How To Choose Shoes for Multi-Stage Desert Racing

Written by: Elisabet Barnes (elisabetbarnes.com)

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Introduction

Deciding on shoes for a multi-stage desert race such as the Marathon des Sables can be tricky and I get a lot of questions on this topic. Hopefully this guide will help you as you look for the perfect shoe for you.

We are all different and many factors influence what shoe might be right for you. Not only the properties of the shoe itself but your race ambitions, expected finishing time and whether you are a walker or a runner are all important things to consider. For example, an experienced racer looking for a top position can run with a lighter, less durable shoe because they spend less time on their feet and likely have a more efficient gait. A walker or a mid- to back pack runner will need a more robust shoe because of the time spent on feet which can be three times as long as that of a front runner, but also because of more ground contact with every step.

Regarding the properties of the shoe, I have assumed a terrain that you will typically find in the Marathon des Sables. This is a mix of sand and flat dry non-technical terrain, but also with substantial elements of sharp rocks and stones. If you run in a desert with more or less purely sand (like in the Oman Desert Marathon) you can get away with a less durable shoe.

So, what are the factors to consider when you assess a shoe’s suitability?

  1. The outer sole’s resistance to abrasion from rocky terrain
  2. The midsole’s resistance to compression from heat
  3. The cushioning provided
  4. The fit of the shoe
  5. The breathability of the upper
  6. The toe protection
  7. The suitability for fitting desert gaiters

Let’s look at these in turn:

1. The outer sole’s resistance to abrasion from rocky terrain

A large part of the race may take place on stony, rocky ground. Depending on the desert this can be made up of more or less sharp rocks but expect that there will be some substantial wear and tear on the outsole. Trail shoes typically have more hardwearing outsoles but many road shoes can be suitable. Avoid models that have an obvious soft outsole. Also, avoid shoes with many pieces glued onto the sole. These may come off as a result of heat and abrasion combined.
2. The midsole’s resistance to compression from heat

Extreme heat can cause the midsole of the shoe to compress a bit more and/or faster than normal. Depending on what material the midsole is made of, it may resist this compression differently. If you are a lightweight runner you don’t need to worry too much about this but if you weigh more you should be aware of this and pick your shoe accordingly. Most trail shoes should be “safe” in this regard. The riskier shoes are likely to include lightweight road shoes. If you are unsure ask the retailer to speak to the manufacturer if they can’t provide an answer. Note: not all desert races take place in extreme heat but the Marathon des Sables does. Don’t panic if you are going to a race with more moderate temperatures.

3. The cushioning provided

Bruised feet is a common problem so it can be worth picking a shoe with plenty of cushioning underfoot for a more comfortable race experience. If you are used to running in minimalistic footwear, make sure it works for you on rocky terrain.  Some trail shoes have rock plates in them and this may well be a good option.

4. The fit of the shoe

This is perhaps the most important factor to consider because without a good fit you are almost certain to get blisters. So what is a good fit?  You may have heard advice that you should go up one or even two sizes when selecting a shoe for a multi-stage race. I run in my normal size, however my normal size is generous. Many people who enter ultra running or stage racing from a background of running shorter distances (or even a non-running background) wear a smaller size shoe. Therefore, when you hear the advice to go up a size or two you must always consider what the reference point is. It is also common to be advised a wider fitting than normal. This will only make sense if the shoe as a whole fits well on your foot. Any movement inside the shoe and you WILL get blisters. Whilst you certainly don’t want your shoes to be too small, too big shoes, whether too wide or just too big in size, can be a major cause of blisters in a race. You will also need to consider any additional support you may require based on your gait or injury history but I will not go into detail on this as it will be specific to each individual.

