Last Updated on October 11, 2022

What makes running in the desert so special? Running on sand takes more effort than flat surfaces, on top of that, temperature in the hot desert can rise up to 50°C during the day when the sunshine is bright, and then quickly drop to 3°C at night. The terrain is varied between dunes, stony plateaus, trails, small bumps, with dangerous animals hiding and ready to sting…

So, in this environment, the runner is really put to the test! Taking part in a desert marathon is challenging and definitely not for everyone, but it surely can be a unique and very rewarding experience to try at least once.

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Running the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert
Toti Fernández at teh Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert, 2003. Photo courtesy of Kaisove.

Desert Marathons

The story of desert running began in 1984 when Patrick Bauer, a Frenchman with a passion for marathons, managed to complete the crossing of the Moroccan Sahara solo for the first time. Two years later, in 1986, the first Marathon Des Sables was organized: a desert marathon that retraced Bauer’s exploits.

Right from the start this race, nicknamed “The Legendary”, became part of the great ultra-marathons, becoming an appointment to do at least once in a lifetime for all ultra-racers. To make the race even more epic, as if running 250 kilometers in the desert were not enough, runners must be self-sufficient in terms of food: this means that there are no refreshment points along the route as in the classic marathons.

Participants are given only 9 liters of water per day, with which they must do everything: drink, eat and, when possible, wash themselves. Food is entirely the responsibility of the individual athletes, who must bring all the necessary to eat in their backpack.

Marathon des Sables – Sahara Desert, Morocco

The Marathon des Sables (French for “Sand Marathon”) is a multiday, 251 km (156 mi) ultramarathon which is held every year in the Sahara desert of Morocco, and is considered the thoughest foot race on Earth.

This grueling seven-day stage race put even the most experienced runners to the test. Participants must deal with extreme weather conditions and an average daily temperature of 104F (40°C), which drops sharply at night as typical of desert climates. Strong winds and sandstorms are common. This in addition to the rocky terrain, sand dunes, the unmanageable hunger and thirst.

The Marathon des sables is certainly not a walk in the park, but, according to many runners who have done it, it remains the most exciting competition, an incredible experience capable of giving you immense faith in your own abilities.

For this race, runners tend to register two years in advance due to high demand and the cost of registration is approximately $5,000.

Simpson Desert Ultra – Simpson Desert, Australia

The Simpson Desert Ultra is one of the newest additions to the list of ultramarathons in the desert. It takes place in the heart of the Australian Outback, near the town of Birdsville in Southern Queensland. There are distances of 100km, 75km, 50km, and 25km covering a wide range of terrains, so there is something for both newcomers to the ultra scene and those who are accustomed to the arduous nature of these events.

While not as tough as the Marathon des Sables, it undoubtedly tests the limitations of every participant and allows them to immerse themselves in a really unique aspect of the Australian landscape, from towering sand dunes to rocky gibber plains.

Marathon des Sables - Running in the Desert
Marathon des Sables, 2009. Photo courtesy of tent89.

Desert Running Tips

Training

Each training plan should be tailored to individual characteristics, experience, and level This is especially important when running in a desert landscape with extreme weather conditions. As a rule of thumb, keep the following in mind:

  • Don’t underestimate your endurance training. Try to diversify your training regimens by working at different paces: endurance but also threshold, maximum aerobic speed (MAS) training, etc. Ideally, try to train two to three times a week in preparation for a desert race.
  • For endurance, it is not necessary to run for more than 2 hours a day. Especially the week before a race, conserve your energy and try not to overdo it. On the other hand, it is essential to hike or run (alternating walking and running), for several hours at least once a week. Take it as an opportunity to build up elevation gain and get used to technical trails. If you have the opportunity to train in the wilderness, make the most of it.
  • When doing interval training, 30 minutes of warm-up and 15 minutes of recovery are sufficient. Don’t overdo it unnecessarily and work better on your standards. When doing endurance, 30 to 40 minutes is sufficient. Don’t mix different training regimens in one session, give your body enough time to get used to the different movements and recover from fatigue.
  • Carrying your backpack too often runs the risk of exposing yourself to overload and injury. It is preferable to start wearing it only in the last period before a race, not more than a month before.
  • Do not run too many miles at once. Remember: slow and steady wins the race. Don’t wear yourself out too quickly. Drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated, rest if you feel tired, and listen to your body.

