Saturday, 31 March 2012

40 minutes in the sauna - following a kind of plan

Hello again.  This is starting to become a habit this posting multiple times per day I hear you say.

I just came back from my fifth sauna session.  I managed to increase my sauna time to 40 minutes, with a temperature ranging from 81C (177.8F) at the start of the session to 86C (186.8F) at the end of the session.  I was looking at the sauna training plan of a Badwater competitor and he maxed out at 45 minutes, so I think that will be my final aim.

This time I didn't leave the sauna at all.  The last few minutes were tough but manageable.  It did take quite a while afterwards though before I stopped sweating.  Once again I drank solely water mixed with a sachet of Bios Life Matcha.

Several hours later and I can report back no negative side effects.  I feel pretty darn good in fact, although maybe ever so slightly sleepy.

Runners high or primed and ready?

Hello again.  I am not sure whether it was a post run high or whether it is because I am becoming acclimatised, but I just went for a one and a bit hour hike in the dunes and it felt amazing.  Surely it should have felt hot and opressive at 2.36pm in the afternoon with the sun beating down on my head?  It didn't at all.  It felt perfect.  Hot sun and a very gentle breeze, beautiful scenery and light legs (almost as though my intense 10km run just loosened them up).

It was the first time that I was not really focussed on the fact that I was training and acclimatising.  I was absorbed instead by my immediate surroundings.  In the heat of the day there are no tourists in the dunes.  You see only camels, the occasional Berber and the small animals that inhabit the dunes.  Every day I see the same big, black beetles scurrying across the sand but today is the first time I have seen lizards.  The moment they saw me they darted away, but it was nice to have a glimpse of something new. 

The only negative aspect to my hike was the flies pestering me.  This may be a desert and it may seem strange to have flies in a desert, but believe you me there are plenty of them.  It is probably the copious amount of camel dung that attracts them, but how they survive in such a dry place I have no idea.

I covered 4.23km (2.63 miles) in total, but the distance is not really relevant.  Now for a quick rest and then I am off to the sauna for session number five.

My last high intensity run before the big event

Hello everyone.  Today is once again bright and sunny without a cloud in sight.  Hip hip hooray.  It seemed like a perfect day to do my last high intensity workout before the MDS, with basically one week left to go before it kicks off.

I decided to stick to the hemada (stony ground) and the hard packed dirt next to the road that leads into Merzouga.  It gave me a chance to run faster than I would have on the sand, and to try running fast in the heat.  I know that most advice says you should try not to schedule your intense workouts during the hottest part of the day, but I have been here for some time now and should be more or less acclimatised.

I ran from the hotel across the hemada until I reached the main road that leads into Merzouga centre.  I then followed the verge, which is hard packed dirt through the centre to the edge of the dunes and back.  I set off from the beginning at a good pace and I was studying my heart rate every few seconds or so.  It soon hit 150 and I realised I was running much faster than I could hope to sustain during a full MDS stage.  Nevertheless I decided to push on and to do an intense session.  The whole way my heart rate was above 140, and most of the time it was closer to or over 150.  That for me is around my lactate threshold.

There were lots of people in town and especially children.  It seemed to be a school break or the end of school.  The kids (and a couple of adults) were cheering me on as I passed by and that gave me quite a buzz.  Most of them seemed to realise I was training for the MDS and were shouting things that contained the word "marathon".  The rest just probably thought I was another crazy foreigner passing through town.

I had no idea how far I had covered or how fast I had been running, because I was solely focussed on monitoring my heart rate.  It was only when I got back here that I realised how well I had done.  It seems I covered 9.73km (6.08 miles) in 48 minutes and 50 seconds.  Now I may not break any records with that, but considering I ran in the hottest part of the day with a rucksack weighing over 8kg and with 2 bottles of water weighing 1.5kg and on slightly uneven terrain, it is pretty good going.

