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The Comrades Marathon: Training Tips

Group of runners competing the Comrades Marathon. Coach Rebecca is on the front right with a blue hat on.

How to train for the Comrades Marathon

The Comrades Marathon. The oldest and largest ultramarathon in the world, it is a must do race as an ultrarunner.  The direction of the race alternates each year between an ‘Up’ run where athletes run from Durban to Pietermaritzburg and the ‘Down’ run where athletes run the opposite direction.  The Up run is approximately 87 km in distance while the down run route is 90 km.  The entirety of the race is a road run including famed hills such as Polly Shorts,  Inchanga, Botha’s,  Fields, and Cowies.  The 2022 edition of the race will be a ‘Down’ run.  If you are a Comrades marathon novice, or looking to improve your performance here are some practical tips to train smart and race well.  
The route profile of the Comrades Down run

There are a lot of hills to conquer even in the Down Run of the Comrades Marathon.

  • Do most of your training on road.

The race entrants include a diverse mix of athletic backgrounds. Some athletes are primarily road runners with most of their race distances ranging from 5 km to the marathon.  Others come from a trail running background and are drawn to the history of the race.  If you are a trail runner, you cannot train for the Comrades Marathon by training mainly on trail.  While it can be beneficial to include some trail runs, you will need to do a majority of your training on road.  This is because your body needs to adapt to some of the unique demands that road running requires.  On trail, there is more variation in running patterns with running over roots, rocks, and large climbs and descents.  Road running, however, includes a more repetitive running pattern and higher impact forces with asphalt or concrete vs. dirt or gravel.  If you currently are not a road runner, give yourself plenty of time to slowly adapt to doing more road running.  
  • Consider a realistic finishing time early on in your training.

Think about a realistic goal time now.  This will help guide your training and your pacing for the long runs later on in your Comrades training program.  If you plan to run most of the way with very little walk breaks or stopping at aid stations, plan to add approximately 1 minute/km to your marathon race pace (~ 2 minutes/mile).  If you plan to do a walk-run strategy throughout the race you will need to add more time to your marathon race pace.  
  • Have a great nutrition strategy.

You won’t be able to finish the Comrades Marathon without taking in calories throughout the race.  Taking in adequate nutrition requires ‘training your gut’ to handle this on long training runs and also experimenting with what foods and products work well for you.  Identify what will be offered at the aid stations and experiment with some of those options in your training runs.  If those foods and drinks work well for you, this is less you need to carry with you and simplifies the race plan.  However, if you plan to take from the aid stations write down a list of nutrition info for the products offered.  For example, how many calories and carbs are in a handful of pretzels, a boiled potato, 100ml of Powerade, etc.  You need a target for the amount you will take in.  Although research studies have shown athletes can absorb up to 90 grams of carbohydrate per hour when from a combined glucose + fructose source, most runners cannot tolerate this amount without GI distress.  Anecdotally, most of the athletes I coach can handle ~ 45  – 50 grams of carbohydrate per hour.  
  • Include eccentric strength exercises to prepare for the demands of a net downhill course.

Downhill running creates more muscle damage than flat or uphill running.  You can prepare your body for the demands of downhill running by including hilly terrain in your long training runs as well as adhering to a good strength training program.  In particular, aim to include eccentric exercises.  One example of an eccentrically focused exercise would be a weighted back squat but you lower yourself slowly on a count of 3, hold for 2 seconds, and then stand up on a count of 1 second.  
  • There is quite a lot of uphill even in the down run.

Don’t let the ‘down’ run name fool you.  There is a lot of uphill (~ 1200 meters / ~ 4,000 feet) as well throughout the 90 km, especially until about the 60 km mark.  What this means for your training is that you need to include some hill specific training.  Including a hill session once per week where the focus can range from short and fast hill strides (30 – 45 seconds) to longer, endurance focused repeats of 3 – 10 minutes.  When you first start your training aim to do more short and fast hill strides and as the race gets closer include longer, but slower repeats.

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