3 - 4hrs
Overdressed 1 - 1.5hrs 1.5 - 2hrs 2 - 2.5hrs

Plan Summary

  Week 1 Week 2 Week 2 Week 4 - Rest & Test
Conditioning x3 - 5 x3 - 5 x3 - 5 B2B
Run Out & Back 20 - 20mins 25 - 25mins 30 - 30mins Depletion
Power Hike 30mins 40mins 50mins Overdressed
Bike Strength Ride 45 - 60mins 60 - 75mins 75 - 90mins  
Cadence Run 30 - 40mins 40 - 50mins 50 - 60mins  
B2B (AM)   Run E - S - H
15 - 10 - 5mins x 2
2 x 60mins lap as speed hike, followed by long stage pace  
B2B (PM)   60mins as 30mins long stage pace / 30 mins speed hike Run E - S - H
15 - 10 - 5
7.5 - 5 - 2.5

Week 5-8 Really Running

  Week 5 Week 6 Week 7 Week 8 - Rest & Test
Conditioning 2 - 3 2 - 3 2 - 3 B2B
Run Out & Back 35 - 35mins 25 - 25mins 40 - 40mins Depletion
Speed Hike 60mins 60 - 90mins 1.5 - 2hrs Overdressed
Tempo Run 30 - 40mins 40 - 50mins 50 - 60mins  
B2B Run E - S - H
20 - 10 - 5mins x 2
Straight into power hike 40 - 60mins
  Speed hike 1 - 1.5hrs straight into power hike 45 - 60mins, straight into Tempo Run 20 - 30mins  

Week 9-12 Putting It Together

  Week 9 Week 10 - Rest & Test Week 11 Week 12 - Rest, Travel, Race
Cadence Run 40 - 60mins B2B 30 - 40mins Scenario Plan
Bike Strength Ride 1 - 1.5hrs, incl. big gear brisk cadence out of saddle on hills Depletion 45 - 60mins (as week 9) Revisit Goals
B2B Hike - Run Combo Power hike 60 - 80mins straight into Run 30 - 40mins at best pace Overdressed Speed hike 1.5 - 2hrs straight into Run 20 - 30mins at best pace Embrace it all!

Session Notes

Strength Stuff

Ultrarunning requires that you can maintain an upright a body position as possible for extended periods of time (often wearing a backpack) while moving over varied and challenging terrain. That means you need torso strength – and that means much more than doing the odd plank every now and again.

Of course you can do strength work on your own, but if you are attempting barbell work for the first time you will need qualified supervision. That means a strength-conditioning coach or a personal trainer who has Olympic lifting accreditation.

You don’t need to be down the gym three times a week either: a smart 10mins pre or post run 3-5 times a week can be transformational.

If you don’t have a gym then there are still options – email us if you want to learn more.

Done properly you will get stronger without bulking.

How strong do you need to be? Good question. You just need to be strong enough to do the job – anything else is just chasing stats in the gym.

Depletion Outings

This is where you train your system to operate on its (almost limitless) internal fuel stores as opposed to relying on you shoveling in sugar and carbs. 

Time On Feet (TOF) during which you deliberately limit/deprive yourself of fuel – though you should always carry supplies in case you have a serious wobble.

Hone this ability and you cut your fuel needs – and therefore weight and faff factor – right down. Doing this right is a project in itself and in my experience most people need more than 12 weeks to do build up safely to a half day outing.

You will find you need to slow right down and use a combination of run-walk to avoid the dreaded bonk. Pre-breakfast outings enhance the effect. 

Power Hike

Most of you will be walking the hills and a fast and efficient hike is often way easier to maintain than a run.

This session is where you get out on the hills (or stairs) and hike fast with a heavy pack and can be done repeats or a single long ascent.

You may find chest strap, boots and poles essential in the early stages.

Descending safely with a heavy pack needs skill and caution in order to avoid injury and horrendous DOMS.

If your hiking is average and your climbing is weak this is the session for you – you may only be able to handle 10mins at a time to start with and nowhere near the target load but that’s OK: start where you need to start and build.


If you’re coming out of a northern hemisphere winter then April in the desert can be a big shock. Build confidence in your ability to handle the heat by allocating some of your runs: ‘Over-dressed.’ 

The budget version is to go all Rocky Balboa and head out with lots of layers to a point of being ridiculously overdressed. Build up duration and layers as you would with any progression. Or you can sit on a stationary cycle with the heat turned up – or if you have time and money to burn you can put a treadmill into your spare room, close the windows, line the inside with plastic sheeting and turn on the free-standing burners. ‘Bet there’s a Youtube for that…

Out & Back Runs

This is where you practice pace control by making the return trip faster than the outward one.

Take a break at the turnaround to start with – say 5mins.

Progress by building duration, reducing the break and increasing the pace of the outward leg. Experienced athletes will do the first leg building to near threshold, turn round on a minute, and come back 30 seconds faster over 30 minutes. You need to build towards that and that may mean starting at 20-5-20 minutes.

Cadence Run

A steady continuous run broken every 5mins by 30 sec at your target cadence.

The benchmark is 90 paces/30 seconds: you should feel light and brisk on your feet – that might be 80-85 paces for you. It helps to use a countdown timer function on a watch.

Progress by increasing the frequency of the 30 second breaks then go to 60, 90 seconds – keeping count per 30 seconds.

Tempo Run

Pick a route on/off road that’s not too technical hilly so that you can maintain a constant pace of around 80-85% heart rate or 8/10 effort. You should still be able to talk but the sentences will be short and you will need to pause to gather your breath. You will have to be on-task for these: Throttle back on any climbs and speed up on descents to keep the effort constant.

Speed Hike

Done on flat or undulating terrain with no pack or very lightweight, with option for boots and poles – your aim is to cover the ground quickly and efficiently.

Andy Mouncey is XNRG's head coach and one of the leading thinkers on high performance. Find out more about Andy and how we coach >

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