Long distance trail running – how to prep, push through and finish on top

Get expert tips from trail runners and medical professionals to help you get through your next trail running event with ease.

You’ve trained, you’re fit and feeling ready to tackle that epic trail into the mountains and then…sore feet, altitude sickness, upset stomach…instead of elegantly running up the mountain like a gazelle, you stumble along, feeling sore and sick. Don’t despair – you are not alone and the next trail run will be better with these five steps: shares five steps you need to get right in order to enjoy your journey to becoming a long distance trail runner.

1 Build a support network

Coach Rebecca Johansson (Ph.D in Exercise Science from the University of Cape Town) suggests teaming up with an experienced runner to get you on track. Besides needing the emotional support to keep you motivated and going, it is also critical for your safety (especially when you are just starting out) to team up with a knowledgeable runner who can pace you and keep an eye on you should you get disorientated or start hallucinating. This person can help decide when you need to rest or what nutrients you need.

2. Keep it steady

Running too fast, too early into the race is a common mistake, says Pieter ‘Everyone calls me Pete’ Calitz, who finished sixth overall in this year’s UTD 100km race. His tip: aim to run the last 20 or 30km, which is going to be much better for you than having run fast in the first 30 or 40km and then literally walking or “death-marching” towards the end.

3. Getting miles on your legs

Jo Keppler also ran the UTD in 2022, making the trip from her home on a farm outside Pietermaritzburg with the aim of improving her time in the UTD 160km. Avoiding last year’s ankle injury, this year she accomplished her goal of a sub-28 hour time, shaving more than two hours off her 9th place finish in 2021, to finish fourth overall this year.

Your preparation for a new event should preferably take into account both the local terrain and a distance which is related to whatever you’ll be running on race day. Jo left nothing to chance: she and a friend ran 226km along the Drakensberg Grand Traverse over 89 hours without any support a month before the race. “We were up in altitude most of the time, it was very wet on the escarpment and conditions were really difficult. So I think that really toughened me up,” she says.

According to Pete, variety is key:To run 100km you have to mix up long runs with a lot of climbing and you have to do some speed, so I just do a mix of some track work once a week and do lots of climbing up the mountain – even if it’s just for beers or coffees – and then every couple of weeks I do some long runs. I did a road marathon before the UTD race which was a way to run 42km.”

4. High altitude, low stress

Preparing yourself for the possibility of altitude sickness is also important in the Drakensberg. “Always have back up plans. If you are not acclimated to the area, the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive which could make you more susceptible to GI distress,” explains Coach Rebecca. “If this happens, you need ‘back up’ food and drinks you can try. Some athletes will rely more on liquid nutrition as a backup, or slow down to get food down.”

Jo agrees: “A lot of people get quite nauseous. From my experiences you really need to slow it down and drop your heart rate and keep eating, because then people stop eating and drinking and that makes it ten times worse. So I try to eat something every hour on the hour, even if I don’t feel like it.”

5. Healthy food

Marthinus Stander, the General Manager for the Premier Resort Sani Pass Hotel (a favourite venue for runners tackling the various Drakensberg races due to the location and runner camaraderie there), started road running eight years ago before getting hooked on trail running after moving from Durban to Sani.

He explains that running in extremely cold and rainy conditions can suppress a runner’s appetite. “You’re so cold that all the blood has flowed to your skin to try to keep you warm in that environment. There’s no blood going to your stomach to process the food that you’re putting into it,” Marthinus says. “So the liquid diet that you’re on for that period works. There’s a bit of comfort in eating a handful of nuts or chewy sweets or a little race bar, but to actually have a sandwich is going to be  hard to get down.”

According to Jo, nutrition has been a case of trial and error for her, but she feels she’s finding a good balance now. “I use Hammer gels and Hammer bars, which are all-natural. And then I use Maurten drink mix and Tailwind, so that’s like specialised nutrition which you don’t get at the refreshment tables,” she says. “So I’ll carry those and my cashews and dates, and at the tables I’ll have some fruits, bananas and potatoes.”

6. Local insights
Although trail runners can rarely spend months at their race’s venue beforehand, a site recce to familiarise yourself with the environment and soaking up local knowledge is a good idea.

Marthinus recommends that runners prepare for new races by studying the actual routes they’ll be running while under less challenging conditions: “A month before the time I did the whole UTD route, broken up into 15km pieces. I think that played a massive role, especially the pieces I was going to do at night.”

“A lot of people will come back to do a recce for the UTD next year, and they’ll sit with me and say, ‘Right, how do we get from here to there? How tough is this?” he shares. “I have the knowledge to give to these people and say ‘This is how it works. Let me run with you for 10km or put you in touch with a farmer in that part of town who will allow you to run through his farm to a checkpoint.”

Apart from the UTD, two other trail runs in the Drakensberg which are worth investigating are The Giant’s Cup in May and the Sani Stagger in November. If all you want to do is just hike these routes and appreciate the beauty at your own pace, that’s also an option with The Giant’s Cup’s ‘Hiking Giants’ event.

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