I think for the MDS I should try and keep my heart rate below 140 on the long stages.  I should only let it go over that on the short days like the first one and the last one.  That way I don't risk blowing up halfway through a stage.  I will only be monitoring my heart rate periodically throughout each stage though, as I don't want to miss the whole experience by being overly concerned with statistics.  The rest I will do by feel, which till now has never let me down badly.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Acclimate vs. acclimatise

The last few days I have been talking about heat acclimatisation, but I have also seen some articles that talk about heat acclimation.  This set me wondering what the difference was, and whether I was using the right word or not.

I looked up both words on the Oxford dictionnaries website, and I am still not sure which one I should be using.  My inkling would be that my desert runs are considered to be acclimatisation and that my sauna sessions are considered to be acclimation.  Here are the entries so that you can decide for yourselves.


Pronunciation: /əˈklʌɪmətʌɪz/
(also acclimatise)


[no object] (often acclimatize to or be/become acclimatized to)
  • become accustomed to a new climate or new conditions; adjust: it’s unknown whether people will acclimatize to increasingly warm weather
  • Biology respond physiologically or behaviourally to changes in a complex of environmental factors.
  • [with object] Botany & Horticulture harden off (a plant).


Pronunciation: /ˈaklɪmeɪt, əˈklʌɪmət/


[no object] (often acclimate to) chiefly North American
  • acclimatize: helping freshmen to acclimate to college life
  • Biology respond physiologically or behaviourally to a change in a single environmental factor: trees may acclimate to high CO2 levels by reducing the number of stomata.
  • [with object] Botany & Horticulture harden off (a plant).

Bake in the oven for 37 minutes at 86C (186.8F)

No this is not a  recipe for some kind of cake my friends.  That is what I did in tonight's sauna session (bake for 37 minutes at 86C or 186.8F).  I have now done 4 consecutive sauna sessions, and I have another 5 left to go, so almost half way through my heat acclimatisation program (or over halfway if you consider the midday desert runs too).

When I got in the sauna it was 86C (186.8F) and it remained more or less at this temperature throughout my 37 minute session.   This time I did no light exercise.  I simply lay on my back and enjoyed the experience (or tried to at least).

After 30 minutes I felt like I needed a break so I left the sauna and took a cold shower.  That made me feel suitably refreshed, and I was then able to get back in the sauna for another 7 minutes, making a grand old total of 37 minutes.

At the end of the session I went to lie down for a while and I felt my heart beating much faster than usual.  I didn't feel ill in any way though, which is great.  In terms of fluid intake I drank 1.5 litres of water throughout the session, mixed only with one sachet of Bios Life Matcha and no electrolytes.

There is only one aspect about being acclimatised to the heat that I find strange.  Apparently you start to sweat more and to sweat earlier.  This is an obvious benefit in helping to cool the body down, but surely in a race like the MDS where water is limited it will be a disadvantage?  I can only assume that it is offset by the fact that you are not exerting yourself as much as a non acclimatised runner and so have a need to consume less fluids in this way.  If anyone does know the answer please let me know.  In the meantime have a good evening and eat, drink and be merry.

2 hours of walking in the dunes

Firstly I want to apologise for the lack of photos in my posts as of late.  I have been taking some nice photos here in Merzouga, but the problem is I forgot to bring my SD card reader with me and the laptop I am using does not have one built in.  Therefore I will have to update my posts with the photos when I get back to Zurich, unless I can find someone who I can borrow a card reader from.

Anyway, now to the main point.  I wanted to spend longer in the sun today so I decided that a walk would be more appropriate than a run.  The temperature according to the weather report is 27C, and it is nice and sunny with no clouds in sight.  Perfect for a spot of heat acclimatisation.

I headed off into the dunes for just over 1 hour, then turned round and headed back.  I took a couple of stops en route to get some good photos, but on the whole I was medium to fast walking the whole way.  When I had to climb a slope that was very steep I ran up it, as I have found this to be an easier way of getting to the top than walking up.  If you can work up enough forward momentum you tend to slip back less with each step.