Before the race

Desert foot races are above everything else endurance races and runners must prepare mentally as well as physically for the exercise. Therefore, it is also necessary to focus on the dietary aspect. Since the race takes place in self-sufficiency under a blazing sun of the desert, the runner will need to be well hydrated and well nourished in order not to succumb to the elements. Most runners, aware of the difficulty of the event, choose to follow a balanced diet already months in advance.

During the race

In most desert races such as the Marathons des Sables, runners are self-sufficient for the duration of the event. They must also travel light and have a minimum ration of 2000 kcal/day. The goal is to restore the reserves that the body will consume during the race.

Hypoglycemia is the depletion of the body’s sugar reserves. When blood sugar drops, it causes total exhaustion in the body. Therefore, you will need to think about opting for carbohydrate-rich foods and liquids because they will be easier to ingest while walking. They will also help reduce the jolting during the race. Also, remember to hydrate before, during and after the race to avoid dehydration. Because of this, you will need to fill up on water and energy. Taken together, they will help your body better endure the ordeal.

Please note that there are no toilets, showers, electricity or electrical outlets during the Marathon des Sables. Here are a few small pieces of equipment to ensure minimal hygiene: Microfiber towel Freshness gloves – these gloves allow washing without water. Thread and needles, fabric patch, glue: a good stiffness is also a good all-rounder. Kleenex, desert-proof sunscreen, anti-friction cream, soap, earplugs are also needed.

After the race

Both the body and the mind are tired, and the runner must gradually ease back into more regular diet. At the risk of disturbing it one’s digestion system, it is best to take it slowly and avoid overly gluttonous rations and hard-to-digest dishes in favor of lighter rations in moderate quantities.

In summary, diet and hydration are important when embarking on this type of adventure. Since the Marathon des Sables is an endurance test, the body will need to be able to withstand it, which is why it is important to have an adequate diet.

Desert runners at the Marathon des Sables in 2010
Runners at the Marathons des Sables 2010. Photo courtesy of Achim Knacksterdt.

Gear & Equipment

Compared to standard marathons, running in the deserts requires one to pay much more attention to what they bring along in their backpack. These include desert-appropriate clothing, energy-filled snacks, desert camping essentials and survival gear.

Note that Morocco is home to as many as 12 species of snakes and 10 types of scorpions, all of which are venomous (fortunately, most are nocturnal). Venomous animals are also found in the Australian Outback, so make sure you research the wildlife and possible dangers of the specific desert where your run is taking place.

Compulsory items

For the Marathon des Sables, each participant’s backpack must weigh between 6.4 kg and 15 kg, including food (but not water). The day before the race, the organizers weigh each pack and check the necessary supplies:

  • backpack or rucksack
  • sleeping bag
  • head flashlight and a full set of spare batteries
  • compass
  • lighter
  • whistle
  • knife with metal blade
  • topical disinfectant
  • anti-poison
  • signal mirror
  • aluminum survival sheet
  • SPF100+ sunscreen
  • passport/identity card
  • original medical certificate provided by AOI, completed and signed by the doctor
  • Original ECG and its trace

Desert Running Clothes

The desert is characterized by variable weather conditions, with a very high day to night temperature range. In order to know how to dress in the desert, it is important to be aware of the fact that the days in the desert are extremely hot but it can get very cold at night suddenly.

In addition, weather conditions can bring strong winds, sandstorms, or heat waves that are difficult to predict. Therefore, the right way to deal with the desert is to carry the right equipment and be ready for anything.

Shirt and Pants

It might seem like a good idea to bare yourself as much as possible when it’s hot, but in the desert it’s good to do exactly the opposite: cover yourself from head to toe, to protect yourself from sunburn, grains of sand and rocks, stings and bites from insects and animals that can hide in the dunes.

