Training for an overseas race

Prepare properly and you can enjoy the experience of a lifetime, says Dr Andrew Murray

Credit: Chris Fleming (license: Creative Commons)

Credit: Chris Fleming (license: Creative Commons)

Running in unpredictable overseas locations can challenge and reward in equal measure. My own experience of running seven ultra marathons on seven different continents in under a week, and racing in some of the most challenging environments on earth, has given me a great grounding in knowing how to properly prepare. And as a sports and exercise medicine consultant, I’ve had the chance to work with scientists and experts to prepare other runners for their own ‘experience of a lifetime’.

It sounds obvious, but mirroring as closely as possible what you will be doing in your race will really reap rewards. If the route is long, then you will need to run far in training. If you are also looking to run fast, then run a track, hills, fartlek or a tempo session once or twice a week, building both volume and intensity gradually. If you expect heat, consider a training camp in a hot climate, or a weekend away to test how you eat, sleep and run, and how your footwear works for the conditions. 

Global connectivity has ensured that there is plenty of information out there. If you have a friend who has taken on a similar challenge, ask them what worked and what didn’t. Many races have information on the website, and there may be forums to discuss issues. Speak to sports doctors, physiologists, or physiotherapists for advice. My book, Running Your Best: Some Science and Medicine, may also be helpful.

Acclimatise as much as you can. Most people race then have a few days’ holiday after. But it’s much better to arrive early, get used to the local conditions and shake off jet lag, if relevant. Your body acclimatises to jet lag by about an hour per day, and takes time to adjust to the environment, particularly extreme heat; it’s much harder to acclimatise to than the cold, when you can just wear more layers. If I can, I’ll arrive a week early and, by race time, I’ll feel more comfortable with the conditions and the culture, and will have tested my kit thoroughly. 

Everyone wants to be on the start line – no one wants a day on the toilet. In general, keep up to date with your vaccinations, get a flu jab, and consider taking vitamin D, as most folk in Britain are deficient. When travelling, I’ll take probiotics, which help prevent respiratory illnesses as well as diarrhoea. Eat healthily, and sleep for at least seven hours per day to maintain immune function. If the water might be dodgy, use bottled water to drink and to brush your teeth. 

Nothing is worse than hitting the wall at +40 or -40 during the event. Ease into the race, unless it’s an environment you have confidently performed in before. Running in different climates can take more out of you – I eat a little more during races, and keep hydrated. Ensure you have contact details for race organisers, a clear idea of the route, and a bulletproof way of having what you need (food, drink, clothes) on route.

Training for and taking part in an unpredictable race abroad may be the best thing you ever do; these events have given me some of the greatest experiences of my life. But they are 100% more enjoyable if you have done your homework, and know as much as you can in advance.