The total time for my dune hike was 2 hours and in this time I covered 7.62km.  Allowing for the fact that in the MDS I would not be stopping to take photos, and I reckon I could expect to cover 4km/h walking in the dunes (although I have no intention of walking in them if at all possible).

As you might have expected by now (it is kind of a daily routine at the moment), at 5pm I am off to the sauna to continue my heat acclimatisation.  I may even just lie down the whole time I am in the sauna today, since I am happy to have got 2 hours of bright sunshine and warm temperatures whilst I was hiking.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

No balmy 60C (140F) sauna today. A stifling 90C (194F) one instead

Well it seems my disappointment with the balmy 60C (140F) starting temperature of the sauna yesterday evening was taken to heart by the staff in the spa.  This evening when I enquired as to the temperature in the sauna they told me it was already at 80C (176F).  However, by the time I undressed and stepped inside, the thermometer was reading 90C (194F).

I coudn't believe it and thought that I would never be able to last a  full 30 minutes in that heat and doing light exercises.  I was wrong and I did manage to last it out.  I lasted a full 32 minutes in fact.  Granted that the exercises were a little lighter than yesterday evening.  Today they consisted of lying on the top bench and raising my legs and lowering them one at a time (to simulate walking), some periodic stomach crunches, air punching in slow motion and then in the final minute or two some jogging on the spot.  All this was interspersed with breaks where I just lay there and rested.  I left the jogging on the spot till last just to ensure that I could last out the session.

To be honest I cannot say that it was easy, but I am happy that I was able to cope with that temperature for that long.  This time I didn't put the towel under the door as I certainly didn't want it any hotter.  In fact the temperature was decreasing gradually whilst I was in there, so whilst I started the session at 90C (194F) I finished it at 80C (176F).

No headache or nausea in sight, so mission successful, job done, time to go home.

The masochist's mission

Today my mission was simple.  Wait until the sun decided to reveal itself from behind those conniving clouds, wait until it was sufficiently hot to make the sweat drip from my brow and run into my eyes, and then go stomping off in the sand dunes and try to cover a decent distance within my self imposed time limit of one hour.

The sun finally decided to come out in all its glory at around 2pm and that was it, I was off without a minute to spare, for those clouds have got the better of me too many times the last couple of days.  Even whilst I was leaving the hotel they were playing tricks on me, making bright sunny patches appear on the sand several hundred metres ahead of me and then causing those sunny patches to move relentlessly forward as I began to reach them.  Finally I managed to catch up with them and then I was in the hot baking sun much to my masochistic relief.

I started off at my usual pace but there was a spring in my step today so I pushed a little harder.  Soon I was chugging along like a trusty old steam train, building up speed and momentum as my engine heated up.  I realised that my previous yomps around the dunes had been pathetically slow and that I had not been testing myself to see what I was really capable of.  The pace I managed today was a pace that I would like to do during the race itself.  I was pushing myself, but at a pace that I felt I could maintain for a while.  When I looked down at my heart rate it was around 142 beats per minute, so this gives me a good idea of what I should be looking for during the race.

Now for the juicy part.  How many kilometres did I cover in those undulating dunes in the baking sun, carrying all my equipment and at my perceived race pace you may ask.  Well I can tell you with some sense of pride my friends that I covered 8.5km (5.28 miles).  Even if I don't manage that speed in the dunes on dune day, I am no longer afraid of those dunes.  Those damn dunes have a habit of striking fear into the hearts of us mortal runners who don't live next to a beach or a place where there is sand to run on.  I have run on them enough days in a row now though to appreciate that they can be conquered.  Yes they do sap your energy and yes they do cause you to run slower than normal, but put into perspective they are just another challenge in the many challenges that must be faced in the mighty battle of the MDS.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

35 minutes of sauna time

Good evening mes amis.  Yesterday as you know I spent 30 minutes in the sauna doing light exercises, and struggled a little.  I was only planning on doing 30 minutes again today, but I felt fine so I increased the time to 35 minutes.  Yesterdays struggle may have been due in part to the ridulously high humidity that I created by throwing water on the rocks every few minutes, and I am after all training for a race in the desert and not the jungle so it wasn't really appropriate.