It is generally recommended to wear lightweight, bright colored and loose long sleeve shirts and trousers, and you may want to bring a jacket for those cold desert nights as well.


Hanes Men’s Long Sleeve Cool Dri T-Shirt UPF 50+


Little Donkey Andy Men’s Stretch Convertible Pants, Zip-Off Quick-Dry Hiking Pants, UV Protection, Lightweight


Butrends Women’s Hiking Capris Pants Outdoor Zipper Pockets Workout Travel Cargo Pant

Footwear

Three footwear items will protect your feet, toes and ankles in the desert: merino socks, trail hiking shoes and desert gaiters.

Merino wool socks will make sure that your feet don’t absorb too much sweat thanks to the anti-perspirant properties of the fabric, while gaiters will add an extra layer of protection against debris and snake / scorpion bites.

For desert running shoes, opt for something that is well-cushioned, but designed for traction on rocky terrains (remember: you won’t be running just on soft sand!)

Oboz Sawtooth II Low B-Dry

Oboz Sawtooth II Low B-Dry
Hoka One One Clifton 7

HOKA ONE ONE Clifton 7
Xero Shoes Terraflex
Xero Barefoot Shoes Terraflex
Read more: Best Shoes for Desert Running
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75% Merino wool socks
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66% Merino wool socks

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40% Merino wool socks
Read more: Best socks for desert running

Headwear

As far as headwear goes in the desert, you will want to protect your forehead, eyes and mouth. A desert running hat will do wonders against sun rays, but you may also want to invest in a mouthscarf and a pair of dust-proof goggles as a form of shield from sand particles for when the weather gets windy.

Desert Running Hats


Outdoor Research Sombriolet Sun Hat

Columbia Unisex Adult Bora Bora Booney

Panama Jack Mesh Crown Safari Sun Hat
Read more: Best hat for desert

Desert Running Scarves

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100% cotton shemagh
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100% cotton keffiyeh
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Cotton/Polyester blend shemagh

Sun Protection

It goes without saying, but a high-protection sunscreen (e.g. Sun Bum Original SPF 70) will be your best friend under the scorching sun of any hot desert. Make sure to re-apply it regurarly, as often as every two hours depending on how strong the sun is shining.

You don’t only need to protect your skin, but also your eyes can be subject to sunburn, so wear UV400 sunglasses which will protect you against 99%-100% of UV rays while you are running in the desert.


SPF 100 Banana Boat Sport Ultra

SPF 100 Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch

SPF 100 La Roche-Posay Anthelios

SPF 110 Neutrogena Age Shield
Read more: Best sunscreen for desert

The best sunglasses for desert offer maximum UV protection with a rating of UV400, which blocks 99-100% of UV rays.

BEST BUDGET GLASSES

SUNGAIT Ultra Lightweight Rectangular Polarized Sunglasses UV400 Protection

SUNGAIT Polarized Sunglasses
TOP DESIGNER
GLASSES

Handmade Wood Sunglasses with UV400 Polarized Lenses & Spring Temples

Hammockable Handmade Wood Sunglasses
TOP QUALITY GLASSES

BNUS Sunglasses for Men & Women, Polarized glass lens, Color Mirrored Scratch Proof

BNUS Sunglasses
BEST KIDS GLASSES

ACBLUCE Kids Polarized Sports Sunglasses TPEE Flexible Frame with Adjustable Strap for Boys Girls Age 5-13

ACBLUCE Kids Polarized Sunglasses
Read more: Best sunglasses for desert

Health and First Aid

Water is the obvious choice when it comes to hydration, but you may also want to bring some sports drinks and other sources of electrolytes to replenish your fluids. For nutrition, opt for desert-friendly foods to eat while camping and energy bars to keep you fueled during the day.

Finally, remember that accident can and are likely to happen – an outdoor sports first-aid kit and a kit to treat snake bites can make the difference between a memorable desert running experience and one to forget. Oh, and don’t you even think of joining the race without a sports insurance that covers ultra marathons.


Sandsports


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Desert Racing
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Desert Hiking & Camping
Desert Travel
Desert Camping
Desert Running

Read Also: How to train for a desert endurance event

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