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Guide : How to plan your food for Marathon des Sables

Marathon des Sables, what is it ?

The MDS (Marathon des Sables or Marathon of the Sands) is a 7-day footrace that has taken place for the last 30 years (1986 was the first edition) in the Moroccan Sahara desert, and it requires you be self-sufficient.

This 250+km ultramarathon event is held every year in April, and it is open to runners and walkers alike. At this time of year, average daytime temperatures reach 30°C and nightime temperatures reach 14°C.

Typically daily distances are broken down as follows :

Day 1 - 30 km / Day 2 - 30 km / Day 3 - 30 km / Day 4 non-stop stage - 80 km / Day 5 - rest day / Day 6 - 42 km / Day 7 - 15 km

Our ambassador Moroccan Rachid El Morabity, has won the race 6 times.

This race event requires lots of logistic efforts and it has been duplicated in Peru and on Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands under a 3-day reduced format. (Day 1 - 30 km, Day 2 non-stop stage - 65 km, Day 3 rest day, Day 4 - 25 km)

A self-sufficient event : mandatory equipment

For this self-sufficient race, each participant must carry his/her own equipment. Whether that equipment is mandatory or not, it should weigh between 6.5 kg and 15 kg at the beginning of the event, and it does not include water supplies.

Find below the list of the mandatory equipment (which is the same for any MDS Morocco, Peru or Fuerteventura) :

  • Backpack
  • Sleeping bag
  • Headlamp + 1 complete set of spare batteries (example : Headlamp - Explore 2 - Batteries - Silva)
  • 10 safety pins
  • Compass with 1° or 2° precision
  • Lighter
  • Whistle (example : Whistle)
  • Knife with metal blade
  • Skin antiseptic
  • Anti-venom pump
  • Signalling mirror (example : Signalling mirror)
  • Survival blanket (example : Survival blanket - BCB)
  • Tube of sun cream
  • 200 euros
  • Passport (ID card for Moroccan residents)
  • Original medical certificate provided by AOI
  • Original resting ECG* report with tracing (*Electrocardiogram)
  • Food : Each participant must provide 14,000 kcal, that is, a minimum of 2,000 kcal per day. Any food out of its original packaging must show the nutrition label of this particular food item.

Backpacking gear that may be handy during the race :

Focus : food

For this self-sufficient race (as for all self-sufficient ultra trail races), 14,000 kcal are needed as a minimum (that is 2,000 kcal per day) and as part of the calorie requirements.

For many years now, Freezedried & Co has been supplying food to many participants engaged in this sport event. Undoubtedly, freeze-dried meals are convenient because they are lightweight and they can be picked based on individual calorie needs.

Freeze-dried VS dehydrated food

The main advantage of freeze-drying is that it retains all of the food nutrients whereas dehydration, drying with the use of heat, removes 40% of the food vitamins and minerals. Should you be unable to boil your cooking water and contrary to dehydrated meals, 100% freeze-dried meals can be rehydrated with cold water. It should be noted though that rehydrating a freeze-dried meal with cold water will take twice the time it does when rehydrating with boiling water. For more details on freeze-dried food, check out this article : Freeze-drying - Definition & Advantages.

So you need to consider the weight of all your food items carefully in order to reduce your backpack weight while you make sure your daily energy needs are met.

In his book "Coureur de l'extrême" (Extreme runner) released in 2014, Vincent Hulin, our ambassador says : "For me, it's a new practice and above all a new adventure. Running the Diagonale des Fous and Mont Blanc Ultra-Trail is one thing, running in the sand when it is 40 degrees in the shade, while carrying a 10-kilo pack on your shoulder is another" !

What type of food should you choose ?

Here are some tips and advice to help you plan your meals keeping in mind individuals' personal needs and remembering that you are free to choose the food best for you :

  • Split your energy intake between Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates ; AOI (Atlantide Organisation Internationale) recommends 15%/30%/55% as a balanced ratio. (Carbs : 4 kcal for 1 g, Proteins : 4 kcal for 1 g, Fats : 9 kcal for 1 g)
  • Include muesli-based breakfast meals to provide energy and fiber to your body. Easy to digest and prepare, they are combined with a dairy product or a compote.
  • During the race, energy bars should be taken every 30 minutes to 1 hour and energy drinks should be diluted into 0.60 to 0.80 liter of water.
  • Post-run recovery drink : to take within 30 minutes upon arrival at each post
  • Don't forget to eat a fresh recovery snack that should be rich in complex and simple carbohydrates, such as tabbouleh for example, because it is easy to prepare -using just cold water-, and it is easily digested. Don't forget either to eat some fruits, rich in mineral salts, to balance out fluid loss through sweat.
  • Beef jerky is ideal for post-run recovery, because it is rich in proteins and salt, so it helps you to replace what was lost in sweat during the race.
  • In the evening, you should eat a hot hearty meal ! -because nights are cool (less than 10°C)- before indulging in a dessert (for additional energy intakes)
  • Nuts, like walnuts or almonds, rich in fats and therefore in calories, help you increase your calorie intake.
  • Try the food before the event, you will feel more confident and better prepared
  • Offer yourself a variety of recipes, don't get bored with what you eat, meals should remain a pleasurable moment
  • Depending on how sensitive you are, foods should be slightly but never hot spicy to avoid an upset stomach since your digestive system is already under severe strain. But obviously during the day of rest you can treat yourself by adding variety to your food with a touch of the exotic.