The starting temperature once again was pretty low.  A balmy 60C.  But I repeated my trick of putting the towel under the door and the temperature started to rise.  By the end of my session it was just touching 80C.  This time I didn't throw any water on the rocks at all, and it was only once the temperature hit 70C that I was really starting to feel the heat.

In terms of sauna exercises I opted for lying on my back and pretending I ws cycling with my legs.  I also did some stomach crunches.  This allowed me to remain on the top bench where it was a little hotter.  In the last few minutes of the session I stood up and did some jogging on the spot.  I wasn't exercising the whole time though as I didn't want to make my abs suffer that much or to overexert myself.

I drank about 1 litre of water whilst I was in the sauna, and now I am drinking some water with added electrolytes.  The goods new is that I don't have a headache or feel nauseous yet again.  Is it that my body is starting to adapt?  I measured my pulse very roughly whilst I was lying on the top bench for a few minutes and it semeed to be around 80 beats per minute.  I have nothing to compare that with however.

The plan tomorrow is a 1 hour jog in the heat of the day followed by another sauna session in the evening.  I have asked the staff to have the sauna ready at 70C when I arrive.  I had asked them for that yesterday too, but it seems my request was lost in translation.  Hopefully the weather tomorrow will be hot and sunny and not rainy and cloudy like today.

A big thank you to Talentis Solutions AG

Talentis Solutions AG just donated £100 towards my fundraising campaign, which is really great news.  As you know I was already over my minimum target of £9,500, but I am still happy to receive more donations.  The more that Mencap receive, the more they can do to fight hate crimes against people with learning disabilities, which is one of their current campaigns.

Talentis is, and has been, my employer for several years now, whilst I have been working physically at UBS in Opfikon.  Talentis is a major Swiss solutions provider specialised in the areas of banking, finance and insurance.  All the staff are friendly and we have several social gatherings per year.  James is the person you are most likely to deal with, and he answers your questions quickly and efficiently and puts your mind at ease.  In terms of payments they are always on time each month, and I have not had a single complaint the whole time I have been with them.  You can check out their website at

I also found out today that I will have a job at UBS to return to once I finish the Marathon des Sables.  That really puts my mind at ease in terms of where my next pay cheque will come from.  My next challenge will have to be on a slightly smaller scale though, since I will have the usual working week to contend with.  In fact I have already decided what the next challenge will be. I am going to try to do a sub 3 hour marathon.  With my current marathon prediction at around 3 hours and 4 minutes and my best marathon to date at around 3 hours and 29 minutes I am going to have some work to do, but it should be achievable.  In the meantime I can relax knowing I have a secure job to return to, and focus myself 100% on the Marathon des Sables next week.  Thanks again Talentis.

Resting heart rate of 38 beats per minute

I have been saying for some time that I believe my resting heart rate in the high 30s or low 40s, so this morning when I woke up I decided to measure it.  Luckily my heart rate monitor and chest strap were right next to the bed, so I didn't have to get out of bed in order to get them.

After attaching the chest strap I put the watch in training mode and waited a few seconds for the heart rate to be displayed.  At first it was showing 42, most likely caused by the slight exertion of reaching over to get the watch and chest strap, but after a few seconds it started going down.

