Tips to tackle multi-stage races

The art and dynamics of stage racing seeks to bring out each participant’s true colours. It takes athletes back to the days of survival, the days of the hunter-gatherers.

Each morning hunters gather in pairs to take on the morning’s hunt. It’s the challenge to beat your opponents, to wrestle and overpower your own psyche and prove to yourself it can be done!

What follows a successful hunt is a gathering of battered bodies and hardened souls for a feeding frenzy like no other. Having taken advantage of the festive buffet, hunters head off to bask in the final rays of sunlight. War tales are told while absorbing the rays for much-needed energy for the hunt in days to follow. As the day draws to a close and dusk sets in, rejuvenated minds, bodies and souls retreat to their tented burrows to rest.

Being a part of multi-day stage races is something one cannot begin to explain to anyone other than your fellow stage racers. The race is one small portion of the entire experience; the gathering for the feast and telling of the day’s adventure to which each participant can relate… this is what differentiates the stage racer from the one day wonder. The sensation of waking up the next morning, following the conquered 7-11 hour day in saddle, having traversed mountains, trekked across streams, endured mud and dust while gritting your teeth and fighting tears; only to open your eyes and do it all over again… Through these sensations are where a multi-day event comes into its own. The experience, the feeling of a sense of belonging to an event that has broken you down to the ground with the lows, but that lifts you higher than the clouds with the highs you experience… the sensation cannot be told, it can only be felt.

Multi-day events are becoming ever more popular as endurance athletes look for more ways to test their limits and experience more of the scenic countryside our country has to offer. The single day events are still around for the weekend warrior but the hardier, more seasoned athletes are now seeking out an adventure, a bigger test of their abilities; events that require strategy rather than brute and brawn. Multi-stage events are becoming more popular in the various disciplines. There are multi-day trail runs, MTB races, duathlons and paddling events as well as continuous adventure races that may last up to a week. These types of events are characterised by multiple stages, usually over a number of predetermined days, with participants required to endure long hours of activity. For such events, high levels of endurance are necessary, together with the required physical ability and a match of mental strength. Participants are most often either paired up, or members within a team; they are very seldom solo (individual) events. In partaking, each athlete requires sound personal and bodily awareness paired with tried and tested nutritional tactics, leaving the bare minimum left to chance.

Popular South African stage events

Trail Running Giant’s Cup Trail Run, Southern Cross (SOX), ProNutro AfricanX, Three Cranes Challenge, Wildcoast Wildrun, Richtersveld Wildrun
Mountain Biking Absa Cape Epic, Sani2C, 3 Towers, Old Mutual joBerg2C, bridge Cape Pioneer Trek
Road Cycling Jock Classic, Tour de Free State
Duathlon Southern Storm presented by Hi-Tec (no longer held)
Paddling Dusi, Fish River Canoe Marathon, Windhoek Berg River Canoe Marathon
Adventure Racing Expedition Africa, Kinetic Adventure Races
Multisport Wartrail


Four stages to approach multi-day events

Are you ready?!… Let’s GO!

1. Decision making

With so many events in such varying formats to choose from, the initial stage of the entire process of stage racing is to decide what event to commit towards. This process could be made easier by choosing an event involving not only your most enjoyable discipline, but also your strongest. The eventual choice should provide a challenge, one that is knowingly achievable – this is where self-belief comes in. One of the most critical decisions to make is your choice of partner and/or team members. Elite athletes make it known, that in a team format of racing “you are only as fast as your weakest link”. Choosing the right partner can be a challenge and speaking from experience, the most decisive factor should be the fact that you need to get along. When considering yourself in the decision making process, ensure that you knowingly have enough time to train and prepare, and be aware of your own abilities. “I choose events that I enjoy, are important or that I have been recommended. I also look at build up races that are necessary to prepare for a certain goal race,” says experienced multisporter Michelle Lombardi.

2. Preparation

Once your decision has been made and you have your mind settled towards your prized event, it is time to knuckle down and prepare. This stage requires the most time and effort where the primary focus should be on quality of preparation and good structure. Understand how much training is required. The nature of multi-day events require a different training strategy and structure to the usual methods followed for one day classics. Training for such an event requires consecutive days of activity, more so than long broken days of training. Repetitive days and time on your feet, saddle or boat is paramount to success.

“You need to make sure all your equipment is prepared and in race condition. Get enough rest leading up to the race and plan the logistics of any travelling that might be necessary. Obviously travelling overseas to an adventure race takes a lot more preparation than going to the next town for a trail run. This will vary considerably depending on the event.” The quality of preparation is highly dependant on the amount of time you are able to put aside to train. Determining your current level of fitness will guide this process. You also need to compare it to your partner’s – it is better to be more closely matched than outdone in strength and fitness.

Another aspect to consider is your partner’s level of ability; decide whether you would require skill lessons or only need to brush up on them, or if you would need to assist with your partner’s level of skill.
The more costly part of the phase of preparation is that of equipment… in differentiating what is vital and what is a “nice-to-have”. By confirming to yourself your level of skill and ability, this should assist in purchasing the right equipment to suit your requirement. You certainly don’t want to be labeled the one with “all the gear and no idea!”

