Last Updated on April 15, 2022

If you’re training for an endurance event in the desert, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time planning for every eventuality: what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat, how long each leg of your run will take, and so on. All of these things are important, but when you’re competing in a high desert endurance event, whether it’s the Marathon des Sables or a similar desert run or off-road desert endurance race, you need to get some added elements to consider.

Running in the desert is incredibly rewarding, in part because the environment is so different from any other. But this landscape has its own set of possibilities to prepare for. The weather is, of course, hotter and drier, and the weather changes quickly. Navigation can be challenging and there is the unpleasant feeling of sand in your shoes to contend with. If you’re considering signing up for a motorcycle racing endurance event, plan ahead for these desert-specific concerns.

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Desert Running

Desert Running Tips

Hydrate early and often

Conventional wisdom says that if you’re exercising in the desert in the more moderate temperatures of spring and fall, you’ll need to consume three to five liters of water per day. That’s if you’re hiking or backpacking: if you’re running a marathon or pushing your body to the limit, you’ll need more water.

One element that is often overlooked in the desert is wind,” says Tiffany Gust of Utah TG Triathlon and Fitness Coaching. Gust holds a master’s degree in applied exercise science/sports nutrition. “Gusts up to over 30 miles per hour are not uncommon during the spring and summer months.”

This is one of the reasons you’ll need to carry more water than you think. Consider using a bladder and hose, which make it easier to drink frequently than to stop pulling out a water bottle.

Most organized endurance events have aid stations where you can fill and refill, but don’t count on those to be the only time you eat and drink. Arrive a few days before your event to give your body time to acclimate to the dry weather, and spend those days drinking enough fluids so that you’re hydrated well in advance (no need to overdo it, though, as you can go too far with this strategy where it really hurts you). On race day, bring enough water to get you from one aid station to the next without boning.

Drink more than just water

To stay hydrated, Gust says, you’ll need more than just plain old H2O to stay hydrated. The amount of salt your body loses over the course of a day in a hot, dry climate means it’s essential to replace electrolytes during physical activity as well. There are several ways to replenish electrolytes, which are essential for some of your body’s most basic automatic processes.

“Monitor the color of your urine and aim for a light yellow color, similar to a yellow post-it note,” she suggests. “Pay attention to thirst and realize that when you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”

Salty foods like chips and pretzels, which are common for long-distance aid stations, are great for replacing those salts. There are also tons of blends, powders and tablets on the market – each has the qualities to recommend them, but the most important thing is to make sure a specific supplement works for you. Play around with timing and amounts before you arrive for your event, and know that you may need to increase your frequency when you’re actually in the desert. Carry your chosen electrolyte replacement with you so you’re guaranteed to have everything you need in the field, even if the aid stations don’t come with your preferred brand or flavor.

Be wary of the sun

When you’re spending as much time outside as you need to train for a distance or multi-day event, it’s more important than ever to take care of your skin. Even a short day outside without a high enough SPF can have brutal consequences, and that phenomenon only increases in the desert, where the sun will likely beat down on you all day with little shade for cover.

For an 8+ hour day in the desert, sunscreen alone won’t cut it. You should reapply often, especially vulnerable areas like the face, back of the neck and hands as often as you can (at each aid station, if possible) and use SPF-70 sunscreen or higher.

You should also cover as much skin as possible, Gust says. “UPF clothing and sunscreen are essential for dealing with the heat in the desert,” he explains, adding that “arm sleeves that can be soaked in cold water can be very helpful.” A wide-brimmed desert hat will keep your eyes and face from bearing the brunt of harmful UV rays.

Take care of your feet

You might not think your feet are particularly sweaty, but when they’re taking you through the desert all day, things might look a little different. When the sun bounces off the sand, it can easily heat up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter during the hottest parts of the day, not to mention the fact that it will likely show up in your shoes.

With that in mind, you may want to consider running gaiters or something similar to keep sand out of your shoes and be prepared to deal with blisters early and often. Think about bringing a reduced blister repair kit (even if it’s just some tape on your trekking poles) and stop to repair address hotsspots as soon as you notice them. Foot problems can escalate quickly in the heat.

Be ready for all weathers

Weather in the desert often changes quickly and without much warning, and it doesn’t help things that you’re unlikely to find a safe place to shelter in the event of a storm. With this in mind, carefully check the weather forecast not only for possible storm events in the immediate area, but also in the area surrounding your destination, as a storm upstream can easily cause flash flooding miles downstream. Always avoid camping in washouts, and if you’ll be traveling through narrow canyons or washouts are unavoidable, plan your escape route well in advance.

Learn how to deal with sand

It won’t take long in the desert to discover one of its universal truths: sand gets into everything. It works its way through your shirt into your shoes, under your hat, between your teeth. Some of this is preventable, like wearing running gaiters to keep tons of sand from getting into your shoes, wearing shoes with more Gore-tex material and less mesh, and choosing sunglasses that wrap around your face rather than leaving the sides open to blowing sand .

But some blowing sand is simply a reality of desert travel. There’s not much you can do in terms of prevention, but you can prepare as much as possible by mimicking the conditions during training. That goes for hot weather training as well, Gust says. “Athletes like to train early in the morning to escape the excessive heat,” he says. “But if they’re going to run in the heat, some of their training has to be in the heat, so they’ll be able to tolerate it, both physically and mentally.”

Yes, an endurance event in the desert adds another layer of complexity. But it’s also what makes the challenge fun. With a little preparation, that medal hanging around your neck at the finish line will be even sweeter.


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Sandsports

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