For quite a while it hovered around 39, and then a couple of times it went down to 38.  A resting heart beat of 38 beats per minute is pretty damn low, but it is not the only time in my life this has ever happened.  I recall once before having a VO2 max and resting heart rate similar to now.  I was much younger back then though, so it is great to see that so far I have defied the effects of ageing through my training.  Don't tell that to the hair on my head though, which decided to start taking flight a few years ago now.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

30 minutes of light exercise in the sauna

Hello again.  I just came back from the sauna at the hotel down the road.  They only turn the sauna on when someone wants to use it, so I had to wait a while for it to get up to temperature.  When I first got into the sauna it was only a balmy 60C, but at least that way I was able to adjust to it gradually as the mercury started to rise.  It was a Finnish sauna so there was the possibility of increasing the humidity by pouring water onto the hot rocks.  I figured that since the temperature at the start of my session was not that high, I would ramp up the humidity to make it feel a lot hotter.

I started to do some light exercise whilst it was still heating up.  To start with I did some stretches and then I started jogging on the spot.  Since I was the only one in there I didn't look like a crazy fool.  By the time the 15 minute timer had to be turned over and started again, the temperature was 70C.  That was more like it.  Then I noticed that there was a gap under the door where a draught was coming in, so I stuck a towel under the door to make it even hotter.  Now I was starting to feel it.  My breathing started to increase and I was feeling a little dizzy.  I chugged down a decent amount of water and stayed with it.  For a few minutes I had to just sit down and recollect myself.  It was now 80C and incredibly humid owing to my generous splashing of water on the rocks.  I saw that there were about 8 minutes left so I just sat down with my head bowed and splashed water over my head.

In the final few minutes I got to my feet once again and started jogging on the spot.  I had done it.  I had survived my first 30 minute session in the sauna without escaping to get a breather.  For tomorrow I have asked the staff to have the sauna ready for me at 5pm, and for it to be at a starting temperature of 80C.  That will be a little bit tougher to endure but Insa'Allah I will manage it and even manage to throw in a bit of jogging on the spot for good measure too.

100 minutes in the baking sun

Good afternoon.  I just came back from my heat acclimatisation run.  I set off at noon so that I would get the highest temperatures possible.  Unfortunately it is still only 27C at the moment, but later in the week it should climb over 30C.  The good thing is that there are hardly any clouds in the sky, so at least the sun cannot hide from me.

I was concerned that the temperature was a little low for my training so I put on an extra Tshirt underneath my Railriders top. That must have added a few degrees or more, and I came back with a drenched Tshirt much to my liking.

The first hour I headed off into the dunes.  The pace was comfortable but I also wanted to try to achieve a higher average speed than I did the previous days in the dunes.  In the end I managed 6.78km in an hour so 6.78km/h.  I am definitely starting to get more used to running in the sand and also at picking a better route through the dunes.

At the end of the hour I was back at the hotel and I quickly went to my room to change my shoes.  I didn't want to risk tearing my gaiters on the sharp stones of the hemada before I even start the MDS, so I used my spare running shoes.  Once they were on I headed straight back out to do some running on the rocky hemada that surrounds Merzouga and the dunes.  I found running on the hemada much easier than on the dunes, although you still need to pay careful attention where you are stepping so that you don't twist an ankle.  Some of the rocks were fist sized and it was impossible to avoid rolling your ankles slightly, but my ankes seemed not to object.  In my training back home in Zurich I  managed quite a few off road runs on dirt, gravel and snow, and that probably strengthened my ankles somewhat.

I ran for 40 minutes on the hemada and covered 6.49km, so in total I ran for 100 minutes and covered a total distance on sand and hemada of 13.27km.  The good news is that I have now been back at the hotel for over half an hour and there still seems to be no hint of a post exercise headache like the last 2 days.  Is my body finally starting to get used to the heat or was it because I added electrolytes to my water and consumed a power gel during my run?  Who knows, but if I can follow this same routine and avoid the headaches I most definitely will.

Now I can relax for a few hours and then later I will head to the neighbouring hotel for a sauna, to bump up my heat acclimatisation.  It is not as though I have much else to do out here.  Enjoy your day folks.