Still don't know what to pick ? Here is the nutrition plan of Julien Chorier , Freezedried & Co's ambassador (in partnership with EffiNov Nutrition)

Based on the tips above, we have also created our own food kits, in full compliance with the rules of self-sufficient multi-stage races. Food kits can be modified to meet your tastes and specific diet. For any kit change, please contact us at this address : team@lyophilise.com. Starting from the basic "Ultra-Light Food kit", the 3 kits include the following food items:

  • Ultra-Light Food kit : (net weight : 3.4 kg, 2,000 to 3,000 Kcal per day, 2,250 Kcal daily average)
    Before the stage race : 1 breakfast meal
    During the stage race : 2 bars, 1 energy drink
    After the stage race : 1 recovery drink, 1 tabbouleh, 1 dried meat
    Dinner meal : 1 dish
  • Medium-size Food kit : (net weight : 3.95 kg, 2,000 to 3,500 Kcal per day, 2,500 Kcal daily average)
    Before the stage race : 1 breakfast meal
    During the stage race : 3 bars, 2 energy drinks
    After the stage race : 1 recovery drink, 1 tabbouleh, 1 dried meat
    Dinner meal : 1 dish
  • Full size Food kit (Rachid El Morabity) : (net weight : 4.65 kg, 2,000 to 4,000 Kcal per day, 3,000 Kcal daily average)
    Before the stage race : 1 breakfast meal, 1 compote
    During the stage race : 3 bars, 2 energy drinks
    After the stage race : 1 recovery drink, 1 tabbouleh, 1 dried meat
    Dinner meal : 1 dish, 1 dessert

Beware : The weight is indicated as net weight, meaning the weight of food without the weight of its packaging (pouch) which is around 20 g the pouch. If you add it, you get roughly 600 g of unnecessary weight for the pouches alone. (refer to the paragraph below for food repackaging)

Your energy needs will vary according to your height and weight and will depend on how you will participate at the MDS race. Are you going to run all along, or alternate between running and walking, or do it at your pace by walking all along ? These are some basic starting points in planning your self-sufficient food for a successful race.
To guide you through the process, do not hesitate to contact a nutrition consultant.

How to repack your food ?

Normally, we do not recommend you repack your freeze-dried meals because they are fragile and sensitive to air. But for this type of event, it is necessary to save weight and bulk as well. Freeze-dried meal pouches are originally designed to serve as pans for food rehydration purposes, so brands make them bulkier than the food they contain.
To repack your foods, you need some freezer bags and a vacuum packer.
Please note that any food out of its original package must have the nutrition label shown on the product concerned.

Watch this video, you'll see how our ambassador, Vincent Hulin, repacks his freeze-dried meals.

Here is the before and after of Julien Chorier's freeze-dried food repacking for his participation in MDS 2019 :

How to heat your cooking water ?

Except for tabboulehs that rehydrate in cold water, and a few breakfasts and desserts, all freeze-dried meals rehydrate in hot water.
There are several ways you can use to boil water and several tips too, and don't hesitate to add your own tips and share your experience :

  • To prepare the cooking water for your freeze-dried meal, you don't always need boiling water. You can plant your water bottle in the sand waiting for the sun to heat your water. You will get a lukewarm freeze-dried meal, but with almost no preparation
  • You can also opt for a stove compatible with alcohol tablets with a cook pot to heat your water. This option is heavier but allows you to be more self-sufficient
  • Sometimes, you can also make a fire using wood if you can find some next to the base camp.

How to stay hydrated ?

Sports drinks must be prepared according to the outside temperature where the event takes place. The hotter it gets, the more hypotonic the drink must be, that is, it must be washed down with water. During MDS events, the outside temperature is around 40°C, sometimes more. So during the race, your drink mix must be highly diluted in water, up to 50%+ water opposed to isotonic drink preparation. It must be consumed in one mouthful, that is, around 10 cl, every 10-15 minutes. For a better assimilation, drink a bottle of plain water as well.
Electrolite tablets can also work fine. When you sweat, you lose minerals, and these tablets can help you balance out that loss. Remember to hydrate your body even if you don't feel thirsty.

So… Who is feeling up to running the MDS ?