“The biggest mistake people make is to try something new leading up to or during a big race. Don’t do it!! I’ve personally seen people do it over and over with disastrous results. Don’t try that new drink in a race just because Ryan Sandes uses it. Don’t change your bike position a week before the race because Burry Stander changed his. Don’t cycle Day 1 of the Epic in your brand-new Assos shorts just because you paid R3,000 for them! They will still chafe you because you are not used to them. Train in every new piece of clothing or shoes before racing in them,” says Lombardi.

3. One stage at a time

With the event being drawn out over multiple days, it is virtually impossible to know what you are going to feel like on day three or four, or during the latter stages. The more experienced athletes focus on one stage at a time and tick off each as it is completed. You need to approach each stage or event as a single race, but you should also consider what has been completed and what is still to come. “Go with the flow of the race. Things can change and if you have too rigid a plan then it could all go wrong. In a multi-stage race it is important to get all the admin stuff done as quickly as possible so you can get plenty of rest. Taking in food and drinks during and after the race is very important and this needs planning depending on the length of the stage or stages.”
There will be stages where you and your partner will share feelings of strength or weakness, however more often than not one of you will be feeling either stronger or weaker than the other. It is during these stages that honest communication is required to pull each other through the tough times. It is difficult to admit to feeling tired or weak, but (hold me to it) it will pay off in the long run.

One of the more seldom thought of and most well kept secrets amongst the experienced stage racers is to prepare for the next day during the current day’s stage. This will require staying hydrated and nourished throughout,  especially toward the closing hours or kilometres of each stage. If you correctly apply this technique, it will most certainly fast track recovery leading into the next day. On the hydration front, never allow yourself to get thirsty because it’s then already too late. Start drinking early and ensure you always have enough liquid
with you. When it comes to nutritional intake, use what works for you and what has been tried and tested in similar situations. With multi-stage events, it is important to get solids in as often as possible. One cannot purely rely on isotonic drinks or gels. Many top endurance athletes consume mostly fruit while on the go, often chopped up into bite size pieces and when consumed regularly will provide the sustenance you need. Another favourite amongst female cyclists is fruit cake or hot-cross buns. My personal favourite is a peanut butter sarmie or two… or three.

4. Post-stage recovery

The most important period during a multi-day event, is the time after the actual race where the primary focus should be on recovery. Nutritionists say that there is a window of around one hour after activity when solid foods need to be consumed, in order to best facilitate the recovery process. At most events, food is provided and there is most often more than enough for everyone.
Once again, speaking from experience – get cleaned up and sort everything out for the following stage or event as soon as possible. This will get the fussing out of the way so that you can get to the process of recovery as soon as possible without further interruption.
Post-stage nutrition should comprise of a good wholesome meal, both midday and in the evening. It is often difficult to get food in when you are feeling tired and fatigued, but try your best to get enough down. For the morning before the stage, get in a sufficient breakfast of something you are familiar with, but go light… that morning fry-up is probably not a good idea, unless you have your Rennies handy. Keep hydrated throughout the day and consume an isotonic drink or something like REHIDRAT® for additional electrolyte replenishment.
Try and stay off your feet and out of the sun as often as you can. If possible, try to keep your feet elevated for short periods through the day; you can even sleep with your legs raised slightly. This helps blood circulation and to avoid blood pooling or swelling in the feet.
If you are familiar and used to a light massage after activity, then by all means. However, if you aren’t familiar with a post activity rub down, I would suggest you give it a skip. Something I cannot stress more than the process of recovery itself is the need for ample sleep. Too much is certainly better than too little, but focus on between 6-8 hours of good shut-eye each evening, even an afternoon nap would work wonders.

Michelle says: “In a stage race anything can happen. In the Epic that I did with Hanlie Booyens in 2005, I had a shocking day on Day 5. I knew at breakfast when I couldn’t eat it was going to be a bad day. Needless to say Hanlie dragged me through that stage. That day my husband came through to see me and brought food from home and a bit of needed TLC. I recovered and the next day I was the strong one and helped Hanlie in places. Anything can happen. Don’t despair if its going badly during a race. Back off, eat, drink, recover and then carry on again. Your body can recover during a race if you give it a chance.”

What are you waiting for?!

Multi-day, multi-staged races are fast becoming the must-do challenge amongst enthusiastic endurance athletes. Having previously been seen as events for only the hardened professional… through clever marketing and passionate organisation, there are now ample events that cater for all levels of ability. I urge all multisporters to take on a multi-day event. Friendships are made with like-minded people and each new day awakes to a different challenge and sensation.

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About Ryan Hodierne

Ryan is a sports scientist who firmly believes sport makes the world go round. His specialty is in Performance Analysis. He has assisted many of SA's national teams at the highest level, including the Olympics. He's a training author and keen adventure athlete who competes in off-road events of all kinds. He is the official Otter African Trail Run and Tour de Tuli training coach. Ryan currently resides in Singapore where he functions as a biomechanist, serving the nation's top profile athletes at the Singapore Sports Institute. Email him at Ryan.live2ride@gmail.com

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