Incorporating the sauna into my heat acclimatisation routine

Good morning people.  Last night I went for a little wander and found that the hotel down the road has a sauna.  I have decided each day to go to the hotel and take a sauna after I have completed my 100 minutes of running in the heat.  Why on earth would I do that you may be asking.  Is 100 minutes of running in the midday heat not enough?  Well I want to be sure that I am properly heat acclimatised, and as I mentioned it has not always been that hot here since I arrived.  Despite being in the desert, there are often clouds and occasional rain showers.  I would find it tough if the temperature suddenly rockets once the race starts, and all I have experienced before that are mediocre temperatures (30C so far).

The sauna is not the ideal way to acclimatise for running in the desert, but combining it with my runs on the actual terrain and in the actual solar conditions I will experience during the race, and I am guaranteed to acclimatise well.  30 minutes of sauna time should be sufficient and I can do some stretching whilst I am in there.  Most of my UK compatriots are using either saunas or Bikram yoga to acclimatise. The richer ones may be able to afford sessions in a heat chamber at Silverstone, but for that price they could also have had a weekend in Egypt or Morocco running in the desert.  There are also some who choose to acclimatise by dressing up like the Michelin man before going out to run.  Some may even be lucky enough to get away without heat acclimatising beforehand, but a sensitive soul like me who gets headaches very easily needs to do some careful preparation to avoid feeling like crap throughout the whole race.

Monday, 26 March 2012

3 more days of sand dune running

Hi folks.  I have only just managed to get internet access again.  The tour agent was kind enough to lend me his laptop as the Wifi feature of my Iphone doesn't work anymore.  As you know I am in Merzouga and came here to do some heat acclimatisation and sand dune running.  True to my aim I have been out running in the dunes every single day.

The first day, which I already covered in my previous post, I ran 4.9km in the dunes.  That was the 23rd of March.  On the 24th of March I ran 10.61km in the dunes and then later in the day I ran another 10km on stony ground.  On the 25th March I ran 10km in the dunes and then walked for 3km in the dunes.  Finally today I managed to run 15km in the dunes and then I walked for 1.64km in the dunes.

As you can see from the above, I have been building up the distances gradually.  Each day I have tried to go out running during the hottest part of the day to get some heat acclimatisation.  The first couple of days it was not that hot, but thankfully yesterday and today it was pretty hot.  That is probably the reason why I had a headache and felt nauseous after my runs yesterday and today.  I drank the same amount of water that I will be supplied with during the MDS i.e. 1.5 litres every 10km, so it does worry me slightly that I am going to have a constant headache throughout the MDS.  I am hoping that as my body gets used to the heat more, the headaches will cease.

Running in the sand as you can imagine is pretty tough.  That is another reason for building up the distance that I run in the dunes gradually.  Your ankles and knees twist and turn in all kinds of directions, and you can never predict when the sand will give way underfoot, and in which direction it will give way.  When you are running fast down the dunes you have to be careful not to hyperextend your knee when the sand goes from soft to hard and you don't get the foot sinking that you had anticipated.

In terms of speed I have realised that dune running is pretty slow.  I have been averaging around 5 or 6km/h at best.  It obviously depends on how hard or soft the sand is, and how much up and down you have to do to get from A to B.  Here in the dunes of Merzouga there is no way to get from A to B without going constantly up and down, and some of the dunes are 150 metres high.  A flat route simply does not exist.  When I gave my average speed above, that is a pace that I can maintain with some degree of comfort.  I am sure I could cover more ground per hour if I was actually racing.

I want to try to get to the stage where I am running 21km in the dunes during the hottest part of the day.  Once I achieve that I will not try to increase the distance any further, as we are within 2 weeks of the start of the MDS and I should be starting to taper for the race.  The optimum amount of time performing moderate exercise in the heat to achieve good heat acclimatisation is 100 minutes according to the research I was reading.  Any more than that and you do not get any additional gain.