Training on the dunes of Merthyr Mawr

Paul Halford paid a visit last summer to the famous Merthyr Mawr sand dunes and was given a baptism of fire by Saucony athletes Ieuan Thomas and Tom Marshall, plus their coach James Thie

Merthyr Mawr sand dunes

by Paul Halford |

Around 45 minutes’ drive from Cardiff, down the M4 and some narrow, winding lanes, is an area steeped in running tradition. Hordes of runners over the decades have trained at the legendary Merthyr Mawr sand dunes. Among them have been many elite athletes, such as Olympic champion Steve Ovett, who in his heyday would travel from Brighton to take on the infamous ‘Big Dipper’, the second biggest sand dune in Europe.

If Ovett – a track runner whose races were over within four minutes – travelled four hours to run on sand, it’s a training ground that must contain a magic ingredient. The mountain of sand near Ogmore by Sea has given track runners and many sprinters a reason to turn to the trails, so we off-road runners can surely benefit from it.

So I paid a visit to the Natural Resources Wales site to see if I could conquer the Big Dipper. Although the name itself conjures up images of fun, it ended up being no day at the beach.

I met Saucony athletes Ieuan Thomas and Tom Marshall, plus their coach James Thie, early one summer Tuesday morning. The plan was to start a proper training session – some of which would include the Dipper – with them and then, when I could take no more, make the excuse that I had to take photographs.

Even when I used to do weekly track sessions and was at full fitness, the nervous anticipation would strike hard at the belly. Now, a couple of years hence from my last bit of speed work and having acquired some lockdown weight, there was a lot more belly to house the swarm of butterflies and weigh me down on those tough uphills.

“It scares the life out of you,” Tom admitted of how he feels when he find out from James that the dunes are on the schedule. He added: “It’s such a tough session, mentally, physically, emotionally that you really have to prepare yourself for it.”

From chatting to Ieuan and Tom in the car park beforehand, it was clear that I had underestimated how big a sand dune could be. The record to run up it was 60 seconds, they said.

After a warm-up, I spy the wall of sand in question. “It doesn’t seem that big, after all,” I thought. However, the peak I could see was only halfway up to the top as it dips down again before the final climb, hence its name.

I was warned beforehand that the key is not to go off too quickly. “Fat chance of that,” I thought, as someone known for their conservative pacing. However, I soon realised why it was great advice.

The first few strides were fairly easy and I wasn’t too far behind Ieuan and Tom, as well as James, who as a former fourth-placer at 1500m at the World Indoor Championships was showing he still has amazing fitness.

However, suddenly every step was becoming incrementally harder than the previous. I was trying to step into the fresh footprints caused by the trio who were sprinting off ahead but each time my foot would subtly sink, such that the next stride became harder. It truly felt like two steps forward, one step back.

I resorted to a walk before halfway and we were only going up to the first crest on this rep. At one stage I virtually came to a standstill, all momentum gone. But I had been warned – the same has happened to international athletes.

I’m told that, in a past session, a certain 3:32 1500m runner was overtaken by an under-13 girl athlete. The dunes are a leveller and can make even the elite look ordinary. No hope for me then as a former competitive club runner well past his best. I ended up feeling exactly like an overweight couch potato on his first ever run.

The idea sounds enough to fill most runners with dread, but Ieuan explained how the thought of turning up for a Merthyr Mawr session – as they do five to 10 times a year – fills him with excitement. “Merthyr Mawr is kind of like this mythical being in a way,” he said. “Most runners will know about it in some way. A lot of the greats have been down here to train. You almost feel part of history, like you’re continuing a tradition by doing sessions down here. Everyone knows about it, but not many people get to come and actually experience it.

“There’s no let-up to the Dipper and you’re filled with lactic acid from that point on and just adapting to how that feels for the rest of the session. It’s a bit of a magical feeling.”

After a little recovery as we made our way to the bottom, James introduced me to the next part of a typical session – the aptly named ‘Triangle of Terror.’ We ran – or in my case attempted to – around halfway up to that first crest again before veering off to do two circuits around some bushes and trees. The section off to the right is on the flat and then slightly downhill, and you also hit some grass, all of which is a relief after the uphill, but the change of terrain and gradient is enough to put your legs through more turmoil before you hit the upper segment on the sand again.

After one circuit, I was done in, but James’s group would normally do a ‘triangle session’ of one lap, then two laps, then three laps, followed by two laps and a final lap – each with a bit of recovery in between.

We headed across the car park to another, much flatter dune for James to show me the next part of a regular session – the ‘Plain of Pain.’ This was runnable despite the steady incline to the utmost point being tough, but James said they would normally do continuous loops of it for three minutes straight and, after around 90 seconds of recovery to allow the runners to regroup, this would be repeated five times.

While I undertook the loop just once, it was enough to get a flavour of the session.  Thankfully, I was spared the ‘Figure of Hate’, which was an extension of the former loop. When the segments are named as if they are tasks on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, you get an idea of the severity.

James, who has led sessions involving 30-40 athletes of all ages at Merthyr Mawr, explained that throwing in the Dipper at the start gets far more lactic into the legs than you ever could with a normal set of track of reps. You’re then more tired for the rest of the session, simulating race day. “Because it’s sand dunes and you feel like you’re running against nature, it’s a nice distraction and leveller without the worry that people get from comparing like with like and previous times,” said the former British international. “Hitting that Dipper, you could be in the best shape of your life and it still really hurts you at the top.”

Merthyr Mawr
©Paul Halford

It’s all worth it, though, for those who are serious about improving. As we ran down for a 15-minute warm-down for a traditional post-run dip in the sea, Tom explained: “It works muscles you forget you had and that makes you more powerful and stronger.”

A run around Merthyr Mawr, as well as offering a variety of trails, can duplicate a circuit session in a gym. Ieuan said: “The conditioning you get is really similar to a high-rep bodyweight circuit. If you think about the movements of going up something like the Big Dipper, you’re dropping quite low into a single-leg squat and having to drive up from that low squat position. In terms of proprioception of your ankle, as well being able to allow your ankle to roll a little to grip into the sand, you’re strengthening your feet, your plantar coming up into the shins – it does wonders for those.”

Most of us live a closer to a gym than a beach, but you don’t have to travel to South Wales to get the most from sand dune training. Find a beach near you - or even a hill can replicate some of the benefits.

It’s hard work but offers a change of environment that can give your running a major boost. Just ditch the watch, be prepared to feel very slow, and life’s a beach when you run on dunes.

Hill running tips

You probably don’t live near sand dunes, but you can still enjoy some of the benefits by training on hills. While many runners will undertake a session ‘straight from the manual’ such as 12 repetitions of a one-minute-long hill, the key is variety, believes top coach James Thie.

“If you look at some people’s training sessions, they’re quite rigid,” he said. “It might be the same hill, same distance and you do the same number of reps each time. But try being a bit off-piste... It might be that you do that hill just once and it might be one of the longer hills on your circuit, and then jog over to another hill before doing a further, shorter hill four times.”

It’s also worth using different terrains, he says: “Mix it up as much as you can according to the terrain you’ve got. Some of your hills might be on grass, some of them might be on trails, some of them might be on the road. I would suggest you don’t have to be really rigid with your prescribed hill sessions – use them like a fartlek, so you don’t feel like you’re comparing yourself to a few weeks before, and maybe you’ll discover some new places.”

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