This is the ultimate Dune Dusters training guide

Red Bull triathlete, Courtney Atkinson, shares his secrets for tackling the 10km soft sand slog.
Courtney goes for broke © Red Bull Content Pool
By Courtney Atkinson

The Red Bull Dune Dusters event is a special one. It’s not often you get an excuse to run over some of Australia’s most pristine sand dunes – it’s like being on another planet.

And with the 2016 Red Bull Dune Dusters event taking place on November 6, I figured it’d be a good chance for me to share some tips for those heading to Stockton Beach to tackle the 10km slog.

As a triathlete and ironman, I’ve done my fair share of training to prepare my body for all kinds of challenges – and Dune Dusters is definitely a unique one. Running on soft sand is brutal. Even if you think you can run fast on bitumen or trails, this is very different. Soft sand takes no prisoners.

What do I need to consider?

First up, there’s the heat. It will all depend on the day, but if it’s hot there will be no shade out there. And on the dunes, the sand reflects the light and retains the heat. It can be a savage combination.

Then there’s your fitness level. Everyone can do this at their own pace and most people end up walking some of the really soft dunes regardless of how fit they are. To race this event from start to finish is tough. It recruits muscles that you probably wouldn’t have used all that much (unless you’re used to running on sand!)

And then, obviously, there’s the sand. If the Stockton sand dunes haven’t seen much rain in the lead up to the event, they’ll be super soft. You’ll sink and there's not much you can do about it! Up at the top of the dunes, where it's more windswept, you can disappear into the sand right up to your shins. The going is a lot easier when it’s wet, but be aware, if you’re going uphill and you crack the hard top layer of sand you’ll still find the soft sand lurking underneath.

And they're off... © Red Bull Content Pool

How should I be training?

This course is comparable to a very hilly 12-15km run. So if you want to run it, you need to be running regularly. Saying that, there's no reason you can't go out and just have a go if you’re relatively fit. It's a unique spot in Australia and it’s not often you get an excuse to get out there in the middle of the dunes. It’s a beautiful place.

Now, sand running is specific so it’s going to be best to train on sand. If you live near a beach, you’d do well to get down there at sunrise and give it hell. If you don't have sand nearby then head for the hills – the endurance you’ll gain from hill running will still help, and you need running strength endurance for this race more than you need speed. Just be careful to ease into training in the soft sand as it can be quite hard on the calves. Let them slowly adapt to avoid hurting yourself before the big dance.

How should I prepare right before the event?

Everyone’s different in their approach. Personally, I will make sure I don't do any crazy training the week of the event, but at the same time I’ll keep my regular training routine. I like to take a complete rest day two days before a race to allow my body to completely recover and relax. Then, the day before the event, I’ll go on an easy jog with some wind sprints to open the lungs up and get the blood pumping – this helps prepare for the race the next day. I wouldn't do this on the soft sand though as it’ll be a lot more taxing!

It pays to be prepared on the dunes © Red Bull Content Pool

What’s the best approach to take with nutrition?

The golden rule is to do and eat what you normally would when you’re training. In the lead up, just make sure to be getting good quality food into the body that is normal for you. For me, if my training decreases I’ll change my food intake to match that so I don’t add any extra weight. For the most part it's just business as usual.

And what about on race day?

By the time race morning comes around you should have been training regularly so you will know how your body handles certain foods. Eat and do what you have practiced and what you know works. The only exception to this rule is if you get nervous before racing - that's were a liquid food supplement can help. Anything with some protein and carbs to give you energy to get through the race.

Because Dune Dusters starts later in the day I’ll eat something around three hours before I run, then 20 mins before the gun for an extra energy hit. Shameless plug, but I'm used to using Red Bull so that gets me going. During the race make sure to hydrate with water and be especially vigilant if it’s hot - the half Red Bull. half water option is great to keep both energy and hydration up towards the end of race.

Barely even breaking a sweat © Red Bull Content Pool

How can I avoid injury on the sand?

You just need to be mindful of the extra effort required. It's not an impact problem like regular running - sand running is more of a tension and strength issue. Obviously, as you sink into the sand, you need to stabilse more, there’s more rebound effort required to propel yourself back out and your foot has a much less stable surface to push against. Take your time to adapt. I actually think sand running can be beneficial to running on the once Dune Dusters is done, you could go for that 10km PB again.

Any special preparations I need to make?

Shoes versus no shoes. It’s your choice. The fastest runners will be barefoot but you need to weigh that up against blistering and safety. If you do decide to don some shoes, just look for something flexible and lightweight.

Think you've got what it takes? Sign up to Red Bull Dune Dusters 2016 now and test your mettle.

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