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Training for Desert RATS – with Heather Hart

Training for Desert Rats: How to Succeed at the Kokopelli 150 Stage Race

Heather Hart – Find Heather at Relentless Forward Commotion

Training for Desert Rats Kokopelli 150 multi day foot race is no small feat.  Mainly because the act of running the Desert Rats is also no small feat:  6 days of extreme heat, dry desert conditions, climbing, and back to back days of running high (even ultra marathon) mileage.  For some, this may sound like a miserable time.  For adventurers and endurance thrill seekers, it sounds like a dream come true.

My name is Heather Hart, and I’m a hopeless trail running  junkie.  I’m also an Exercise Physiologist and running coach, certified through the American College of Sports Medicine and Road Runners Club of America, respectively. I’ve been running for over a decade, and training clients nearly as long.  My race resume contains a lot of diverse events, from 100 mile trail runs to sprint triathlons, ultra distance obstacle course races to 6 day stage races, and pretty much all of the “distances” in between.  But what it does not include is the Gemini Adventures Desert Rats Kokopelli 150 Stage Race.

Yet.

Training for Desert Rats

I am thrilled to share that I will be attending and racing this event in 2018, and I cannot wait to join all of you for what will undoubtedly be the adventure of a lifetime.

Our friends over at Gemini Adventures asked me to put together a “Training for Desert Rats”post, and I was more than happy to oblige…not only to help others, but to perhaps keep myself accountable for this upcoming adventure.  Listed below are key components and suggestions that should be a part of every athlete’s routine when training for  Desert Rats.  Of course, YOUR training plan outline may vary, based on your goals (are you trying to win? Or just trying to finish?) and personal limitations (physical, time, etc.)  In this particular post, “succeed” refers to crossing that finish line happy, healthy, and hopefully injury free.

Training for Desert Rats: How to Succeed at the Kokopelli 150 Stage Race

Running

I bet you never would have guessed this one, right?  This is a running event, so naturally the majority of your training should consist of running.  But it’s more than aimlessly logging miles and building long runs.  Let’s break it down:

Effort Based Runs

The desert is going to be hot and dry.  (I’m assuming, I’ve never actually been there…East Coast girl here).  The physical response to the increased temperatures and brutal conditions are going to drastically change your running pace.  Therefore, it’s important to learn how to run based on effort, not simply on pace.

When training for any endurance event, the majority of your running should be done in the easy effort zone (often referred to as “aerobic” or “Z2”).  May runners have success with heart rate training for ensuring that their bodies are truly staying in this zone.  However, if you do not use a heart rate method, I suggest going by the “Star Spangled Banner” method.  In other words, at any given time during your run, you should be able to bust out your very best rendition of the Star Spangled Banner without gasping for air.

Learning how to base your run on effort, rather than sticking to a specific pace, will allow you to stay in that efficient aerobic zone despite the temperature or harsh conditions.

Training for Desert Rats

Back to Back Long Runs

If you haven’t looked yet, the daily mileage for Desert rats looks like this: 20 miles, 39 miles, 9 miles, 43 miles, and 26.2 miles.  You are going to be running long mileage on already fatigued legs.  Therefore, it’s important to train your legs to be able to perform while tired and sore.   Further, back to back long runs allow you to put in more mileage over the course of a week, rather than having to spend your entire Saturday putting in a 50 mile run.

Read more about back to back long runs here:
How to Survive Back-to-Back Long Runs

Hill Training

Don’t be fooled by the word “desert”, this race is anything but a flat oasis.  With a total elevation gain (according to recorded Strava segments) of approximately 23,294 feet over the course of the 5 stages, you are going to need to practice your climbing skills.  Some of you may be lucky enough to have hills everywhere you go, but here in Myrtle Beach, it is pancake flat.  Therefore, twice a week I incorporate some sort of hill training workout.  Hill repeats on the bridge, hill repeats on a treadmill, or a stair climber at the gym are our only options, but they are better than nothing.

Teach your legs to climb, but also practice descending if you can.  As we know, what goes up: must come down.  Descents can be very hard on the quadriceps due to constant eccentric contractions…not to mention tough on the toes!

Simulated Conditions

Training for Desert Rats should mimic the conditions you will face at Desert Rats. The terrain of the Desert Rats course will be dry, rocky, sandy, exposed, and did I mention…hot?  It is important to find similar conditions to train on, at least some of the time.  If you are training on a paved, tree covered and shady park path all of the time, you will be doing yourself a disservice.   Further, much of the running will extend into midday, and maybe even evening, for most of us non-elites.  Practice training at various times during the day to ensure you are not a “morning only” runner.

