No sweat: how to train for a marathon over the sweltering UAE summer

Whether you’ve signed up for a marathon in a cooler part of the world, or are simply determined to keep hitting the pavements as temperatures soar, here's how to do it

Ashleigh Stewart ran the Christchurch Marathon in 3 hours, 49 mins and 6 secs – knocking 15 minutes off her personal best, which she credits to training in the UAE heat. Ashleigh Stewart / The National
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Consider this. It's 4am on a Friday morning. You don't have work, nor do you have any work-related commitments. You do not have small children. You're not off on a fishing trip. The apocalypse is not nigh.

And yet, your alarm still goes off to rouse you from one of two much-cherished sleep-ins of the week. Why? Because you thought it would be a good idea to sign up for a running event in a part of the world where it isn't 31°C by 8am. And yet, in Dubai, it very much is, and that means absurd weekend wake-up calls to stumble forth on to the streets and eke out three hours of running before an aggressive early morning sun (the weakest rays of the day) turns you into a human prune.

Welcome to marathon training in the UAE between May and October. Considering my splits have taken a plunge over these half-baked training weeks, I'm by no means an expert. But here's how to muddle forth if, like me, you booked to take part in the Christchurch (or any other) marathon.

Get up early ... really early

First things first, get up early; as in some people-haven't-gone-to-sleep-yet early. I won't bore you with an even longer description of just how early that is, but I must stress that even 5am is on the late side. And, if like me, you're simply unwilling to embark on a 32-kilometre run on an empty stomach, you also need to factor in eating and digesting time, and that means you should be aiming for the alarm to go off between 4am and 5am. Trust me, when the first rays of sunlight tinge the sky at about 5.15am, you'll be wishing you got up at 3am. 

Once that blazing orb of angry summertime fire is overhead, the temperature skyrockets pretty fast. Basically, it's one sauna you will be sweating profusely in by standing stationary; and the perspiration you'll be giving off by 11am doesn't bear thinking about. If you were to consider this weekend, you're looking at a Friday morning that's set to reach 34°C by 8am and 39°C by midday. To put that in context, that's well above the point the London marathon hit last year when everyone started using words like "scorching" and "heatwave" to describe 20 degrees Celsius, and runners started fainting all over the place.

If you simply don't have it in you to get up and pound the pavements while everyone else is still in bed, it's certainly possible to head out after work. The only problem I find with this is that there's a very slim and very short-lived sweet spot to hit before the humidity becomes too much. Right before the sun sets, around dusk, is usually a mild time of day. However, once that sun dips below the horizon, expect it to inexplicably feel like the temperature has cranked up. If you have no choice but to train after work, aim to head out in the hour or so just before sundown.

Take water. Lots of water. 

Once you've decided on the time, make sure you take water. A lot of water. I run with a CamelBak, having found it the most efficient at holding large volumes of liquid and not being too cumbersome (as well appropriate for my basic lack of co-ordination that simply won't allow for the use of handheld bottles or belts). In the cooler months, I can get by with a half-full pack of water, but in summer, you better believe that bad boy is full to the brim of its 1.5 litre capacity. And most of the time, I'll still run out.

There’s no point trying to attach more vestibules full of liquid to various other parts of your body (unless you’re also weight-training this summer, in which case, what’s wrong with you?). Instead take some cash or a credit card so you can pop into a shop and purchase extra water if you do run out. This is also a saving grace when you’ve decided it is actually too hot to exercise, and you need to flag down a taxi to pluck you off the sweltering pavement. 

Water is imperative, but don't forget nutrition

While water is imperative, nutrition requires consideration, too. Some people swear they can sprint on an empty stomach, and hats off to you if you can. But I'm not a person who can run anything longer than 15km without a full bowl of oats lining my stomach. In an ideal world, my pre-training meal would take place an hour before my run, but because I am simply unwilling to rise in the realm of an hour that begins with the figure three in the am, usually I'll eat and then wait about half an hour before heading out. Don't forget small morsels for mid-run, either: my go-to snacks are the chews from Adventure HQ.

Beware of the chafe

Another thing to consider and beware of is the chafe. My CamelBak hydration backpack may be good for carrying liquids, but as temperatures soar, it also seems intent on maiming me. Chafing is not an attractive word, nor is it an attractive concept, but take humidity, heat, constant movement and many different seams of fabric and, unfortunately, that’s what you get. 

The offending area for me is on my shoulders, and in recent months, the injuries have become evermore severe, to the point where I've been left with visible scratches. For this reason, it's crucial to ensure everything is strapped in correctly, your clothes fit and there are no annoying little tags that could cause problems later on. If that doesn't work, anti-chafing creams, or lubricants such as petroleum jelly or Vaseline are the way to go. Chub rub is the silent killer of marathon training, and it should not be underestimated.