My general recommendations for fit are:

  • Generous toe box where your toes can move freely and you don’t feel the front of the shoe or can get any rubbing on the sides of your big or little toe.
  • A thumb nail’s width to a thumb’s width of space between your longest toe and the front of the shoe when you wear your intended race socks, stand up and your shoe is laced up properly with your heel well secured towards the back of the shoe.
  • A snug fit around your heel and mid-foot to prevent your foot from moving sideways, up or down, or back and forth inside the shoe.
  • Most importantly, the shoe must feel comfortable when you put it on. A shoe that is not comfortable when you try it will not magically become comfortable later on.
  • If you do have any custom orthotics, of course, you need to ensure the shoe is suitable for these.
  • You can adjust the fit with additional insoles, insoles of different thickness or socks of different thickness. For example, start the race with a thicker insole or sock (or double socks), with the option of reducing the thickness during the race if your feet swell.
  • Make use of the top eyelet to create a loop for “locking” the laces. This will secure the shoe better in place around your heel and also prevent movement back and forth, especially when going downhill.

5. The breathability of the upper

The best way to avoid sand getting into your shoes is to fit desert gaiters, so there is no need to look for a sealed upper to avoid sand coming in. If the upper is sealed just above the sole, as is the case on many trail shoes, this can be an advantage when it comes to fitting gaiters, but other than this look for a shoe that is breathable. Avoid waterproof shoes such as GoreTex, these will likely be too warm and cause excessive sweating, which can lead to more blisters.

6. The toe protection

Rocks feature in many deserts and you will likely kick them, especially as you get tired. This can become very painful and result in blue toenails and/or bruised toes. Therefore it is worth considering what protection the toe box offers and pick a shoe that has some reinforcement around the toe area. Most trail shoes will offer good toe protection.

7. The suitability for fitting desert gaiters

Often overlooked is the shoe’s suitability for desert gaiters. Desert gaiters can be sewn on directly to the shoe but more commonly are fitted with Velcro and require a strip of Velcro hook to be sewn on around the shoe. Some shoes that are very hard (hard plastic plates around the heel for example), or very soft (knitted style road shoes) are more difficult to stitch the Velcro or gaiter to. In addition, if the shoe is minimalistic with only a thin sole the gaiter will need to be fitted very close to the ground. This increases the risk of tears in the gaiters and they will likely not last as long as if they were fitted on a shoe where they came further away from the ground. Whilst the suitability for fitting gaiters shouldn’t be your number one priority when choosing the shoe it is worth being aware of this. If your gaiters tear or can’t be fitted properly, your race experience may not be as enjoyable. Read more about desert gaiters here.

What do I use?

So now you may wonder what shoe I use… I have used the HOKA ONE ONE Huaka in my last three multi-stage desert races (Marathon des Sables, Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun, and Australia’s Big Red Run) and for me this is the perfect shoe for a rocky, sandy desert environment. I have found that the RMAT outer sole on the HOKA ONE ONE Huaka is extremely durable on this type of terrain and that’s one reason why I like this shoe.  It also has a midsole made from RMAT and this is very resistant to compression so this shoe will maintain its properties well for the duration of the race. The midsole is also relatively firm with a good amount of cushioning which provides great protection on uneven terrain. The stack height is not too high so it is still a very stable shoe (it is a common misconception that all HOKA’s are higher than other shoes but the Huaka is actually 5mm lower than Brooks Adrenaline in the heel…). The toe protection is adequate and the upper is very light and breathable. The gaiters can be fitted well away from the ground and I have not had any issues with them tearing. And, of course, they fit my foot very well! This is an example of a shoe that is very suitable for multi-stage desert racing but just because it fits me doesn’t mean it will be right for you.
Final words

We are all individuals and there is no magic brand or shoe that represents the ideal for desert running. Do listen to other people’s experience and recommendation but focus on finding a shoe that is right for you. If the shoe is comfortable and you have considered the points above, chances are it will work. Once you have it, don’t forget the following:

  • Train at different speeds and on different terrain and include plenty of walking (most people underestimate how much walking they will do in the actual race and they get blisters as a result)
  • Get a fresh pair for the race. 250km of rocky desert can trash most shoes so you’re better off with a new pair on the start line, but break them in slightly beforehand.
  • Once you have Velcro stitched on to them, make sure it hasn’t altered the toe box. You may need to wear them around the house or stuff them with some wet newspaper to expand the toe box and soften the Velcro.

Good luck! Check out myRaceKit’s shoe range which continuously evolves. All of our shoes are suitable for multi-stage desert racing but every shoe may not be suitable for everyone. Contact us if you have questions or pop into the store to try!

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