How to prepare for a multi-day stage race

How to prepare for a multi-day stage race was written by ambassadors Mel Gosse & Jon Sinclair. Xero Shoes is an ATRA corporate member.

Multi-day stage racing includes an interesting mix between speed and stamina, and requires a great deal of grit and grind to last day and night in harsh environments.

This formula appeals to, and attracts runners of all ages and abilities. When it comes to preparing for multi-day races, it can feel overwhelming at the outset considering the number of factors for which you need to plan.

We’ve just confirmed entry into our next multi-day ultra – the Zolkan 4 Days, an inaugural 4-day stage race in Chile, January 6-9, 2016. We are starting to go through our initial prep phase. We’re going to break down the methods we use to make sure we are as ready as we can be when we step onto the starting line.

Just like any running race, it’s easier to break it down into bite size chunks and take things on bit by bit until there’s only one bite left! We break the preparation down into five main categories:

  • Food and Nutrition
  • Terrain and Environment
  • Gear and Clothing
  • Travel and Logistics
  • Self Care
  • Food and Nutrition

Running long distances for multiple days requires maximizing caloric intake while keeping a healthy GI system. The Zolkan 4 Days provides racers breakfast and dinner, which is unique in the stage racing world — this means less food you have to prepare for and carry along the way compared to a self-supporting event.

What’s our plan? Contact the race directors to find out exactly what provided meals will consist of, whether they will be buffet, or a rationed amount, and whether there will be vegetarian options, etc. Based on the response, we can determine how many calories we will need to bring per day on top of the provided meals. For us, we aim to have at least 3000 calories per day (even though in many races the minimum is only 2000), and with breakfast and dinner being provided, we know our food will consist mostly of race fuel that we can eat while running such as energy bars or dried fruit, and snacks for back at camp.

Another item to consider — electrolytes. Most races will make this mandatory gear, and you can usually determine amounts simply from the product labels. We like salt tablets and Nuun tabs, but there are many other options available, just make sure to test them out before the race!

Terrain and Environment

These races often venture through harsh terrain, whether it’s hot and dry deserts, humid and rugged jungle, or in the case of Zolkan 4 Days, everything from the high Andes mountains, to the sandy Chilean coast. Always gather as much info on the race terrain and expected climate as you can. This will influence things such as footwear, clothing, gear, electrolytes, and more, so if you’re ever curious about something ASK!

What’s our plan? Being relatively experienced minimalist runners, we are planning to run much of the Zolkan 4 Days in our huarache sandals made by Xero Shoes, but will likely have a minimalist running shoe in our bags, as we know the Andes can be cold and rough. The temperatures can also vary quite a bit in Chile, so while we know it will be summer there in January, we can’t forget that at higher elevations in the Andes, temperatures can drop, especially at night.

With the right research, you will be well prepared to plan your food, gear, clothing and even race strategy!

Gear and Clothing

In our opinion, this might be one of the most important topics. If you don’t bring warm enough clothes…you’re miserable, if your pack weighs 50 pounds… you’re a new kind of miserable, and if you pack a water “resistant” jacket and it pours for several days… you might actually be at serious risk.

So plan your clothing right, because you’re stuck with what you bring for the whole race. The best place to help you decide on clothing is to analyze race pictures from past years to see what racers were wearing. For Zolkan 4 Days, it is mandatory to have multiple specific pieces of clothing, but you still need to consider for yourself the number and types of socks, underwear and extra clothing — maybe to sleep in — you will be needing.

Also consider the night time temperatures which will dictate how big your sleeping bad will need to be, and might also affect the size of the pack you need to carry. While we’re on the topic of packs, some races make you carry everything you need for the whole race, while some will transport one bag for you so you only have to run with a daypack. Find out these details to best organize all of your gear. Zolkan 4 Days states they will transport a bag (given to you at check-in), your personal clothing, personal hygiene products, and sleeping bag, so you need not be too stringent on clothing and gear weight!

Travel and Logistics

If you are racing locally, or somewhat close to home, this section does not really apply, but if you are traveling to a race, these can be vital details you don’t want to mess up. This race is a great example. Chile is very strict at customs about bringing food into the country, so do your research to find out what kinds of race food you can bring, and what you can’t. For example, dried fruits, nuts, and seeds can not be brought into Chile. Also, what can you leave in the original packaging while traveling and then re-bag it in your hotel upon arrival? Iron out all of these details in advance!

Make sure your passport has enough time left before expiry, check to see if you need a visa for the country you will be racing in, and whether or not the food and water are safe to consume, or if you need to be extra cautious, or bring a filtration system.

Self Care

As you can see there is a ton of work to get yourself ready to step onto that starting line. So wouldn’t it be a shame to pull out of a multi-day race early, because of something as small as a blister. Have your medical supplies ready (nothing too crazy), and emergency plans together to handle simple maintenance things such as blisters (tapes, needles, second skin, etc.), chaffing (Vaseline), upset stomach (Tums or similar meds), muscle cramping (magnesium pills or a bit of Muscle Heat Lotion). Being ready to take care of your body as it goes through the wear and tear will be what keeps you pushing forward in your race.

Our plan for the Zolkan 4 Days, will be to run hard each day (marathon distance approximately), then spend some time stretching and keeping our muscles loose once back at camp each night. Being in a race that has an overall elevation loss, means that the first night will likely be the hardest, so we will likely bring some emergency altitude sickness meds to make sure we start this race off the best we can.

Stage races are challenging both mentally and physically, but sometimes half the battle is the months of preparation leading up to it. Get this down pat and your race will likely go a lot smoother. We hope that this advice was a bit easier to digest using an example race such as the Zolkan 4 Days to put our tips into action. Our experiences and research by no means make us experts on the topic, so we would love to hear your secret preparation tips for a stage race you ran in the past, or are planning to run soon.

Visit our blog at to follow along to see what it is like to race across the entire country of Chile (horizontally of course)!

If this 4-day stage race piqued your interest, we’d love you all to join us – visit Zolkan 4 Days to get all the race details.

This article was originally published in ATRA’s Trail Times newsletter in December 2015.  Mel & Jon finished 23rd out of  34 teams at the Zolkan 4 Days last month in Chile.

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