How to Prepare for Comrades Marathon, One of the World’s Ultimate Races

Comrades Marathon the ultimate running race

What you need to know about running an Ultra plus advice from Comrades Marathon veterans

To say that participants competing in the Comrades Marathon are mentally and physically strong is an understatement. Comrades isn’t just of run-of-the-mill ultra, it is one of the toughest races around located in the heat and rough terrain of South Africa’s coastal city of Durban. It is one of the oldest races, but one of the newest trends in ultramarathon running, often referred to as, the ‘ultimate human race’.

We’ve outlined a few important training details you need to know from our friends Edward Chapman and Philip Howell’s at Ed & Phil Active and Trail Running Man, who have participated and finished many marathons and ultramarathons in their lifetime, including Comrades Marathon. Ed, based in Cornwall and Phil in Herefordshire, England have been running (trail and road) training, and coaching runners for decades. They are “Extraordinary ordinary runners”. So, what is their advice about ultramarathon running, especially the Comrades Race? While their website isn’t very robust, their advice an expertise is gold!

Comrades Marathon Race Prep Plan:

1. Get some miles in – very similar to marathon training, though longer. Increase your weekly mileage, approximately 10% weekly.

2. Aim for one long run or two a few weeks before the race that is roughly two thirds of the race distance – no need to sprint on these training runs as they may end up having a negative effect on the body.

3. Don’t ditch speed work – include interval training and hill work. The Comrades Marathon includes The Big Five hills during the race and therefore, interval training is a must.

Comrades Marathon profile map

Comrades Marathon 2017. Profile map credit: comrades.com

4. Rest and recovery are just as important as running in order to give the body time to adapt to heavy training – overtraining can cause injury and psychological burnout.

5. Refuel during training and while racing. While energy bars and gels can be beneficial for short ultras, longer events like Comrades should include jaffa cakes, sweets, bananas, rice pudding, potatoes.

6. Taper well before the race and reduce mileage over the last few weeks. Ed & Phil recommended reducing mileage to 75% of normal, then 50% and finally 25% during the last week.

7. Have a mental strategy. Trying to find the time to fit in training while balancing life and family can be a challenge. No matter what race you’re running, there will be times where you want to feel like quitting. Coming up with reasons you need to keep going well before the Comrades Race will keep you motivated as you cross the finish-line.

Comrades Marathon advice from the Pros:

1. Look after your feet – blisters and other foot issues can bring your race to a stop, and quickly. Ed & Phil recommend this book for your feet – Fixing Your Feet. Also, check out info from Australian podiatrist Rebecca Rushton.

2. Toughen up quads – while most ultras take place on hilly terrain, nothing will hit your quads harder than going downhill. The Comrades Race ultra down run is rumored to be the toughest “down run”. So, up the single leg squats, normal squats and downhill reps.

3. Be flexible – no, we’re not taking about stretching, but rather revising goals. A lot of things can go wrong in an ultra that are called “highs” and “lows” of running. Being flexible when things are at a low point can mean everything in terms of finishing a race. If you get through the lows or the “unplanned” situations, you can finish the race. If things really go wrong, don’t beat yourself up, ask for help and STOP. “There is always another day” – Ed & Phil.

4. Don’t take ibuprofen – too much ibuprofen can damage the kidneys and cause endotoxemia, the leaking of toxins from the colon into the bloodstream (Proof: The New York Times). Therefore, natural anti-inflammatories such as ginger root are considered to be just as powerful, but much less harmful. Many South African runners eat saw ginger during their ultra-races.

5. Practice before the event – test out your kit and equipment before the event well in advance. This includes socks, leggings, technical shirts, and more. Ed & Phil recommend Wigwam socks for their races.

6. Plan your recovery in advance – once you have finished the race, it is important to fuel the body with carbs and protein within 20 minutes of crossing the finish-line. Feel free to add peanut butter sandwiches, tuna or chocolate milk and top off with a real meal 2 hours later.

South Africa Comrades Marathon runners

Photo credit: Runner’s World

So how legit is the above advice? Well, Philip Howell’s (“Phil”) was noted by UK’s The Telegraph as being Britain’s ‘most active pensioner’. At over 70 years old, Philip is well on his way of completing 333 marathons. He completes roughly 13 marathons per year and he has completed over 60 ultramarathons. And, to top things off, he is a five-time veteran of the South Africa’s grueling Comrades Marathon.

South Africa Comrades Marathon runner Philip Howell

Meanwhile, his long-time friend and old colleague, Edward Chapman (Ed) is just as talented in long distance trail running and has a wealth of knowledge about trail running and multi-day runs around the globe – he is the ultimate trail running man (plan to e-subscribe to his e-magazine this October!) fully of runner-worthy advice and tips.

Comrades Marathon runner Edward Chapman tells us how to Prepare

“The Comrades Marathon often has a tagline for each race. During one of the years I ran the race it was “It Will Define You” …that was so true. Comrades changed me and made me who I am now. In 1999 when I first ran it, I was amazing by the number of runners and the huge crowd of supporters. Yet, at mile 40, when it felt as if a wall had fallen on me, I was totally alone.

“Only I could decide whether I would quit or whether I could look deep inside me and find what was needed to finish. I finished.”

“It was a very liberating experience, when things are really tough it is you that is in control. You decide your fate, no-one else. Other people may cause you problems, but you are in charge of the solutions. I am now a committed runner and love multi-day desert events, but I consider Comrades to be the best ultramarathon race in the world. It is more than a race; it is a big part of South Africa’s history. It is now also a big part of my history.” – Edward Chapman

Comrades Marathon 2018 race is 277 days away and counting. So, we recommend following the above advice with the goal of completing the 56.1-mile race physical strong and mentally sound. International runners are able to enter online after completing a qualifying race between Aug. 27, 2017 and May 2018. Find out more about entry details here.

Feature image: The annual ultra-marathon attracts 20,000 runners from around the world to partake in the 89km race. Photo credit: Alaister Russell

Related Articles:

The Six Must-Do Marathons In Africa
How To Recover After An Ultramarathon

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Natalie Stangl

Natalie is an American expat freelance writer and marketer living in Hokkaido, Japan. She is a born and raised Minnesotan with an accent thicker than a pint of Paulaner Beer. She has a serious love for sports, outdoors, and overall health and wellness. While most would shutter at the thought of -27 degree wind-chill, you’ll find her embracing it with a smile on her face. She is an an adaptable, loyal, and fierce woman of “The North”. Aside from her love of sports and outdoors, her partner is an Import professional ice hockey player in Japan and together they have one child, their 7 year old golden retriever, Frenchy.

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