Training for Desert Rats

Train with your Gear

During the event, you will be required to start the race and leave every aid station carrying a minimum of 80 ounces of water.  That alone weighs 5.2 pounds…not including the weight of your hydration pack and all of the other mandatory gear within it.  If you are not accustomed to running with a weight on your shoulders over the course of multiple hours of running, you need to start practicing (see more on this topic in “upper body strength training”, below).

Further, now is the time to start deciding what shoes you will bring, if you will use trekking poles, what water bottles you plan on carrying…you get the idea.  PRACTICE with your gear so come race day, every last piece is helpful, not hindering.

Strength Training

If you aren’t new here, you  already know that I am a huge stickler for making sure my running athletes incorporate strength training into the training routines.  If you are new here, know this: I get on my strength training soap box often.  In my professional opinion, running slightly less but incorporating regular strength training will make you a stronger, less injury prone runner than just running all of the time.   And though I spend all of my non running free time in the gym I’m writing this post from there now!) I know most people don’t have that kind of time.  So your strength training doesn’t have to be terribly in depth (or even done in a gym), just consistent.  I recommend runners aim for a minimum of two days of upper body and two days of lower body strength training per week, of each major muscle group.

Core

Your core, including your abdominal muscles, lower back, hips, and glutes, are key to running success.   These are the muscles that keep you in an upright position (and who doesn’t want that!) and help assist in forward movement of your legs, as well as climbing those aforementioned mountains!  Work on strengthening all of the layers of your abdominal muscles (rectus, transverse, and obliques) but do not forget to target your low back, hips, and glutes, as these are all important for overall core strength.

Upper Body

Remember the aforementioned 5+ pounds of water you need to carry?  Plus the weight of your hydration pack, required nutrition, and anything else you may be carrying with you?  That weighs heavier on your shoulders and back than you may think.

And those trekking poles? They may feel light at first, but after multiple hours, will be taxing on your shoulders and triceps.

Having a strong upper body, specifically strong, balanced shoulders, chest, and back muscles, will not only help you haul your gear through the desert, but will encourage proper posture, preventing you from hunching over as you get tired.


 

Lower Body

I often hear runners say “I don’t need to strength train my lower body, I already do that while running.”  Well, that’s only partially true.  Yes, the weight bearing exercise of running does indeed help strengthen the muscles of your lower body.  However, running is also a very repetitive movement movement.  Stronger muscles will help slow down the rate of fatigue, as well as help prevent injuries associated with running or even a slight misstep on the trail.

Self Care & Recovery

As every experienced ultra and stage race runner knows, training goes well beyond simply putting in the miles.  Here are a few more things to consider:

Nutrition/Hydration

I am not a registered dietician, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you WHAT to eat while training.  I will, however ,tell you that making healthier choices while increasing training volume will help your training feel easier, and will allow your body to recover better.

While on the topic of nutrition and hydration, start practicing what you are going to use as fuel during Desert Rats.   Chances are, most of you are already experienced enough runners that you know the “try nothing new on race day” theory, but I felt it was worth mentioning, just incase.

Rest

One of the biggest mistakes many runners make, especially those who are excited for an upcoming event, is training TOO hard and not allowing enough time for the body to rest and recover.  It is during rest periods (specifically during actual sleep) that our bodies work hard to rebuild the muscles we broke down during training.  Training for Desert Rats is going to require a high volume of training, so rest periods need to match the effort.  In other words: don’t ignore rest days and adequate sleep.

Mental Fortitude

I suppose this training aspect is option, but it is an incredibly important one for me.  Let’s face it: there are going to be some downright sucky moments out there on the trail.  I’m pretty sure we all expect it, that’s part of what we sign up for these events for.  Training your mind to be able to recognize these lows, and eventually climb out of them, is paramount.

Personally, I’ve recently taken up yoga.  This practice pushes me wildly out of my comfort zone, and is teaching me to really listen to my body, stay present in the moment, and know that I can get through it. Plus, hot yoga is teaching me to suffer while dripping sweat in 105 degree temps, which is an added bonus!

If you are training for Desert Rats, I hope this post was helpful.  No matter what our training techniques are, it is bound to be the adventure of a lifetime.  See you in Moab!

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